Part I: Always Use Your Napkin

I didn’t mean for it to end up this way. I really didn’t want to be standing at a rather nice wedding reception, glass of semi-expensive white wine in one hand, and napkin full of half-chewed, hastily spit out stuffed mushroom in the other. Sure, I knew my friends, the now-hitched earthy couple, erred on the side of unconventional and wanted their wedding to reflect that as well. It was taking place in what used to be the old Ojai Jail, a cluster of tiny, ramshackle cabins in the mountains above Santa Barbara. And yet, in the middle of this somewhat rugged mountain setting, my friends had imported stunning orchid arrangements, enough wine to baptize the whole city of Santa Barbara, and (my personal favorite) a wicked cheese platter.

There were even waiters gliding around, passing out tiny, delicious treatsies on trays. And after hurriedly hauling myself to Santa Barbara, surviving the van ride up the mountain with a driver who may have very well had one eye closed, and quickly pounding two (okay, three) glasses of the aforementioned very nice wine, I was starving. Add to the mix that fact that my ex-boyfriend and his new ladyfriend were not only in attendance but also in very close physical proximity, and you could maybe see how the wine would be priority Number One, followed by food.

I kept missing all the waiters, but finally saw a tray approach. Without even pausing, I happily grabbed what looked like a breadcrumb-stuffed mushroom and tore into it. As I chewed, I remember thinking how rich and flavorful it was.

“You know that’s venison, right?”

That would be my boyfriend’s ever-so-helpful but twelve-seconds-too-late information. I couldn’t help what happened next. It was like a gag reflex…literally. I made some sort of loud groan of displeasure then, under the watchful eyes of the Bride’s stepmother, proceeded to hastily eject poor little Bambi from my mouth and into a cocktail napkin.

Which brings us to here. Me. Venison in hand…and starting to soak through the paper napkin. How did I get here? Ah yes, I remember.

My parents.

Doesn’t it always start with them?

Part II: Goodbye Good Friday, Hello Dixie Dogs

My father was raised a Seventh Day Adventist. To clear up any misconceptions- oh, what’s that? You’ve never heard of them? Perfect. Allow me (and Wikipedia) to briefly explain: “The Seventh-day Adventist Church is a Christian denomination that is distinguished by its observance of Saturday, the original seventh day of the Judeo-Christian week, as the Sabbath, and by its emphasis on the imminent second coming of Jesus Christ. It is the eighth largest international body of Christians.”

They also don’t wear jewelry, don’t dance, don’t drink, and – you guessed it – don’t eat meat. It’s like the town from Footloose, only with no burger joints. So my darling father, who in adulthood isn’t a practicing Adventist, has never eaten meat. In his life. Ever. So we didn’t either. Which meant that my very Italian, Catholic mother gave up meat not just on Good Fridays, but permanently.

And hey, it was a pretty great, though meatless, childhood. I mean, when you’re raised not having something, you can’t really miss it, right? Sure, there were those days in elementary school when the McDonald’s truck would come and everyone would be feasting on Chicken McNuggets. I even had them a few times myself. Eh. Nothing to write to my dead-animal-free home about.

My parents weren’t overzealous about the no-meat thing, we just never had it in the house. If we wanted to order meat at a restaurant, they’d let us. My younger sister had a passion for the paper wrapped chicken at Shanghai Charlie’s, but was horrified when I told her the chicken was, as advertised, real chicken. To this day, she denies eating it, preferring her faux-meat of choice: Dixie Dogs. That was the thing about the Adventists: though they eschewed meat, they sure spent a lot of time making tofu-filled replicas of it. Growing up, our freezer was filled with Morningstar Veggie Burgers (called Grillers), fake bacon (called Striplets), and soy hot dogs on a stick (those would be the Dixie Dogs).

