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Debate: The Best Home Chow is in CALIFORNIA

I just ate lunch at home, Pacific Time you see, and I'm convinced: The best home chow is in California. I remember living with sad food on the East Coast and anticipating wildy that first taste of wild strawberries or white peaches or wild baby arugula when I made it over to my friend's apartment in Paris for part of the summer.

But now I don't anticipate. The strawberries here are just as good as in Europe. The white peaches make me moan. I'm drowning in baby arugula. Wild fennel. Zucchini blossoms. And on and on.

I know, I know. This claim raises issues. Local versus Global. Regional differences etc. Farmers markets here and there. Do chains like Whole Foods make such differences obsolete? Will they? (No.)

You may have your favorite singular things, regional things, and you home chow them well enough where you are. But my bet is that in the United States, across the board, the best home chow is in CALIFORNIA. Maybe I shouldn't say this, because then you will all move here.

We know what California restaurants have done for eating in this country. But my home chowing life has been completely transformed since arriving here.

I haven't even gone to Europe in the summer for two years. And don't tell me it is because the flight is longer now, its easier to go there from the East Coast, all that. It's because the best home chow is in California!

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  1. YES! I do agree! I am also a transplant -- to Los Angeles, and some of our most quality foods have been enjoyed at home, especially the wonderful produce available here.

    There are many week nights that we mention going out for dinner, and then we immediately agree that eating home can be just as or even more exciting and delicious. It is often easier, too, because the produce is so good, nothing really needs to be done to it!

    1. I can't say if that is true as I have not been to California much in the last several years.

      But I would like to offer Portland, OR as another contender.

      I have been twice in the last 2 years and the farmers markets there are amazing.

      1. It's true, the berries available in the summer in Portland are truly amazing, and cheap too. However, I wonder what it's like in winter compared to L.A., produce-wise?
        It seems like nothing really tastes quite as good as it did when I lived in Paris 23 years ago, though, but that's probably just nostalgia.
        By the way, Trader Joe's has some really sweet orange-fleshed honeydews at the moment -- worth a try.

        1. "Maybe I shouldn't say this, because then you will all move here."

          I promise you: I will never, ever want to move to California.

          Thankfully with what Minnesota has to offer, I don't feel compelled to move for lack of "home chow".

          4 Replies
          1. re: MSPD

            I'm going to have to back MSPD on this. In all of my years of living in California, I never tasted a strawberry as toe-curlingly sweet as the wild Minnesota strawberry I enjoyed a couple of weeks ago.

            Besides, isn't it cheating to call what grows in California "home chow" if the water you need to grow it is brought in from elsewhere?

            ~TDQ

            1. re: The Dairy Queen

              Well, most of the water comes from Northern California. I agree that the persistent raising of enormous metropolises in the middle of the desert (LA, etc.) is less than brilliant and certainly not responsible. To wit, Phoenix is now experiencing humidity because of all their frickin' golf courses.

            2. re: MSPD

              Ditto. I was offered a very nice job in the LA area and absolutely couldn't imagine living there. I moved to Boston instead and love it here.

              I do envy Californians the long growing season. But farmers markets everywhere have excellent produce. I just picked up some mizuna and red oak-leaf lettuce for dinner. We're having grilled lamb from a farmer we know. We finished the baby arugula two days ago and the romaine is almost gone. Strawberries which we picked ourselves were at their peak about 2 weeks ago so we came home with 20+ pounds. I'm looking forward to tomato season so I can slow-roast a big batch to keep us going through the winter.

              We should all celebrate our favorite, local foods. There's no need to boast about being better than anyone else.

              1. re: MSPD

                No one I know would ever say that I am incapable of cooking fabulous home chow because I can't get good produce. While 'buying farm fresh' is a phrase I can only use during a limited time each year in MN with regards to what I buy, commerce makes it simple for me to enjoy good produce year round. Whether it comes from the market stall at our local farmers markets or from the grocer, it's still from the farm. I can still make wonderful chow. More importantly than where your food comes from is the ability to tell what constitutes the good from the bad. You can find bad quality produce anywhere, from CA to MA and all areas in between. A perfect peach exists not only on the edge of the grove in CA or CO, but in a box in my grocers as well and as long as I know how to spot it, where it comes from or how far it travels is irrelevant.

              2. "We should all celebrate our favorite, local foods." Let's celebrate.

                "There's no need to boast about being better than anyone else." But it's fun to boast!

