About 15 years ago when I was living in Philo, working as a pastry chef in Mendocino and baking pastry to sell at a few county farmers’ markets, I started thinking about what I wanted to be when I grew up. More than that, I started thinking about how I wanted to spend the best hours of the most productive years of my life. I knew I would make food, and I knew that I wanted to use local ingredients because knowing where my food comes from has always been important to me. I figured that I had worked for enough other people at enough of their restaurants and now I wanted to try working for myself. And commuting 45 minutes each way into a different town was not the reason I had moved to Anderson Valley. Darius and I spent about six months writing a business plan. We wanted to create a place that would feel welcoming to both locals and tourists, a place where someone could spend a morning or afternoon sitting and reading a good book over a great cup of coffee, a place where local farmers could bring their produce left over from the farmers’ market and know it would get the star treatment it deserved. After much writing and drawing, a little graphing, and a touch of soul searching the idea of the Boonville General Store was born.
I've always been at home in a kitchen. My childhood took place in my family's kitchen watching my mom who is a fantastic cook. I grew up eating oxtail stew and real baked macaroni and cheese. I learned that at parties the best fun always takes place in the kitchen and when Darius and I moved to San Francisco our perfect cheap date would involve a really good cup of coffee and an entire afternoon sitting on the floor of Green Apple Books going through their cookbook selection. My first real job in San Francisco was in the production kitchen at the Real Food Company on Polk Street making food for local delis. I became the pastry chef because I knew how to use the sheeter, which rolled out perfect sheets of pastry dough, which I baked into all sorts of quiches and hand pies. A year later, when my grandma passed away and left me a little money, I decided I had teased myself with enough books and I quit my job to spend a year at Tante Marie's Cooking School, maybe the most fun I've ever had for a complete year. I became a teaching assistant at Tante Marie’s, got a great part time job at Zuni Café, and a fulltime externship at Chez Panisse. There were Farmers’ Markets almost every day, and I had an opportunity to get to know people in every facet of food production — from the man who massages his hanging persimmons to make hoshigaki to a full time food forager who would track down backyard gooseberries in season for high-end restaurants. The food scene in San Francisco in the nineties was pretty fantastic and despite (or maybe because of) the rock-stardom of it we tried to keep our eyes on our goal of moving north and finding a little plot of land where we would try our best to feed ourselves.
For as long as I've known him, for the past twenty-some-odd years, Darius has always been growing food. When we lived in our first apartment together in Santa Monica, he used a pick axe to dig a few holes in the rock-hard median and planted squash. When we moved to San Francisco and he became a collective owner of a little natural food store called Other Avenues, he terraced the hill underneath our deck and teased a few tomatoes and anemic melons out of the sandy soil of the former cemetery, which our rental was built upon. The dirt was as much in his bloodline as food was in mine. His father was quite a gardener, and not a bad cook either. As a true Southerner he taught me how to cook grits and fried green tomatoes even though his wife scolded him for picking them before they were ripe.
Wanting a place to really plant our roots, we decided to take the advice of the seemingly random people who suggested that we check out this little town of Boonville. I secured a job at the Boonville Hotel and we rented the only house available in the valley at the time, which was not owned by the Moonies. The job at the Hotel only lasted couple of months, so I found work at the Stanford Inn in Mendocino, which was trying to get their new restaurant, the Ravens, off the ground. Darius found work at Boont Berry Farm and we both started baking pastry for several county farmers’ markets as Blue Box Baking. Darius started gardening immediately, we tended the sheep on our property that belonged to our landlady, and (much to her delight) started planting trees that Darius had grafted. We both deepened our ties the to this community; Darius became a Boonville Farmers’ Market Manager and then the vice president of the Mendocino County Farmers’ Market Association, and I volunteered for the Anderson Valley Ambulance as a driver and EMT. We fell in love with this place and started developing a business plan. We planted magic. But without a location, there would be no Boonville General Store. Then some customers of ours from the Farmers’ Market bought the property right across from the Boonville Hotel and asked us if we knew anyone who might be interested in leasing rare commercial space in Boonville.
Twelve years ago, when we opened the Boonville General Store, we were more general that we are now. We had what we called our mercantile, roughly half of the front floor space was dedicated to “durable goods for everyday living,” quality American or European made kitchen tools which I used and loved, garden tools which Darius had a hard time finding outside of San Francisco, and a few wood toys and organic clothing for kids and babies. When Bella was born eight years ago, we decided to streamline and expand our inside seating.
We had always been dedicated to local, seasonal and organic food. But promoting it was not, however, always appreciated. Our first sandwich board outside had the phrase “organic coffee drinks” three lines down. One day a restaurateur from Healdsburg criticized the use of the word organic on the sign. He told me he hadn't wanted to come in for lunch because he was afraid the food was going to be “all brown rice and macrobiotic,” but his wife had made him. He was very pleased that he had, he loved his lunch, but he cautioned me about the use of the word “organic” on the menu. I asked him if he would have found it easier to come in if I had put “Organic Bacon” on the sign, instead. Twelve years ago was a while before the proliferation of Whole Foods, the mentioning of Organic Foods by Martha Stewart and Oprah, and the introduction of organic products into Walmart. This country's food culture has come a long way.
