Foodish and Bookish Pilgrimages

It’s funny – some vacations start as something simple. Amanda and I hadn’t been on an honest to goodness vacation – one completely unrelated to either of our jobs – in years. In an effort to check some items off our California Bucket List, we planned a whirlwind trip to Yosemite, Napa Valley, and San Francisco. There’s lots to do in all those places. But for me, there were a couple things I needed to see:  I needed to go to City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, and I needed to go to Chez Panisse in Berkeley.

Napa Valley
Napa Valley

There are times when, as a writer, I feel like I have missed a movement:  because of my age and the time I was born, a movement has passed me by. I’ve grown up in a time of processed foods and food industry scandals and shockumentaries and all these diet choices and it becomes SO much. The New Yorker ran a piece last month called “A Foodie Repents”. I had a lot of feelings about the post, but ultimately, for me, the post is about that feeling that, to borrow from Wordsworth, “the world is too much with us” when it comes to food. Reality shows and food blogs and Pinterest and apps and product placement and so, so, so many recipes:  it can become a bit daunting. It is part of the reason I’ve had blogger’s block. What can I possibly add to the conversation? What can I say that’s not already being said by hundreds of other people? What is the point in trying to chase after a movement that feels like it has passed me by?


But, to return to this nice little vacation with my wife, there’s something grounding about traveling. About escape. But mostly about putting your feet on the ground in places rooted in the movement(s) you’re passionate about. Which brings me to Chez Panisse. Alice Waters is, for those who don’t know, the chief reason we have a local food movement. She’s written widely about the importance of local, whole foods that taste exactly like what they are. I obeyed the instructions to leave our phones off the tables and just enjoy the meal. It was simple food, well-prepared. Nothing fussy or fancy. On the bar was a pear tart that was being doled out, slice by slice, to order. There was rustic artisan bread. I thought for a moment that I saw Alice Waters and freaked out a little (it wasn’t her, I decided). My fried chicken came with a sweet puree of root vegetables and perfect collard greens and this meal was so lovely, so nourishing, I had no choice but to go back to my hotel and nap.


When I woke up, Amanda suggested we drive into San Francisco and walk around a bit. I was in a food hangover, wrapped in fatigue like a warm, heavy blanket, but I walked with her, making our way to Ghirardelli Square, and I was glad I hadn’t fought her on it:  seeing it all lit up at night is very different from during the day. We stopped for a simple salad and all the sourdough we could eat.


And the next day, on our real trip into San Francisco, the pilgrimages (what I call these trips that not only offer escapism but also restoration) continued. We started at the Ferry Building, where we had waffles and coffee. The best waffles, with chew and density (secret ingredient:  cornmeal) and just a sprinkling of sugar, ones you held in your hand and dipped in your coffee. The farmers market was going on, and we walked among the stalls, and listened to musicians, and watched people eat. I was homesick for my kitchen, for my markets. But before the day was over, we had to walk pretty much the entirety of San Francisco (slight exaggeration, but my feet felt like it was the whole city) and make our way to City Lights Bookstore.



This blog splits its focus between food and writing, and so I must mention City Lights because it is part of that feeling of trying to hang on to a movement. The Beats are pretty much from a bygone era, but independent bookstores, small affairs with funky floors and close wooden shelves and an entire second floor for poetry just show that this is one movement that (contrary to what “publishing is dead” folks will tell you) is very much alive. I wore my Little Women shirt for the occasion and happily waited for my picture to be taken in front of those windows.

I took no pictures of my food, and I focused on time with my wife, and I soaked up the experience of vast Mother Nature and delicious wine and all that San Francisco had to offer. And it restored me a bit to myself. I still feel, perhaps, that the world is too much with us, that I’ve missed things and I can’t catch up. But at the end of the day, I want what these pilgrimages celebrate:  to write well; to celebrate and cook and eat simple, whole foods, well-prepared, and lovingly served; to shut out the noise and enjoy my work and my books and my food and this community, which I have missed.

9 thoughts on “Foodish and Bookish Pilgrimages

  1. Beautiful piece, Dana! I know what you mean about feeling left behind… (I’m in month 2 as a full time freelance food writer.) But travel gives such incredible perspective. Thanks for this much needed boost of inspiration! Now go and cook and write!! 🙂 xo

    1. Thanks, Marge! That freelance game is hard! I appreciate the kind words – I have renewed energy and the momentum that comes with the holiday season – I’m ready and happy to be back in the swing of things. 🙂

  2. I love this, and you. But you know that. I understand the weight of it all. I do. For us deep-feelers we want things to be in motion all the time, even when we must keep ourselves separate from it, watching from the safe warmth of our desks, couches, windows. Looking. Seeing. Witnessing. But it IS here and we ARE a part of it! It’s all right now. To celebrate and love and eat and rest. What lives we lead. LOVE!

      1. Those waffles…. I told Amanda last night that I wanted her to go get me some of them. But San Francisco is sort of far, so, whatever.

        I’m going to try a copycat recipe I found though. 🙂

  3. Dana- loved this piece. These days I don’t have a lot of time to read everything I want to, but somehow I was led to your post this morning. I grew up in the Bay Area- lived in Berkeley and San Francisco- so Napa Valley, City Lights, and Chez Panisse mean “home” to me. With so much to see and do in that part of the world, you chose well. And next time you’re at the cafe, I’d love to hear more about your trip. Thanks again for sharing- brought me back. Happy Thanksgiving! Stella

    1. Thanks so, so much, Stella, for those kind words! I have to tell you – my wife serves with a lot of people who have been through Norfolk for training in the Navy. There are two girls in the squadron who always bring up Cafe Stella whenever we’re together. We just stand around and gush about how wonderful a place it is and how good the food is. It’s on all of our lists of places to go when we’re back in town. I can’t wait to swing by again and chat with you a bit! 🙂

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