By Bill Buchanan
As I write this I have just returned from a cookout with a few hundred friends, known locally as “Taste of Ojai.” This was my first time at the event —- it will not be my last. The “Taste of Ojai” offers a great opportunity to sample local food, beer and wine while you enjoy the splendor of our town framed by the beauty of the 10th green at the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa. An added benefit is that since it is sponsored by the Rotary Club of Ojai, the proceeds of the event go to fund service projects here in the community. Everyone benefits.
It was a lovely day. My congratulations go to the food and beverage vendors who provided outstanding eats and drinks, to the Rotary Club for managing a complicated event and running it so smoothly, and to the Ojai Valley Inn & Spa for their usual great job of event hosting.
It is no secret that Ojai has great food. Local restaurants and some of their signature dishes, as well as locally produced wines will be featured in the upcoming edition of the Ojai Valley Visitors Guide. The fall edition of the Visitors Guide should be available by the time you read this.
It is easy enough for anyone who has seen me to know that I love to eat. I have great admiration for fine cooks —- those who can take the same ingredients that are available to me and create something wonderful while most things I make tend to taste like burning hair.
I was not always such a pitiful cook as I am now. While no one would ever mistake me for Julia Child in the kitchen (I believe she was taller), at one time, I did know how to make a few dishes. Well, OK, about five. And there were actually a couple of things I cooked that weren’t bad. I made very good scrambled eggs as well as great fried chicken. The fried chicken would certainly not be considered a big deal as cooking good fried chicken is pretty much in your DNA if you are a Southerner. In fact, in the South, the general rule is that if it doesn’t move quickly, it gets fried.
The unenviable job of teaching me to cook fell to my maiden aunt, who had lived with my family as far back as I can recall. Actually, she volunteered for the duty, much as a brave soldier would volunteer for a suicide mission in times of war. So, one day years ago, Aunt Inus pulled me aside and said that since I would be going off to college soon and would be living in an apartment, I needed to know how to make a few simple dishes. In her perfect teacher-script (which was still lovely and legible well into her 80s), she proceeded to hand-write recipes outlining how to fry chicken and how to cook a roast and how to make other dishes she thought even I could handle. Today, it might be called something like “Cooking for Dummies 1.0.” Under her watchful supervision, I would make a different dish each day. At the end of the week, no one in the family had died while eating my cooking. The project was declared a success.
Throughout college and my work-bachelor years, I probably ate out a lot more than I cooked in. But from time to time I would make the recipes Aunt Inus had taught me. This usually worked out OK, but there were some notable exceptions. Once when I was living in a lousy little trailer in Missouri where I worked, I was cooking my never-to-be-famous fried chicken. The chicken was frying up nicely, turning a lovely golden brown. My mouth started watering like Pavlov’s dog. Just as the chicken was ready to be taken off the heat, a moth the size of something out of an old Japanese movie flew through one of the giant holes in my window screen, and executed a perfect three-point landing in the middle of my skillet.
It had been a very long and busy day. In fact, it had been so busy I skipped lunch that day. As I watched the moth sizzle in the frying pan, strange thoughts suddenly ran across my mind. I thought about scooping up the moth, throwing him out, and eating my chicken. Who would know? I even thought about how good the moth looked once he crisped up some. I began thinking, “You know, a little salt, a little pepper, maybe some Worcestershire sauce …” but I wound up tossing the whole pan of food out the door for the neighbor’s dogs to enjoy.
My limited cooking ability served me until I got married. Ava is an outstanding cook and does not tolerate my bumbling around in the kitchen. I am out of practice, and have forgotten how to cook four of the five things I ever learned to make. Now that I am a “bachelor” again while in Ojai, the challenge is not to whip up culinary masterpieces, but to prepare a few things without burning down the apartment or getting salmonella. Actually, salmonella would probably be an improvement over some things that come out of my kitchen. I guess practice makes perfect — that is if it doesn’t kill you first.
Back on the subject of “Taste of Ojai,” we are blessed with a lot of quality of life elements here. I have lived in many small towns, and most are no bargain. A few of them were nice, some were tolerable, and some of them were terrible. There was never any place like this. I would rather be in jail in Ojai than be the mayor of some of the places I have lived. We all take the town in which we live for granted. We rave about how great things are in other places, especially when we travel vast distances to “discover” this restaurant, or that hotel or a special shop. We sometimes downplay or fail to appreciate how good something is if it is local, even when it is just as good or perhaps even better than the things we travel to experience. I guess some of that is due to the effort we expend in the pursuit itself. Food, wine, shopping and lodging may seem better to us if we have to go farther or work harder for it — even if it is no better than what we have in our own back yard.
Ojai has many excellent restaurants, some fine locally produced wines, great shops and world-class lodging (for friends and family to stay when they are in town).
We can choose to take them for granted and ignore them, or we can frequent them and enjoy ourselves while supporting the local economy. Which makes more sense?