When we first opened, Els Cooperider suggested that we become a certified organic restaurant. Although we do buy organics almost exclusively, we wanted to be able to provide produce from our own farm and maintain ties to small local farms that were not certified. Certification costs money, and although there are farms locally which are certified, there are many more which are not but which use only organic practices. And then there is the idea of farming to the letter of the certification, and still being a factory farm, just one that doesn't use chemical fertilizers or pesticides. Many of our local small farms put back so much more fertility into the soil than they take out, they go way beyond organic, all because it's the right thing to do if you are a steward of your land, not because someone is holding you to a set of standards. The more food Darius coaxes out of our little homestead, the more completely we understand this. We have come to understand the true cost of producing food, the true cost of each tomato and head of lettuce. Sometimes organic alone just isn't good enough.
I spend a large amount of time researching food and where it comes from. When I can't get my produce needs met from within the county, which is most of the time due to the volume of food we go through, I rely heavily upon Veritable Vegetable. They have always supplied me with some fantastic produce from some remarkable farms, and they know where the farms are located and when the produce was picked, and if there were any unusual weather conditions that might affect a specific batch of strawberries. I now have a deep relationship with certain farms from other areas in Northern California, thanks to Veritable Vegetable. And generally speaking, I won't buy produce that is better traveled than I am. I continually have to apologize to people that they will not have tomatoes on their sandwich in February, even though I could buy an organic tomato in February. Even if it tasted like a tomato, I've never been to Chile. And then there's the dairy and the meats and the grains. Regional organic milk is easy, so are the eggs. I research all the cheese we use on our sandwiches, and I know what the regulations are for dairy cows. I will not buy cheese, dairy or any meats that come from animals that have been given growth hormones or antibiotics. Growth hormones are not needed and neither are antibiotics if an animal is eating the diet it should be eating. I know where the pigs live before I get them in the form of sausage and ham. I know where the mill is that grinds the flour we use for our bread. I really care about this stuff. It's important. It's how my business can vote with each dollar I spend.
And then there is our fantastic staff. I act as our head hunter. We have two full time employees who have been working for us since before Bella was born. Both Elena and Laura have a true passion for food that cannot be taught. I knew that Elena was my soul-sister when I watched her put créme fraîche on a freshly baked chicken pot pie for her own lunch right after she started working with me. (It still makes my mouth water…) And I am truly amazed at Laura's natural ability with dough, everything from masa to our beloved sourdough, her hands just understand on their own. Our front counter folks are either currently high school students working for the summer and on weekends, or they have been working for us since they were. Ale is attentive and creative and is the one who always makes the cheeses in the deli case look so appealing. Delia has only been working for us for the last two months and has already shown that she is not only quick and charming, but she makes a great sandwich. Our current high school students, Heather and Esmeralda round out the roster. Both of them are very active in sports and other extra curricular activities and we do what we can to work around their schedules. Having such an effective team makes for a successful business. We cross train people whenever we can, and everyone is willing to help out when it's needed. We employ people from our community. They raise their families here and they work incredibly hard in order to do so. I have watched their kids grow up. They are watching Bella grow up. That is community.
This community that Darius and I fell in love with 16 years ago still holds our hearts. I can't imagine raising Bella anywhere else. People here know her and where and to whom she belongs. There is a freedom that comes with that. We have never been particularly conventional, and this community doesn't discriminate for unconventionality. If there is a slower, more difficult way of doing something, preferably by hand, we'll probably find it. We like doing things ourselves. We grow and raise as much of our own food as we can. We raise chickens for both eggs and meat, a couple pigs, and most of the produce we can eat in a year. We preserve all the olives, pickles, jarred tomatoes, fruit jams, syrups, and marinated veggies we can eat, with some extra for those on the very top of our holiday list. We're on our way to producing all the honey we use and we trade with friends who have jersey cows for fresh milk. Our grains, legumes and flours are grown locally and milled on a stone wheel. Soon we'll have enough goat milk to make some fresh and aged cheeses. It's a lot of work, but we appreciate the value of good food, and Bella knows where her food comes from. More than once I've found her out in the garden, eating Lacinato kale right off the plant, without taking the time to pick it first.
I appreciate it when people make food by hand. Even small quantities. Whatever it takes, I think everyone should make food. In fact, I think that making and growing food are two of the most overlooked revolutionary acts. Take back our food system. Start by baking your own bread. It's quite empowering. At my home, most of our meals come from our own hands. The time it takes to raise a chick into a pullet, kill it as gently as possible, pluck it by hand, and prepare it for roasting with the sweetest Wala-wala onions imaginable, our blue-ribbon garlic, fresh herbs picked as they're needed and fingerling potatoes dug and scrubbed and placed directly in the pan, you can taste it all. That feeling of pure bliss, at oneness with the world, which emanates from your fourth chakra, that's what we experience at dinner with a roasted chicken. You see, I really like food. ¥¥
(In two weeks Connecting with Local Food will feature Blue Meadow Farm. Previous local food articles can be found on www.mendocinolocalfood.org.)
Julie Liebenbaum, daughter Bella, and Maria Elena Mendoza. (Photo by Darius Richmond.)