I was there last in August, on my most recent trip to the Bay Area. I stayed at my aunt and uncle’s house, just across the street from the high school and down the road from Santa Rosa Junior College; my aunt and I made our usual stop at the Santa Rosa fish market, a downtown hole-in-the-wall with seafood so fresh the air is thick with brine, and you walk out the door with the day’s catch and beach hair. We got oysters and scallops and mussels, the usual order for our regular bivalve nights, a tradition begun a few years’ back when amidst mussels and wine I drunkenly proclaimed my love for the bivalve and that little-used word became our inside joke, one so flavorful it retains the ritual capacity of the eternal present: my uncle shucks the oysters, fresh from Tomales Bay, while I slice the scallops into sashimi; they are sweet and butter-soft, luscious, melting on the tongue, the Platonic ideal of a scallop. My aunt cleans and steams the mussels, with white wine and lemon and garlic and backyard parsley, and some backyard purslane that I insist on adding. My uncle uncorks and pours the most hyperlocal of wines, grapes collected from nearby vineyards and brewed in my aunt and uncle’s garage. The next morning in the garden I collect a tote bag full of fallen green walnuts to make a nocino, steeping now in my cabinet, and my aunt and uncle gift me with apples from half-a-dozen varietals that they’ve grafted (now living in my brother and sister-in-law’s freezer, applesauce for my niece and nephew, jars and jars of it), pears, peppers, beets. We snack on prunes, ripe off the tree and sugar-sweet, and pause to drink more wine as the chickens cluck, content in their coop, all of us warm in the afternoon sun.
It takes time to build such a life, one that reads like an enviable magazine feature on the wine country. My aunt and uncle have been in their house for thirty years, and I’ve only been witness to the last twelve; I didn’t see the garden laid out or the studio built or those apple trees planted. By the time I moved to San Francisco, just out of college and craving the California sunshine, their home and their yard and their family were all well-established enough to become my escape, to feel — as I moved, as I couch-surfed, as I had no place to call my own — a little bit like a home to me, too.
And so last Monday, when I woke late, frustrated that a long sleep had done little against a persistent and vicious cold, when I checked Facebook and saw posts from friends in San Francisco about respirators and outdoor air quality, links from Bay Area friends about the mounting flames, panic rose until finally, fortunately, a post from Jake, my aunt and uncle’s upstairs tenant — he and I have bonded over the years, forcing my aunt and uncle to watch “South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut” on a Movie Monday and getting into a shouting match about Richard Sherman and racism in the NFL during one memorable Super Bowl — who was OK, who had packed up his guitars and gotten the hell out even though, he reassured his social network, he was not actually in an evacuation zone. As I waited for my aunt and uncle to respond to my frantic “ARE YOU OK?!?!??!!” I tried to look up maps of the damage, but the chaos of the moment was too great for such orderly reporting. Eventually I realized that the Santa Rosa Junior College Twitter feed was probably the best source of information I could find for their neighborhood, and refreshed it compulsively until my uncle emailed later that night. They hadn’t been evacuated, but half a mile away the entire Coffey Park neighborhood had disappeared into smoke and ash so they had spent the day packing their car and truck, preparing to flee to Marin, to another aunt’s house, but when the time came to go they couldn’t do it. Nor the next day, or the next, or the next — even as the lines of the evacuation zones crept closer and closer to their house they chose instead to stay, to volunteer at evacuation shelters, to go to work. My aunt is a county employee; she’s an official part of the recovery effort. The ash she had to wipe off her desk when she went back into her office, she wrote to us, was inches thick.
My home-away-from-home, my second home, the center of my California gravity — by whatever label it might be known as, its more important label is safe. It stands, still, in a city where hundreds of other houses do not, by nothing more than luck. There will be nocino and applesauce for years to come. My aunt and uncle are safe; we could have had bivalve nights under another roof, if it had come to that, but without them the tradition would have become tragedy; not only because they are family but because they are the kind of people who, faced with a city-destroying firestorm and the opportunity to flee, choose to stay and help others.
I spoke on the phone with my mom on Tuesday. She was certain that they’d gone down to Marin, no matter how many times I corrected her. I suspect she would have fled, and simply could not imagine someone making a different choice. I would have fled, too, and though I can acknowledge that my aunt and uncle stayed I am nonetheless astonished by it, although I don’t know why; I have been the direct beneficiary of their generosity for over a decade, and why should I be the boundary to it?