                I'm sorry, I'm being flip. I do sense a philosophy in your last two sentences, and I would normally agree with it.

                But, debate: California is different. It isn't just a long growing season.
                It's something like ... the extremity of regions and climates and kinds of land like you have in Europe packed closely together? It is ... ?

                1. If you wanted to believe what the media would have us to believe, no one in California cooks! I know this isn't true, and I probably agree that as far as produce, California has more to offer on a year round basis than any where else in the country. But as far as "home chow", I don't think you can say any one place is better than another. There are home cooks in every state in this country that can turn out fabulous meals based on what their local area has to offer. Don't know where you lived on the East Coast but I wouldn't call the local goods where I live "sad" at any time of the year. I think we can all celebrate what our areas have to offer and appreciate what others have to offer. I'd love to try those Minnesota strawberries! I know you wanted a "debate" - debate is good! I just don't agree with your statement :)

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Susan627

                    I have gotten great produce in South New Jersey..it is the garden state! My sis lives there and I have eaten some absolutely chowhoundish home cooked meals there! I do live in Northern CA...but haven't always. We don't have bikini clad women walking around on the beaches here...but we do have some hard-working farmers in the fields here.

                  2. I guess us poor slobs on the east coast just have to get by with our sad foods!!!

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: Hue

                      Yes, I'll stay in MA thanks. Have yet to visit CA, will do so some day maybe.

                      To each their own.

                    2. The history of food is replete with people making incredible processes and recipes in order to make do with short growing seasons and harsh conditions. In fact, I'd go the other way - with apologies to Alice Waters et al, perhaps the bounty of goods in California keeps people from having to be good cooks. Much like the perfect weather and surf creating people with the character of milk, "like it's all good, dude, fer sure", people from Chicago and New England would say that real seasons are necessary to create really seasoned people. Ditto food. What's the creativity involved in picking, washing, and eating a strawberry or a perfect peach? Now - taking some bruised, tasteless fruit and making an edible cobbler or tarte - that's real cooking... ;)

                      Seriously - I miss the Tacoma Boys stand in Tacoma, Washington - where we could get 5 gallon buckets of the largest, freshest peas from the Puyallup valley in April. They would shuck and par boil them - so all we had to do was put them in baggies to freeze (or just eat them)! There's nothing even close in New England. The first local corn doesn't start until mid-late July - until then, it's at least a couple of days old. Cold store and fast jets just cannot make up for fresh. Nitrogen storage of fruits like apples certainly extends the availability over time, but the process can't make things fresh.

                      In this month's Vogue, Jeffrey Steingarten writes up Heston Blumenthal and his restaurant, The Fat Duck, in England - one of only three Michelin 3-star places in England. Heston, who will go to great lengths to use the best ingredients, prefers to use Birds Eye frozen green peas for his world famous pea-and-ham soup, because Birds Eye freezes them so soon after harvest that they retain more of their sugar and color. But I wonder if that has as much to do with being in England than anything else - if he were located near Chez Panisse, he might have a very different view.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: applehome

                        Applehome shoots......and SCORES!! Nice.

                        And think of how fantastic that good, sweet corn tastes when we only get to have it for two months a year.

                        George, no worries. I'll sit gleefully in my kitchen with my sad, wilted greens and sorry, tasteless berries any day of the week than return to California. Never been unhappier in my life. But if YOU need to make yourself feel better about your choices.....by all means, focus on the produce (wink).

                      2. I think the point George is making is that in CA we have fresh fruit and veggies 12 months of the year. Our lettuce is not bitter in January. We always have fresh food, that I did not get in KY, OHIO, or Maryland. And being from Northern CA the water is local. It is other states that take our water. I will admit the green beans and tomatoes from KY in summer are better. Soil is everything. But in the dead of winter, we don't eat canned goods, we have choices of fresh produce.

                        1. I've barely lived outside of California, so I can't speak to other places, but I think this thread has missed one piece of the mix so far. And Alice Waters is important. The Chez Panisse ethic does more than simplify cooking by using local and in-season products (an interesting and valid point.) It also creates a market for foods that were previously becoming impossible to get or were disappearing from our markets. The produce companies in the Bay Area that supply most restaurants have incredible, local sources for tiny crops of heirloom everything because a market exists for those things. And those same products then find their way in to local markets because of demand. It is not just that we have a long growing season. We also have a large population that values great produce grown in season, and we are really willing to pay for it. The success of the Farmers' Market at the Ferry Bulding in San Francisco is evidence of this. I'm not saying that fresh and local produce isn't valued elsewhere, but that small farms dedicated to the growing of specialty or heirloom crops may thrive here more easily than in other areas. This is a pretty recent trend, and I hope it is the future everywhere.

