Under the California Sun: Farm To Table With My Caro Cugino (Dear Cousin)

Yesterday was a great day.

It was Sunday, and I found myself in the Santa Cruz area for the weekend.  Santa Cruz happens to be one of my favorite places these days.

When I’m down there, occasionally I like to visit my cousin Mike who lives in Corralitos with his wife Ursula and daughter Mia (they have other kids, but they are now young adults scattered elsewhere living their lives).  Corralitos is a charming hamlet about 15 miles east of Santa Cruz.  It is reminiscent of the rolling hills of Tuscany and other bucolic regions of Northern Italy, both in geography and climate.

I think I know why my cousin moved there a few years ago.  It is peaceful and quiet, with hills and fields.  It’s a place where a lot of things grow and thrive and coyotes howl in the night.

With Ursula and Mia off enjoying themselves in the Pacific Northwest for the week, Mike and I had some quality “cousin time.”

Mike’s mother, my Aunt Mary, was my father Al’s sister.  Brother and sister passed ten weeks apart back in 2009.

My Aunt Mary and my father, Al Imperial
My Aunt Mary and my father, Al Imperial

On that side, we are Italian.

I am a lucky gal to call Mike my cousin.  While he was Mary’s only child, he was very much the oldest sibling to my brothers Rob and Pete, as well as to me.  Mike is super smart and super funny.  As kids, he often played the role of mastermind and prankster.

He also has a fantastic memory.

Which came in very handy yesterday during our visit.  You see, Mike and I – along with my brothers, my parents, and his mom – had the privilege of gathering for Sunday family dinners in our youth – which spanned the ’60s and very early ’70s – at our Nonni and Nonno’s (grandparents’) apartment at 4th and Lake Streets in the Richmond District of San Francisco, a stone’s throw from the Presidio.  I have wonderful recollections of these Sundays that become more poignant and treasured as years pass, but Mike’s memories – because he is seven years older and was raised in closer and more constant proximity to Nonni and Nonno – are much clearer and far more abundant than mine.

My nonni, Rita Imperial
My nonni, Rita Imperial

So going in yesterday, I knew I wanted to pick his brain.

When I landed at Mike’s place yesterday morning, his delightful Corgi Teddy ran out to greet me on his fast little legs.

My cousin Mike's very expressive corgi, Teddy
My cousin Mike’s very expressive corgi, Teddy

This was going to be a day of good food and good memories.  The two being – for Mike and me – inextricably intertwined.

And – lest I forget – un po’ di vino (a bit of wine).

Our visit began with Graffeo coffee and wonderful granola with blueberries, over which Mike and I conversed about food and nutrition absorption, something we are both keenly interested in these days.  In particular, we talked about good sources of iron.  I had no idea that clams and unhulled sesame seeds were excellent sources of iron. Nor had I any clue that for optimum iron absorption, one should consume Vitamin C when consuming vegetable sources of iron, like the sesame seeds.

But Mike knew.

Mike and I exchange information and learn from each other.  I truly believe our common passion for health and diet is fueled as much by our shared experiences of good food and family gatherings in our youth as it is from contemporary information and conventional wisdom.

Mike was in his element.  After the granola, he blended delicious turmeric smoothies which featured orange slices – rind and all – avocado for creaminess, and a spoonful of honey.  While we sipped our smoothies, I asked him where the food came from that adorned our grandparents’ dining room table all those long-ago Sundays.

Nonno (Battista) and Nonni (Rita) owned an apartment building at 4th and Lake.  They occupied one unit and rented out the other three.  Nonno had a backyard “farm” in which he grew beets, carrots, tomatoes, green onions, parsley, and several varieties of lettuce.

Battista and Rita Imperial
Battista and Rita Imperial

As Mike spoke, a clear memory of neat, straight rows of lettuce suddenly sprang into my head.

“Farm to Table” wasn’t a meme then.

It was a way of life for many immigrants, both urban and rural.

My grandfather also cured his own salamis (for two years’ duration) as well as cheeses in cold lockers (think a cupboard with chicken wire in the doors instead of glass) downstairs in the basement.  And while he did not grow his own grapes, he made his own wine with a wine press, also in the basement.  Mike remembers his wine being a bit bitter, so my grandmother added sugar to it.  Nonno also kept olive oil in the cold lockers and grated his own parmesan cheese which would fall into the drawer of a massive wooden hand-cranked apparatus of which I have both a distinct visual and olfactory memory.  Mike also revealed that my grandparents would take trips down to Half Moon Bay with their Italian friends and forage for mushrooms.

My grandfather even made his own apple sauce.  And, interestingly enough, he was the cook.

Nonni’s specialty was desserts and sweets.  She made things like flan and bugia.  Bugia were a kind of puff pastry cookie dusted with powdered sugar.

All of Nonno’s bounty made it to the Sunday dining room table.

