It’s late October and I am looking for a turkey, which is ironic. A decade ago, when I was a SWF, all I could find were turkeys. For a while, I even dated one. But now that I am looking for a real bird, there are none to be found.
Stan Glen, supervisor for Siesel’s Meats, laughs when I phone him to ask if I can order a local, raised-in-San Diego turkey for Thanksgiving. “You’re about 40 years too late,” he tells me. “But we have some Diestel free-range turkeys you can order for the holidays.”
I sigh. “I need a native,” I say, and there’s a pause on the other end of the line.
“This Thanksgiving, everything I make is going to be raised or grown in San Diego County,” I explain. I feel so virtuous saying this. So green. This year, I am putting down my fork and picking up a cause: I’m thinking globally, eating locally, and carrying all my ingredients in reusable shopping bags. Somewhere, Michael Pollan is smiling.
“There used to be a huge turkey industry centered in Ramona,” says Stan, “but the last Ramona-brand turkey was sold in 1994. Now you can’t get any meat that’s been raised in San Diego County.”
Dick Gilmore, customer-service representative at Siesel’s, has been in the meat business since 1958. He tells me that about 35 years ago, the health department wanted to cut down on the flies, because they thought it hurt the tourist industry. “So the head of the health department at the time — J.B. Askew — put so many restrictions on the growers, they all went out of business. Now you can’t just get in a car and go buy a turkey for the holidays like you think you oughta. They chased them all away.”
Defeated, I call local chef Trey Foshee of George’s at the Cove for help. A big proponent of sustainable farming, Trey bases his menu on what’s local and in season. “It’s spiny lobster season right now,” he tells me. “So for Thanksgiving, a no-brainer would be spiny lobster with uni butter.” Uni, Trey explains, is another name for sea urchin. “I think uni from San Diego is some of the best in the world. You would be challenging the norm to serve it for Thanksgiving dinner if you were going to invite your in-laws, for example. But when it’s fresh, it’s delicious.” He tells me to go to Catalina Offshore Products, which is one of the biggest uni suppliers in the world.
They are located on Lovelock Street, at the dead end of a narrow alley full of warehouses. My nine-month-old son is with me, asleep, so I lug his car seat up the stairs to the building. The office is smaller than I expect, with a few cubicles, a small TV on the wall playing a sushi slideshow, and a fax machine in the corner. A small Asian woman sits at a desk. At first, I think I’m in the wrong place, but after a few minutes, a tall, dark-haired man walks out of the warehouse doors. I explain that I am looking for lobster and uni, and he shakes his head. “You need to order one day in advance,” he says in a French accent. He holds up his hands. “We already are out today.” He introduces himself as Alain Leroy and immediately gives me an uni tutorial. He shows me photos of sea urchins on the walls and tells me how they are cracked open, the long tongues of roe removed carefully, quality graded, and then shipped all over the world. “Come with me,” he says. “I will give you a tour. Leave the baby with Keiko — she has seven kids.”
Keiko Sellers rolls her eyes at Alain, tells me she only has five children, and then smiles at my sleeping son. Already, they have charmed me.
The warehouse is immaculate. Men in white coveralls are hosing the floor, and immense white tanks, the size of small swimming pools, line the room. Alain reaches into one of the tanks and pulls out a shrimp as long as my hand. “You can eat these raw,” he tells me. “It’s like tasting the ocean.” He reaches into another tank and pulls out the biggest lobster I have ever seen. Its body twists in Alain’s hand, and its legs scurry through the air.
“If I bought one of these,” I begin, “would you clean it for me?”
“No. You have to do it yourself.” Alain grins and then shrugs. “Some people, they freeze the lobster first to put them to sleep. But me, I am cruel. I just drop it into a steaming pot and quick, put on the lid.” I must wince because he adds, “But I don’t recommend it for a date. The women, they go, ‘Eeww.’ ” Alain gives a little shriek and waves his hands by his head. I know exactly what he means.
Despite the fact that I need to do some serious research on how to prepare a lobster, I place my order and drive away feeling my spirits lift. Where else can you get lobster and free babysitting?
