Deconstructing Dinner

spring greens (Hollister)

Montchevre Crumbled Goat Cheese (Betin, Inc.)

red onion, sliced

fresh tarragon (Hollister)

Italian dressing (Newman's Own "Lighten Up Italian")

fresh Dungeness crab (Half-Moon Bay)

fresh lemon juice (from my sister Joni's backyard tree)

cocktail sauce (Heinz Ketchup + Morehouse Prepared Horseradish)

fresh-baked sweet French bread (Lunardi's)

Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay (Monterey and Santa Barbara Counties)

Late Sunday afternoon I returned home from a day with friends to find a loaf of Lunardi's sweet French bread on the kitchen counter. A good sign: Don / Richie C must have gone grocery shopping. Gotta love a guy who not only shops, but chooses local foods that taste good and honor his spouse's pledge to buy USA-made products for a year. And to go with the bread? Fresh Dungeness crab. "The guy told me it was from Half-Moon Bay," Don said. "Cost twenty bucks but that's not bad compared to what it'd cost to eat out. Plus, think of the local fishermen it supports." Yes, let's think about that. In fact, let's think about the whole dinner.

I'd bought the spring greens earlier at Lunardi's. The produce guy, unloading and stacking bananas, told me the greens and tarragon were local, from Hollister, in San Benito County. Don't know exactly where the red onion came from, but the produce bin from whence I'd fetched it had a sign: "Product of the USA." Didn't want to bug the produce guy yet again. He'd moved on to unloading and stacking oranges. I pictured oranges tumbling down, rolling all over the floor. Best to shut up and trust the sign.

The Montchevre Crumbled Goat Cheese, also purchased at Lunardi's, was made by Betin, Inc. Betin is owned and operated by French-Americans (yes, I called to check; are you embarrassed for me yet?) Arnuad and Sophie Solandt. Although Arnuad and Sophie live in California, their cheese is manufactured in Belmont, Wisconsin. This is from the Betin website: Established in 1988, Montchevre uses only fresh, 100% natural goat's milk. We use milk from Amish farmers who are local to the Wisconsin and Iowa areas. We at Montchevre feel obligated to make the best product possible for our customers. Our products range from bulk size (8 lb. tubs) to the traditional crottin and goat logs, and we proudly offer many other varieties and sizes. Products are available in the United States through selected distributors.

Did they say Amish Farmers? This makes me so happy. Remember my earlier post where I meditated on Amish people and products for a few blessedly uncomplicated moments? It's like six degrees of separation between me and the Amish, which seems like a good thing. Bring on the goat cheese. Thanks, Amish farmers. And thanks, as well, to the Half Moon Bay fishermen who caught the crab. And thanks Don for bringing it home for dinner.

Thing is, I'd never had fresh-caught crab until Don came into my life. Two reasons: (1) When you grow up in a big family, as I did, with a Dad who works on Hollywood movies--crazy, unpredictable work--the cost of fresh crab is prohibitive. Mom would've needed 11 pounds to feed our family of nine kids and two adults; maybe more because my four brothers were always hungry from working on their {American-made Ford Falcon} engine. (2) I grew up in Southern California. Fresh crab wasn't right around the corner. Don grew up--in a small family--in the San Francisco Bay Area about 45 minutes from crab central. While I ate creamed canned tuna on white toast, Don had fresh crab with melted butter, or fresh crab sandwiches on sour dough rolls and or fresh crab salads.

Dungeness crab, for any who may not know, is flaky and sweet and found all along the northwest coast, from the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to Northern California. But Half Moon Bay (an hour or so from San Francisco) has one of the largest concentrations of Dungeness crab, enough to keep approximately 50 commercial boats busy. The boats leave Pillar Point Harbor in Half Moon Bay daily during crab season (late November to June). I decided to give Pillar Point Harbor a call. Mind you, I know zip about harbors or seafood or fishermen. But this Buy-USA project pulls me along. I just go where it takes me. In this case, to a phone conversation with Assistant Harbormaster John Draper.

"This crab season," Mr. Draper told me, "has been the best on record." He sounded so pleased. Made me want to rush out and buy more. Harbormaster Draper also proudly explained that Pillar Point is the last "working fishing harbor between San Francisco and Monterey." Other harbors have fish and crab, but in those places--Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco and Cannery Row in Monterey --the tourism industry trumps the fishing industry. And the crabs caught nearby are better for canning. Pillar Point, by contrast, is all about the crab and fishing industry. I asked how many commercial fishermen typically earn a living out of Pillar Point. "Full-time, during crab season? Oh, let me think. Maybe 50. Part-time, about 50 more."

And then Mr. Draper said something I hadn't heard since beginning this project. Guess who buys fresh crab by the boatloads--millions of dollars worth--each year? And each boat holds about 500,000 pounds of fish. "China," Draper said. "They're our best customer. They love crab." At last. Something China buys from us and can't copy. Yet.

The fish guy at Lunardi's had cracked and washed the crab for Don. I gave it another rinse before dinner, squeezed fresh lemon juice all over it, and dumped it in a ceramic bowl. I made my usual cocktail sauce for crab-dipping: blend 1/2 C Heinz Ketchup + 2 TBS Morehouse (City of Industry, CA) Prepared Horseradish. Salad, fresh crab, and cocktail sauce. Sliced hot bread. Perfect Sunday dinner.

Midway through the salad--maybe the glass of Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay had kicked in--I thought about Dad, put down my fork and sighed. Don's getting good at sensing when I'm missing Dad. He reached for my hand, gave it a squeeze. Funny how after a loved one dies you'll go along and everything's fine and you don't even think about the person being gone. And then you'll do something mundane that reminds you of them. In this case, the simple act of eating a really good salad. Every night of his entire life until about a year ago, when esophogeal cancer made it impossible to swallow, Dad ate a salad. Before arthritis made doing so too difficult, Mom would toss the salad with her oil and vinegar dressing, fresh garlic, and some crumbled blue cheese. Growing up, my siblings and I knew the routine. Salad first, then the main course. If there wasn't a salad…well, that never happened. As Dad would say, "Ya gotta have a salad. Period. End of discussion."

I think Dad would be pleased to hear that all those salads he and all of us ate, whether at home or in restaurants, boosted California's local economy. Twenty years ago, after Don and I and our kids moved to the San Francisco area, Mom and Dad would drive up to visit us. If it was during Dungeness crab season, we'd serve that along with freshly made sourdough bread. "This is great," Dad would say. "Got any more salad?"