My childhood marched on, with brief, embarrassing pit stops on days when my mom would pack us a particularly hippie/vegetarian lunch of Fri-Chick sandwiches, which I always called Frick Chick. With good reason. I’d get made fun of whenever I’d unpack my lunch and my neon-red, fake bologna sandwich would catch some carnivore’s eye, or the cute boy would recoil upon seeing my limp, dilapidated Striplets poking out of my mom’s valiant attempt at a BLT.

Around 6th grade I started making my own lunch, sticking to PB&Js and every so often a Tupperware of pasta, enabling me to look down my nose at the ham and cheese masses with a worldly, “Oh this? It’s just penne with extra virgin olive oil, capers and sun-dried tomatoes. I’m Italian. It’s no big deal.”

Part III: The Beef Touchdown

Sure, peer pressure came knocking in high school, as it does for many. The cool place to hang out in the heady days of my freshman year was one of those unintentionally-ironic 1950’s diners that were really big in the ’80s (totally stealing this joke from The Family Guy). Our diner was called Ruby’s and everyone who was anyone ate burgers there on Friday nights before the football games. Eek. I wanted to fit in, of course, and put my Frick Chick lunch days long behind me, so I ordered a cheeseburger too. I liked cheese, I liked buns, it couldn’t be that bad, right? Taste-wise, it was fine. Good, actually. Very different from what I was used to, but I had to keep getting the image of a screaming cow out of my head.

“I enjoy your milk, now I will enjoy your muscles,” I told myself as I chewed, pretending to listen to whatever my friends were giggling about. The burger went down alright and I realized, with relief, that I didn’t have to be a weirdo vegetarian if I didn’t want to.

But about twenty minutes later, I got an emergency message from my digestive system. I hadn’t given them the heads up about our little moo-cow visitor, and let’s just say the natives were VERY restless that night. I missed the football game, overalls around my ankles in the high school gym bathroom, listening to the crowd roar between stomach spasms of pure, beef-induced terror. That was it. Peer pressure or no peer pressure, when it came to meat, I had to just say no.

Part IV: Sake It To Me

Imagine my surprise when, as I hit college, I found out it was actually “cool” to be a vegetarian. Thank the tofu-loving Lord. I was finally not a freakshow, but a forward-thinking, considerate animal-lover. But I felt a little guilty. Don’t get me wrong, I love animals, but I also owned Doc Martens and a pretty sweet leather jacket I wasn’t planning on parting with. Did I now have to wear them in secrecy? Lounge around my dorm room wearing my beaded leather belt I got in Colorado from a real cowboy shop?

Luckily, most of my fellow collegiates were too drunk to notice my leather indiscretions. And since the university rite of passage wasn’t a burger joint, but a decadent cookie shop called Diddy Reece, I was pretty safe on all fronts.

But in my sophomore year, something strange happened: I started craving protein. Not meat, mind you. I was permanently scared off beef, and chicken reminded me way too much of what human flesh would look like should we all turn cannibalistic or just get in a really bad spot like the plane crash guys in the movie ALIVE. But I yearned for some sort of culinary satisfaction I couldn’t get, no matter how many bean and cheese burritos I ate.

Then it happened. Sure, I can blame the underage drinking in my college town that forced us to go to some pretty out of the way establishments famous for not carding. Or I can blame it on the fact that the most popular of these establishments was a semi-sketchy Japanese place called Cowboy Sushi. Maybe it was the copious sake bombs I imbibed, maybe it was the excitement of feeling like a real grown-up ordering grown-up drinks in a restaurant for the first time. Heck, maybe I was just hungry.

I ate sushi.

And it was delicious.

I didn’t go too Bonzai Samarai my first time. I stuck to pretty basic stuff: California Rolls, maybe a Spicy Tuna Roll. But I was in love. Raw fish filled a flesh-shaped void in my heart I didn’t even know was there. From that day foreword, I have proudly borne the label of “Pescatarian.”