What worries me a little is where I am going to get the butter. According to the San Diego Farm Bureau, there are only five working dairies in San Diego County. Only four have working phone numbers, and only one calls me back: Dave van Ommering of Van Ommering Dairy and Pumpkin Patch in Lakeside. He tells me they have over 200 cows on their farm, but their milk is shipped to a co-op out in Artesia. “Our goal is to have a creamery someday on the farm, but with the dairy industry losing money for eight years straight, we’re just treading water right now.” He says he and his wife Brenda are lucky to have what they do. “You’d be crazy to start a dairy in San Diego now. The regulations make it impossible.” He adds that Hollandia Dairy has a creamery in San Diego County, but their cows are out in the Imperial Valley.
This isn’t my only dilemma. In addition to lobster, my menu includes pumpkin soup, roasted root vegetables, mashed potatoes, and applesauce — all found in abundance in San Diego County. What’s tripping me up is that I need to make these dishes without salt, pepper, sugar, and wheat (so no pie — pumpkin or apple — which might just cause my husband to find himself a girlfriend for the holidays). I have already tried (and failed) to make my own cornmeal from dried-out local corn, so there goes my hope for stuffing. And since there is virtually no dairy industry in San Diego, I have to abandon my plan of serving homemade ice cream for dessert. Honestly, I didn’t think it would be quite this hard. Is it so wrong to want my house to smell like pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving?
For the time being, I try to console myself with vegetables and head out to Seabreeze Organic Farm in Del Mar. According to the directions, the farm is right off Carmel Valley Road, past Changes Plastic Surgery and Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. Predictably, a Beemer is on my tail as I turn onto Arroyo Sorrento past a set of McMansions and then up the steepest, narrowest hill I have seen since moving from San Francisco.
As I crest the hill, I gasp at the sea of tract homes spread out below. And yet, right in front of me is most definitely a farm, balancing precariously on the side of the hill. I drive through an open gate and a corgi trots out to meet me, while a flock of chickens spring out from a hill of flowers. I start walking to a fence, and a white turkey wanders over, his red wattle swaying. I have already been told — in no uncertain terms — that these birds are not for eating, and as if reading my mind, the turkey glares at me.
Down the hill, lettuces and root vegetables grow in neat rows decorated by tall wildflowers, long-necked squash dangle down from trellises, and near the bottom of the hill, basil, chard, and strawberries grow in towers that look like mini-skyscrapers. I find Stephanie Coughlin, the farm’s owner, near a bed of lettuce. She is taking photos for her weekly CSA — short for community-supported agriculture — by which individuals pay $40–$60 a week in exchange for a delivery of fresh produce harvested that very day. Although her farm is less than two acres, Stephanie supports about 130 families.
“This is a completely independent small farm,” Stephanie tells me proudly as she pulls her red hair back from her face. “I don’t take anything from anyone.” She steps away, tending to her vegetables, peering at leaves and flowers. She moves constantly. “The deck is very stacked against the small farmer.” She takes another photo. “I tend to be blunt, but the consumer is really pretty hypocritical. They pick up one book and expect perfection from this beleaguered farmer who’s been doing this for years and years.”
Oh jeez, I think, I am such a fraud. Me with my Prius and turkey-free holiday, moaning that my CSA doesn’t have cranberries. Stephanie’s right. I just want what I want when I want it, seasonality be damned. Really, I’m about as sustainable as a plastic bag.
Buck up, I tell myself as I leave the farm. At least grapes grow in San Diego. And if I’m not serving turkey on Thanksgiving, we’re going to need a bottle of wine on the table. I head east, towards Orfila Vineyards and Winery, which stretches out in front of the rocky detritus of the Escondido mountains. The tasting room is in an old building covered with ivy, and inside, it smells like the inside of a wine barrel.
Scott Ledbetter, the tasting-room manger, sets up a generous flight of Orfila’s Rhone-style wines for me to taste, including one that he assures me will be perfect with lobster: The Estate Viognier, “Lotus.” I also come away with a Merlot that will pair well with roasted vegetables, and the 2006 Estate Petite Syrah, which I know my husband will love. Scott assured me that it could make a wonderful sauce for ice cream (sigh) when reduced.
Rain clouds are rolling in as I drive away, and there’s a chill in the air. For the first time this year, it feels like fall, and I realize I am looking forward to Thanksgiving, to my unconventional feast. As the wine bottles clink in the seat next to me, I chastise myself for being so gloomy about what I can’t have this year, instead of focusing on what’s right in front of me. The food that comes from our land and ocean is truly incredible. Lobster and sea urchin. Potatoes, pumpkins, and beets. Olive oil and wine. It will be plenty. It will be much more than enough.