Nearly a week on, my Facebook feed is oddly bifurcated. From Northern California friends there are links to articles, links to GoFundMe pages, links to DIY air-filtration systems to keep the dense, choking, particulate-heavy smog out of one’s lungs. From Cleveland and East Coast friends there is nothing, no mention or acknowledgment of the devastation, no donations, no thoughts, no prayers. Dozens dead, thousands displaced, millions suffering from the heavy smoke — and yet it seems that the media response is to treat this as just another California fire, something typical and expected. But Katrina was not just another hurricane, and this is not just another fire. Some disasters are not so typical.
Our president and his acolytes at FOX News, of course, have political reasons for pretending California doesn’t exist — we are an inconveniently well-populated foil to his claims towards representing “America,” or to have been popularly elected — but the ignorance of the scale of the fires comes not only from conservatives. I blame hygge: in the last decade American ideas about “the good life” have rotated northward, borrowing not from the Mediterranean ideals of “Into the Tuscan Sun” but from Noma-inspired Nordic fantasias of coziness and Scandinavian seasonality, so much more applicable to the chilly Northeastern environs of our national tastemakers than the tired cliche of endless wine and sunshine available only to us lucky West Coasters. It is not today’s aspirations but yesterday’s dreams which disappeared in the flames, and isn’t it gauche to mourn something that we’re all supposed to be over already anyway?
That day in August, after we picked walnuts and apples and prunes, my aunt and I drove to three different grocery stores trying to hunt down more of a specialty product she’d bought and nearly run out of, a fermented sheep’s-milk butter from a small Petaluma dairy that she insisted I try. It was featherlight and funky, singular and transcendent, worth the effort to hunt down even if only to discover that it was a short-run seasonal product, and out of stock at the moment. That’s the beautiful thing about brewing wine and nocino, about eating fresh apples and ripe prunes and backyard purslane: it teaches you to wait, to understand that singular and transcendent gastronomic pleasures require patience, that the land cannot be hurried. It’s a pithy lesson amidst most food, mass-produced and shipped from a great distance, but in wine country the sheer unabashed sensuality of every flavor is its own argument and all it takes to convert a skeptic is one simple meal.
I don’t mean to shame those unaffected by the fires; from Hurricane Harvey to Harvey Weinstein, plus the omnipresent threat/spectacle of our own dear leader instigating nuclear war via Twitter (what a world), we are all a little wrung out on national disasters. Napa and Sonoma counties have money that Puerto Rico does not, and that matters. But the fact remains that this is not a local tragedy, or a regional disaster. The North Bay might be its own self-indulgent self-parody at times but it is also America’s culinary conscience, which seems like a rather niche morality until one considers exactly what food encompasses: agriculture and environment, transportation and labor, culture and pleasure. To live by a philosophy of food is to be embedded in ritual and tradition and principle, the ascendent theology of “clean eating” an ascetic dogma to which the North Bay can only shrug in bemusement at the idea that anyone might choose a chia pudding when creme brulee exists. Such flavorful impacts reach beyond the palate, as this beacon of localism and landedness has developed into an entire — and substantial — economy. There are independent food and wine producers all around the country, but where else in America do they constitute an internationally recognized identity? Losses in the North Bay are not only losses of wine and cheese and produce and fermented sheep’s-milk butter but losses of toasts and togetherness, hospitality and home; even if you don’t live there, even if you’ve never been there, the openness and ease of the wine country embodies an idea of home so fundamental that we all share it, that we all aspire to it, even if we’ve replaced the grapes with lichens and the sunshine with snowshowers and rebranded it as “hygge.”
The North Bay is not beyond critique. Racism and inequality are issues there as much as they are anywhere. The gentleness and gentility of wine country agricultural practice does not preclude exploitation, and the truth is that those who labor the most often savor the least, especially if they don’t have the right kind of papers. The sticker shock of housing in Santa Rosa is less than down the 101 in San Francisco, but that’s not saying much; my aunt and uncle have worked hard but they also got lucky, buying at a more affordable time, one unlikely to be revisited again soon. But no place is perfect, and if the humane vision proffered by the best of our gastronomic wonderland — of gathering, sharing, welcoming — is to be expanded, to be made more inclusive, it must first be rebuilt.
For that, we should all care, and thankfully, people have stayed for the effort.