Part V: The Fishy Aftermath

Yes, since that revolutionary day I’ve gotten in many verbal sparring matches about how fish are meat, too, and if I’m a vegetarian because I’m trying to make a statement about meat how can I be so hypocritical, yada yada yada. But that’s just it. I’m not really trying to make any statement. Yes, I think keeping baby cows in tiny cages to make their flesh soft enough for veal is terrible and the living environments of most chickens is an outrage.

I recycle and buy free-range eggs and don’t drive a gas-guzzler. And yes, fish are animals, too. But somewhere in the murky grey area I rationalize that they aren’t cute and cuddly like lambs, covered in fur like my two beloved Terriers, or a peaceful citizen of the forest like Bambi. Also: I’m a human, another animal. And this animal needs protein to survive.

Tofu is fine, but I get a little bored with it (and I suck at cooking it). Plus, being a Pescatarian has saved me from many a social pickle, i.e. a business dinner at a restaurant that has no vegetarian options or at lunch with my boyfriend’s parents in the South where every single thing on the menu has both eyeballs and a mother.

In closing, fish are delicious sea creatures and…I love the taste of lobster! There. I’ve said it. So I will endure my existence in the semi-vegetarian, semi-carnivore gloaming, spitting out venison-filled mushroom caps but happily gobbling calamari and salmon filets, fresh from the fish market. I will continue buying my free range eggs and being able to split the shrimp fajitas with my boyfriend and ranting to anyone who will listen that you should adopt a dog from the pound before paying exorbitant fees to professional puppy breeders. Because that’s what life is all about: compromise. Doing the best you can. And the best I can involves tuna melts.

I guess the Dr. Seuss book is true: One fish, two fish, red fish, tofu fish. To each, his own. Except for that red snapper. That sucker is mine.

Of course, it took more than Robbi’s job offers to bring Johanna and me out here to the marijuana farm. Should I write about this part in any sort of detail? Will I be defying my own vow to keep such things relegated to the realm of “backdrop?” Should I discuss how, in 2006, I found myself living in my parents’ house in suburban Chicago for the first time since I was seventeen, this time with Johanna in tow, due to my mom’s diagnosis? How, after having lived in Alaska, Italy, Key West, New Mexico, Arizona, and a failed attempt in Vermont, that reentering Buffalo Grove, Illinois gave me the alcoholic shakes, the soothing drink to quell them being the swallowed desire to flee to some distant mountaintop, some beach bungalow, some bomb shelter in which I could grow, with impunity, a wizard’s beard beneath which to hide? Oh shit, oh shit. This is one of those stories, isn’t it? No. No. It’s just the establishment of context, right? I can’t say “backdrop,” and not give the stage-curtain a color, right? Right?

Also: I did not change the names of the places I lived. Those are accurate, as is the Buffalo Grove admission, which I’m still a little leery about. I’ve tried for most of my life to shuck that place, for better or for worse. But, hell, I played enough Four Square and Running Bases, and chased enough fieldmice, and ate enough bad food in that town that I shouldn’t fear claiming a small ownership.

Of course, this descent (for Johanna) and re-descent (for me) into B.G. crept into us like nausea with a remarkable intensity, and then, for the most part, kept quiet. We were Haleakalā, Mount Edgecumbe, Chato Volcano, and Paulet Island: dormant. (Keeping this list short was a labor—the desire to include Mount Bachelor, Mount Elephant, and Pelican Butte, was fierce, but I didn’t necessarily want you picturing bachelors, elephants, or pelicans, but, well, it seems I’ve now fucked this up. Oh well. As the gay rabbi who bar mitzvah’d me used to say to his congregation in times of Judaic woe, …and let us all say: Son of a bitch).

At the crest of my mother’s therapy, when she was (as she was so often then) sleeping, my father, never one for overt emotion, called me into his bathroom—the chamber in which he sat for hours staunching the… No. I’m gonna spare you that. I will tell you though that it was in that bathroom, after a shower, that I discovered on the blue padded laundry hamper, centrally-located in my father’s stack of subscribed-to Playboy magazines, the December 1984 issue that featured Karen Velez, who was single-handedly responsible for my later shunning of breast implants, and who forever changed the way I used and reacted to the word pendulous.