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: monday

                            CSAs have made this a trend in most major cities.

                          2. ....mabe the point here is that California is the easiest place to get the broadest array of fresh and ethnic foods year round? It doesn't automatically follow that California cooks are churning out the best food.

                            We are extremely fortunate that Califonia has been a melting pot since the Gold Rush. Different waves of immigrants have flavored our cuisine. Italians to the Bay Area in the 20's. Swiss Italians and Portuguese to the Central Coast and Central Valley in the late 1800's. Asians to the Bay Area in the mid-1800's, and to the South Bay area in the 70's. Midwesterners in the 30's to the Central Valley. Mexican and Central Americans in the 20's through today.

                            The list goes on, and will continue as new residents continue to change our culinary reference points. I doubt if we will see more concentrated ethnic influx; today it's sadly about wealth as real estate skyrockets. But this wealth will certainly drive the culinary scene.

                            Our local farmer's markets have certainly changed from basic veggies to fancy food products as farmers work to increase their profitability and expand their target markets. Not everone can afford the oyster mushrooms and the fancy cheeses and breads, but the fresh veggie selection is wonderful and affordable.

                            I'm glad I live here and have good produce available year round, but don't see the point in saying California (or anywhere) is best. It may be easiest, but that doesn't make it the chowin'est.

                            1. I'm not sure where I sit in this debate as a California native who has lived here most of my life... It is my sense that it isn't necessarily that the home cooked food that is best in California, although, at least based on my travels and experiences, an argument can be made that California has some of the best variety in available foods and cooking styles...(though I must admit, I just spent some time up in BC Canada, and based on the food and lack of traffic jams I'd move there in a heartbeat if I could! :-))

                              That said, the best strawberries I ever ate in my life were in Western Pennsylvania in season. Ditto for the second best tomato I ever ate in my life (the very best tomato was part of a salad at Chez Panisse about ten years ago....).

                              California does have a lot of variety, year round, but much of that produce is imported from Chile and elsewhere! You have to pick through a lot of tasteless produce, and/or really know your suppliers, to find the good stuff here. It is our size and large economic base that is to be thanked or blamed for this, I think, rather than just our growing season...

                              1. I know I feel grateful to have the range of excellent provisions to start with here in SoCal and, probably as a result, there's a culture of good food that spurs people on to be better cooks. But there's good food everywhere I'm sure and I know I learned to love authentic, well-prepared food a looong time ago from my great aunt in Maine who was a working woman but woke up every morning early enough to make a loaf of bread for dinner. My grandfather (her brother) grew their produce in that short-season climate and as they'd enjoy the baked beans they had every Sunday, they'd compare the results of every planting & baking and select the seeds they'd sow the following year.

                                It's the love and appreciation that create outstanding food and that can happen anywhere.

                                1. I think good food can be had anywhere in America.

                                  1 Reply
                                  1. re: beer786

                                    You apparently have never visited the Mall of America.

                                  2. Is it really so important that California be #1? It's great that you are enjoying your food, but it seems anti-chowish to assume that the rest of the planet pales in comparison...

                                    1 Reply
                                    1. re: butterfly

                                      exactly. i am born and raised in california but i think great food can be found in almost any nook and cranny of this great country

                                    2. Full props to Alice Waters, but it's still ridiculously hard to find good corn (it's almost all su1 or sh2), a ripe canteloupe (even the small organic farms grow new varieties that tip off green), or a great peach (supplanted by low-acid varieties and nectarines).

                                      The best home chow is in Italy.

                                      1. NOrmally, when I have been in California, I've eaten out so I couldn't readily address the quality of home chow. What I found funny when visiting a close friend in the Oakland-Berkeley area for a week where we wanted to make food at home, I found the supermarkets' produce and meat quality was no better (and to some extent worse) than what I have in ordinary Boston-area supermarkets. There are more specialty markets, to be sure, and I knew more about those than my residential friend did because I am a hound and he is not as much of one.

                                        Which is another way of saying that, there may be lots of bounty for folks wanting it, but chances are there are plenty of Californians who are more than happy to rely mostly on ordinary supermarket supplies.