We usually sat down to eat sometime between 12:00 noon and 1:00pm.  Nonno started preparing for and cooking our meal at 7:00am.  We usually arrived between 11:00am and noon (after church).  Italian was exclusively spoken in the kitchen, which at the time I didn’t understand. Thus, the seeds were planted for my extensive study of Italian as a college student at UC Berkeley.

The first course was comprised of the cured meats and cheeses: salami, mortadella, and prosciutto, as well as the cheeses.  I also remember antipasto (which I believe literally translates to “before the pasta,” which was definitely the case at our table) comprised of pickled cauliflower, carrots, several kinds of olives, pimento and even tuna.  I remember two small bowls of anchovies, one at each end of the table.

I kept my distance from those.

The second course was, of course, the salad, which the cured meats and cheeses complemented nicely.  Nonno’s home-grown greens and tomatoes were mixed with an oil and vinegar dressing which also featured home-grown green onions and garlic.  His beets were available in separate bowls for individual taste.

The third course was the pasta course, which featured one of several possibilities: risotto a la Milanese (arborio rice with saffron), gnocchi (homemade potato dumplings) in a garlic-onion butter sauce that was to die for, or spaghetti pasta with a marinara sauce that was so impeccably good that it was considered a true accomplishment whenever my dad or mom tried – and succeeded – in duplicating it in our house.

The risotto was a family favorite.  My brother Pete was a fairly picky eater as a kid, and it was one of the few things at our dinners that he would eat.  And, boy, did he eat it.  One time Nonno brought the platter of risotto to the table, disappeared back into the kitchen for a few minutes of further meal prep, only to return to an empty platter.

Full disclosure, it wasn’t all Pete’s fault.

But wait.  There’s more.

The main (fourth course) consisted of roast chicken or roast beef with roasted potatoes that strongly hinted of rosemary and garlic.  They, too, were legendary.  This course also occasionally featured polenta (corn polenta was yellow, buckwheat polenta was gray) with sausage.

After the main meal, we’d all gather in the living room and talk, usually with the hum of a Sunday football game emanating from the TV in the background.

After a spell of talking and digestion, we’d return to the table for coffee and dessert.  And there were always several choices available.  There might be Nonni’s bugia or flan, apple pie, and for special occasions, a St. Honore cake from Stella Bakery or Victoria Pastry.

If memory serves me, there were a lot of special occasions.

After dessert, I got to tag along with all the guys on a late afternoon walk down to Mountain Lake Park down Lake Street while the women washed the dishes (good thing I was little).  Mountain Lake Park had a playground I could enjoy, but what I really found fascinating was watching a huge group of men playing cards in small groups, seated at long tables in an open-air clubhouse.  About half of them were Italian, and the rest were everything else, lol.  I remember lots of cigar smoke emanating from that clubhouse.

It was a joy to recall and remember these special times with my Caro Cugino.

After enjoying our smoothies and reminiscing, Mike and I ventured into his own garden that featured cherry tomatoes, Marzano tomatoes, and green peppers.  We picked some of the cherry tomatoes for the salad he was preparing for our next course.  We returned to the kitchen where he combined home-grown as well as organic store-bought ingredients for a delicious salad, which featured beets, pumpkin seeds, and shrimp.

Home-grown farm to table green pepper
Home-grown green pepper


Home-grown farm to table Santa Cruz cherry tomatoes
Home-grown cherry tomatoes


Farm to table lunch salad prepared by Mike
Our farm to table lunch salad prepared by Mike

Over salad, we reflected on how lucky we were to have experienced those family gatherings in our youth in our native San Francisco.  Our direct connection to our Italian heritage via our grandparents laid a healthy social, emotional, and physical foundation for us.  These gatherings would continue in our own homes for years after Nonni and Nonno passed away.

But they weren’t quite the same.

After enjoying our salad, we returned to Mike’s kitchen where he made preparations for our main lunch course – risotto – while I went out to play with Teddy on the front lawn, throwing tennis ball after tennis ball for him to retrieve.

The risotto was wonderful, flavored with vegetable stock and pecorino cheese.

Mike's risotto
Mike’s risotto

After lunch Mike gave me a tour of his young fruit trees:  peach, apricot, and apple.  He harvested a few peaches for my return home, which are now finishing their ripening in my fruit bowl.

For dessert, Mike whipped up (literally) a peach sorbet with frozen home-grown peaches, cinnamon, and a bit of honey.  A perfect summer confection.

Cousin Mike harvesting young peaches in Santa Cruz
Cousin Mike harvesting young peaches


Mike's peach sorbet
Mike’s peach sorbet


Fresh mint from cousin Mike's garden
Fresh mint from cousin Mike’s garden

There truly is something deeply salubrious and medicinal about sharing home-grown, homemade food with friends and loved ones.  It’s an alchemical experience combining ingredients from every part of the spectrum we call life: the food, the laughter, the sharing, the connection, the people.

And the love.

As I headed back up the coast after our day spent together, I was filled with gratitude.  Blessed with my heritage, my health, my family, my life that I aspire to live well.

La dolce vita.

Grazie mille, Caro Cugino.



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