Walking quickly, I passed the walls lined with his Howdy Doody and Hopalong Cassidy memorabilia, what my mother would call, “his childhood cemetery.” He was standing next to the toilet, hair less curly than it used to be, new totem pole tattoo clinging bright to his left shoulder, staring into the blue wastebasket, shaking his head. Few sights are more pathetic than one’s father, nervous beyond reason, standing next to a toilet. Karen Velez, and the flightiness by which I defined myself up to that point, were long gone, hopefully commingling in the bottom of the same mid-Eighties dumpster. I had to slow down. I had to look. Like at a car accident on the highway. Inside, I saw a mound of her brown hair, enough it seemed to cover the floor of a barber shop, one that over-compensated by including a (misleading) superlative in its title: Supercuts. Fantastic Sam’s. Like I’m one to talk about over-compensation. I can’t seem to keep my damn mouth shut about this, breaking promises, contracts. I might as well commit here, include some remembered dialogue, milk the cow.

“Why do you want to show me this?” I asked him, my throat reacting as it would have to a sliver of black peppercorn.

He snorted softly. He looked confused.

“I think you should share in this,” he said.

****

Many times, Johanna and I delved into understandable selfishness, lamenting our loss of sanctuary, our rhythms, this wet cloak clinging to our skins, stirring our hearts to a perpetual flutter. Let me rephrase: we were pissed off. Distraught, sure, but pissed. We were solitude fetishists. A quiet evening at home, just the two of us, was our autoerotic asphyxiation, a bad late night action movie (see: Tier One: anything by Lorenzo Lamas, Brian Bosworth, or Dolph Lundgren (save for “Rocky IV”); Tier Two: anything by Jean-Claude Van Damme, Steven Seagal, or Eric Roberts; Tier Three: anything by Schwarzenegger, 1970-1988; Tier Four: anything by Schwarzenegger, 1989-2003 (with the exception of the—heavy on the quotation marks—“comedies,” “Junior,” for example); Tier Five: “Rocky IV”), our silk stocking. For you aficionados: This list is heavily abridged. And the logician in me wants to qualify: Order of tiers inversely proportional to alcoholic drinks consumed. The realist in me wants to counter: Order of tiers, interchangeable. These were films that Johanna initially dismissed as “a load of shit,” but by month two, she was just as addicted as I.

Many times we would go for midnight walks to the neighborhood park—the site of my first tornado slide, little league baseball games, after-school fights, the place where I lost my third tooth, falling from the tire swing, the place where I tried, and succeeded at, eating a woodchip—and sit on the swing-set, sometimes silent, sometimes raging with the urge to flee. Part of me wants to say something about the stars here—a specific constellation even (Andromeda, my favorite—it has something to do with the sea monster)—but I’m gonna pull back.

We would complain about the way the city lights dampened the night sky, about the ever-listening ears of the neighbors, likely descendants of the Original Yenta. We would talk about how my mother would surely heal, overusing the words strong and pull through, and about the many options that lie ahead for us, which looked then, when I closed my eyes, like an endless chain of yellow center highway lines, the lane separators, some even-more-scary version of David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” trailer. On that swing-set, in that park, we approached each option with equal disinterest. Then, we would go back to the house, undress in my old bedroom, and listen to my parents cough half the night. Am I really going to write about this shit in any sort of detail? Hell, no.

****

About eight months later, when it looked as if all may turn out well with my mom, my wife and I, lost and insane with the thirst for solitude and a measure of cleansing, received Robbi’s phone call and decided to take these seasonal jobs. Then, we had no idea about the Residents’ Camp and communal meals, and tent livin’, and strange showers in which we felt compelled to wear our rubber shoes for fear of contracting all things fungal… No, at the time, after a stint in Midwestern realism and all of its spiritual bratwurst, California seemed to us the physical manifestation of a cosmic high-colonic. And Robbi had worked for Lady Wanda before, so we were welcomed with hefty open arms, without much interrogation.

