I’m in Orange County, California. That simple statement elicits reactions. Ok any simple statement will elicit some kind of reaction; even indifference has its facial tics. But when you’re the subject of television soap operas and you are populated by the crème de la crème of affluent trailer trash, you tend to repel the type of person who conspicuously consumes less, bemoans the tyranny of the automobile and suffers from genocide fatigue. Poor little rich county.
It’s early March and since December I have sloughed off the foul weather and family responsibilities of New England – wasn’t California settled by just such hardy slackers as myself? I’m here in Costa Mesa, sun-baked little biddy of a city and I’m loving it, all of it – the 50 mile per hour, six lane surface roads, the endless strip malls, the walled residential enclaves, the general stupor of easy living. I have such teary gratitude for this place that one might assume I had been chased by Cossacks to it’s borders; that I had escaped the squalor of my over-populated village or a famine that has ruined my taste for potatoes. But nope, it was just declining temperatures and a few snow flurries that made me run like hell for the exit.
I’ve been coming to this part of The OC since I was 6 to see the relatives and I’ve seen some degree of change here. The strawberry fields that surrounded their neighborhood have long gone but agriculture persisted and does so still in city-block patches of fields circumscribed by busy roads, often with signs – like the red lights of Amsterdam – exclaiming their availability.
In my youth I was often scornful of this place and actively sought out the oases, the more thoughtful, soulful places that acted as tonic to the constant chatter of real estate, religion and sex. The Noguchi Sculpture Garden in Costa Mesa remains one such place and I embraced the village of San Juan Capistrano, which wore its long-time status as tourist town lightly, even participating in an archaeological dig of a Native American site near downtown.
Here though the change from thirty years ago has been disheartening and all too familiar to any long-time California resident: the disappearance of dusty fields and orange groves that perfumed the nearby residential and retail areas. I’m witness to the de-oranging of Orange County. Now I know the heartbreak of middle age – outliving vanished charm.
In San Juan Capistrano we bought some local produce at a farmer’s market; the strawberries were fat and looked delectable. Yet they were as bland and reliably mediocre as any you could find in the supermarket back in New England. What does it mean to eat local when large-scale industrial farming has been the local norm for decades?