                                        * * *

                                        To my mind, the best home chow is made by folks who've kept age-old home cooking traditions alive, be they on a Mennonite farm in Iowa or a cooperative in Ithaca.... Ingredients are wonderful, but technique is more important. The old ways involve layers of technique that can coax wonderful things from the most ordinary (or even substandard) ingredients. That's more emblematic of the human experience to me that simply eating a ripe peach off the tree (which, btw, is quite easy in August and early September in Massachusetts, where our orchard stock of peaches, pears and apples is superlative if you simply bother to drive 30 miles from downtown Boston).

                                        4 Replies
                                        1. re: Karl S

                                          Not much of the best meat or produce in Berkeley can be purchased in supermarkets. There are occasional exceptions for Berkeley Bowl or Monterey Market. Big chains like Safeway mostly just sell the same crap they do anywhere else.

                                          1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                            Which was my point.... Supermarkets are far more indicative of home chow than specialty markets. As a denizen of both, I know not assume that the latter are indicative of what everyone is eating.

                                            1. re: Karl S

                                              Berkeley Bowl isn't a specialty market: it's the the most popular supermarket in town. The building used to be a Safeway, which folded because people would shop down the street at the original, smaller Berkeley Bowl. The expanded store's so successful the owners are planning a second branch.

                                              1. re: Robert Lauriston

                                                Just because you can buy TP and Trix and Berkeley Bowl doesn't mean it's not a specialty market. The original didn't carry supermarket items like those, and the majority of people who braved the crowds and horrid parking situation (like my family, who lives nearby) to shop there never, ever shopped at that horrid, grotty Safeway, whose customers could not fulfill all their needs at BB (there were a number of [socio]economic factors in Safeway's closing, not all down to BB). The new, larger location is a full-service supermarket mostly because it was a requirement for their opening there (the city holds the lease and wanted the large geographical area that lost regular access to a supermarket to get it back). Is it still a specialty store? I think so, in the sense that it provides goods sometimes not easily found elsewhere, has butcher and fish counters, specialty produce, natural and ethnic foods, etc., and people do go our of their way (sometimes far out of their way) to go there. Some may feel it's a supermarket like Whole Foods is a supermarket, but with lower prices and lack of pretension.

                                                As for the larger issue, I agree with Karl both that the best home food lies not just in the ingredients but in what you do with them, and that if you're not seeking out the best ingredients that whatever corner you're in has, it doesn't matter. I'm a native Californian, and I spent 10 of the last 11 years in New York. I was often heard to say that what I missed most about CA was the fresh produce - both the longer growing seasons and having access to things grown 100 miles away, not thousands. And while I didn't buy woody CA strawberries, but savored the month-long strawberry season, I also don't expect to be able to eat everything all the time now that I'm back in CA. I love that I can buy delicious strawberries for more than four weeks out of the year, but I still only expect to buy what's in season (but yes, those seasons are longer due to the climate, and I'm eating way more local produce).

                                        2. I love living in beautiful SoCal & think we do have the best & most varieties of food available year round anywhere, but in general, it's amazing what all we can get almost any place in this country - especially compared to 10 or more years ago. I have lived & travelled all over the world & can't think of a place, although their local cuisine may be excellent (& argueably better than ours), that offers the International variety that we have access to here. Now, if we could only get good French unpasteurized cheeses, super fresh real Italian buratta, real German brötchen & jamon iberico, life would be perfect!!

                                          1 Reply
                                          1. re: torta basilica

                                            "Now, if we could only get good French unpasteurized cheeses, super fresh real Italian buratta, real German brötchen & jamon iberico, life would be perfect!! "

                                            Or we could simply adapt to make our own with our own ingredients, we might be even happier. That is happening, as demand inspires supply. For example, culatello now being made in Seattle according to the traditional method. Will they replicate the foods in the place of origin? No, but even those vary over time, too; nothing is stagnant except our memories of them.

                                          2. I suppose one way of looking at it, taking the Alice Waters idea, it to look at the variety of high quality produce year-round. When I lived in Boston, the seasonal-style restaurants served an awful lot of root vegetables in the winter. The equivalent type of restaurant here in L.A. has a much greater variety of produce.

                                            I'm a fan of California produce in that the fresh local stuff is good enough in January to keep me from buying something flown in from Chile or New Zealand. That was very much not the case in Boston.

                                            I wouldn't say Cali has the best home chow necessarily, but I would put it tops for year-round produce.