****

Johanna and I often talk of Chicago during our pre-dinner walks, but we don’t tonight. We’re too hungry. For the season, Lady Wanda has set up a white canvas carnival tent on the east side of her substantial house, under which three meals a day are served. From the fields, Johanna looks longingly toward the tent’s three white peaks as if they were as snow-covered and as insurmountable at the Himalayas. Sometimes, when we’re craving meat, they are. After a day of massage, when she’s hungry, Johanna can get irrationally poetic about food.

“I hope they shoe-horn some lamb into that vegetable mass tonight,” she growls.

Meals on Weckman Farm are typically vegetarian, but, I must admit, wonderfully prepared. Alex, Emily, and Antonio are the three full-time chefs under Lady Wanda’s employ, and just so you don’t invest too much in them, they will not be major players in this tale. That doesn’t mean I can’t try to describe them, though. And later on, I may even tell a story or two about them. It depends on how I’m feeling, benevolent or smart-ass; both moods likely disingenuous and forced for the sake of the narrative. (Insert your favorite proper noun that includes the word, liar, here. I’ll choose, “Fellini: I’m a Born Liar”). But for now, consider Alex and Emily pseudo-hippie wallpaper, and Antonio a bookshelf-bound and balloon-cheeked bust of Buddha. Sorry for all the B-word there. I get lost sometimes…

Alex and Emily, a married couple in their upper-twenties, are culinary school graduates who cut their teeth at a pair of well-known Napa Valley restaurants (he as a sous chef, she as a pastry chef), before finding their way to Weckman Farm. They both wear cat’s-eye glasses and beads in their hair and have a flair for breakfasts. This morning we had sea-palm (a local seaweed) quiche with caramelized onion and feta cheese. I tried to like it, and eventually did. Johanna, not the world’s biggest fan of ocean-born green stuff, bitched. She decorated the edges of her plate with these lovely little blobs of rejected magnesium.

Antonio, a fifty-year old man from Veracruz, Mexico with a robust fifty-year-old paunch, is theirsous chef, trained in his mother’s restaurant, perfecting such dishes as last night’s dinner ofenchiladas suizas stuffed with roasted mushroom and topped with a tomatillo cream sauce. Though meatless, we both adored it, and, if I remember correctly, Johanna may have clapped once.

Their kitchen is housed in a large blue-roofed shed in Lady Wanda’s backyard and includes four ranges, an indoor grill, a chest freezer, a commercial mixer and a walk-in refrigerator. Johanna speculates that not a single piece of this equipment has ever had the luxury of housing so much as a sliver of lamb.

“I think they fear real protein,” she whines, enumerating the oft-repeated list of the exotic meats she enjoyed as a girl growing up in Northern Sweden. As always, as if for emphasis, or to subvert the cute and the Christmas-y, she ends her rant with, “…reindeer!” (Not true, but it was a similar beast, and I couldn’t resist the holiday reference).

I reach for her hand again as we watch Alex, Emily, and Antonio carry plastic-wrapped aluminum food bins from the rear of the house to the picnic benches under the tent. We can hear Antonio grumbling to his chefs de cuisine, “If you two don’t stop French-kissing when you’re supposed to be shucking corn, we’re going to be here all night.” He rockets a string of what must be the most marvelously obscene Spanish I’ve ever heard, yanking the plastic wrap from the food. This, it must be admitted, happened nightly, though I confess I was occasionally turned-on by their public displays of affection. I’m a voyeur. Johanna’s fully aware of this. Sue me.

Johanna’s hand, which hasn’t lost any of its oil from a day of rubbing people, squeezes mine. The aromas of something entirely vegetal float from the tent, infiltrate the breeze, and strike my wife with a leafy disappointment. She sighs the sigh of a woman who is having something green (again!) for dinner; who is living outside for a season in a Coleman Cimarron tent—a Coleman Cimarron amid sixty others in the Residents’ Camp. This is not necessarily what we had in mind when chanting the word “sanctuary!” on that swing-set back in Chicago.

The Residents’ Camp sits like a shantytown village on the opposite end of the property from Lady Wanda’s house. Unless the weather turns to rain, or becomes the California version of cold, it’s uncommon to see a male crewmember wearing a shirt in the Residents’ Camp. The few women who make up Lady Wanda’s crew have been known to forgo the occasional shirt as well. Johanna and I are probably the Camp’s most clothed crewmembers, though we do feast our eyes on the only meat—some more well-done than others—served here at Weckman.

For a shantytown, amenities abound. Or, if not amenities, an amenity. Lady Wanda has constructed a pair of shower sheds in the Camp, replete with hot water. They are a pot farm version of clean, which is to say, dirty, and, as I said, Johanna and I don our rubber sandals with enthusiasm. When we first arrived at Weckman Farm, one shed was for the boys, the other for the girls. As the season progressed, things became a bit more co-ed. The curtains are mercifully (again: depending on who you ask) opaque. I’m thinking of Charlie the Mechanic here.

“The world’s goin’ to shit,” Lady Wanda says to the crew after the workday, “but I run my generator on vegetable oil. Enjoy your showers!”

Lady Wanda is a self-proclaimed permaculturalist. I’m not sure that word exists east of the Continental Divide. Oh: Well. Pardon my presumptuousness—I just found out that the permaculture movement began in the 1970s in Australia. I mean, like, literally ten seconds ago. The word, in print, tends to keep company with the word synergy, and who am I to deprive it of its life partner? Anyhow: praise Wikipedia.

As such a permaculturist, she has, in Weckman Farm, attempted to create a self-sufficient mini-society that avoids dependence on the many amenities of industry. She sings the financial praises of her role as ecologically- inclined businesswoman. Her vegetable oil powered generator costs her forty cents per gallon.

For a first-time Picker, this self-sufficiency can carry with it the side-effects of claustrophobia and stench. Every crewmember who arrives by car is instructed to park in an open grassy lot on a spur road off the main gravel drag that leads to Weckman Farm. We have access to our vehicles only in cases of emergency. Often, I picture our reddish Kia Spectra, lying dormant, collecting the spoiled smells of our abandoned road snacks. I think we may have ditched a half-turkey salad sandwich beneath the front passenger seat, due to Johanna’s distaste for the celery brunoise suspended in it. At night, in the tent, I would often think of this sandwich, and bugs, and become anxious and unable to sleep. Look, I’m a suburban Chicago Jew at base. What can I tell you?

Lady Wanda collects lists of her crew’s favorite products. She then sends a team of faceless shoppers into the nearest small town (not very near) to gather these items. She labels the resulting paper bags with our names in black magic marker, so we can have access to our Vidal Sassoons, our AquaFreshes, and our SpeedSticks without ever having to leave the premises. If we must send out mail, Lady Wanda collects it and has another faceless messenger truck it to the local (not very local) post office every three days. She even pays our postage. This way, a Picker has very little to do but work; this contained, sustainable world a constant fluctuation between field, food tent, and the Residents’ Camp.

The Residents’ Camp faces Lady Wanda’s mansion as if at the opposing heads of a medieval table, we workers constantly facing the nighttime queenly stare of her lit upstairs windows—a royal and intimidating job interview. The atmosphere in the Camp is surprisingly courteous, many of the workers putting away their acoustic guitars, jimbe drums, and laptop stereos early into the night. After all, many of us are working longer hours than an investment banker.

Johanna and I walk from the pungent crops to the warm mouth of the food tent. The sun has nearly dipped out of sight, only its red scalp hanging on the horizon above the rows. The air is heavy and without definitive season. It can be January or June. It can only be California.