A spoon with a hearty piece of a meatball dangled between the two tables.
“You’ve got to try it,” the man and woman at the other table urged me.
I gently protested to no avail. I glanced over at my boyfriend, his head deliberately buried in the bill. And so, with a full stomach and the taste of chili oil still on my tongue from my pizza, I found myself reaching out to accept the spoon. Next thing I knew, three sets of eyes were eagerly watching the spoon move toward my mouth.
No pressure or anything.
I took a bite.
The meatball was as soft on the outside as it was on the inside. It had been sitting in a bowl on this couple’s table for at least 20 minutes, soaking up the red sauce on its plate, and yet it didn’t taste soggy.
If we’d had bigger stomachs that night, this meatball appetizer would certainly have been a hearty addition to our own table.
“Well?!” the man asked me.
“It’s really good,” I said, thanking them for sharing the plate while suddenly thinking of all the people I’d seen wearing flu-preventive masks while on vacation in California. For the record, I’m quite healthy a full week later and still thinking about that delicious meatball.
Through small talk and, admittedly, a bit of eavesdropping, I had discovered during the course of the meal that the couple had also attended the Rancho Mirage Writers Festival earlier in the week.
“You remember the chef talking about her meatballs at the Writers Fest, right?” the woman asked me.
How could I forget?
In true fashion, I wrote down a bullet point list of all the specialties that chef and restauranteur Tara Lazar rattled off at a food writing panel. I’d insisted for three straight days that we visit Birba in Palm Springs, one of the chef’s restaurants, for the sake of this blog.
And so, maybe it was the vodka cocktail I was sipping that compelled me to take a spoonful of food from strangers, or maybe it was my desire not to offend our gracious new friends, but I’m almost certain it was a piece of advice that writer Tom Parker Bowles gave me: eat lots.
And how could you not take fantastic advice like that?
On the surface, the panel I attended at the Rancho Mirage Writers Fest was led by a trio of vastly different people: A British food writer, a foodie whose path included time in Nashville, California and the United Kingdom, and a chef in Palm Springs. They all converged on the writers festival with a passion for food.
Lazar, like Parker Bowles, believes in the strength of local produce and healthy farming techniques.
“We make food that we want to eat and we go elsewhere to get inspired and bring it back,” Lazar explains at the festival. “One of the things that was sorely missing from the desert was buying local. You know, we’re in a massive agricultural belt. I don’t know if the audience knows, but we export some of Japan’s finest eggplants and grapes and they come from this desert.”
I hear a few people murmuring in surprise in the crowd (I’m probably one of them, come to think of it) and make a note to look up the number of agricultural exports California makes to Japan. Sure enough, a California state assembly report from 2015 says exports to Japan were valued at $165 billion in 2015 and represented 11% of total U.S. imports. California exported $1B in agriculture.
Lazar says it shocked her to learn how much produce was being trucked out of the desert on a daily basis. But that discovery inspired her to establish a restaurant group with a focus on local produce. Of course, buying local isn’t always easy. It requires a willingness to innovate frequently and adjust the menu to match what’s in season.
The discussion about seasonal produce quickly segues into a conversation about how impatience for food has led to junky options.
“What’s to be done?” Moderator/foodie Elizabeth Sorensen asks Parker Bowles and Lazar.
“It’s a very difficult question,” Parker Bowles admits. “You look at traditional food cultures… but as we speak, as the 21st century rolls on, it’s been eroding these classic food cultures. As fast food comes, children aren’t as interested in staying in the kitchen and cooking these elaborate dishes – they want instant gratification.”
For Parker Bowles, that problem of instant gratification translates beyond the rise of fast food restaurants. As an example, he mentions hearing from people who want to be famous like Gordon Ramsay.
“What they don’t understand is that Ramsay worked his ass off for years,” Parker Bowles stresses. “It’s not sexy at all.”
“It’s a sad subject,” Lazar says. “I’m hoping that as we get more savvy about nutrition and more in tune with what makes us feel good, I’m very optimistic that we’ll start actually prizing maybe a more expensive cheese or a grassfed cow, or are willing to pay the higher price tag. Obviously, it’s a luxury, and unfortunately it’s so socioeconomic, but if you could teach children or our youth simple things, like – and I do this in nutrition programs – can we drink water when we’re thirsty? It’s something so simple.”
Whether you’re talking about good food or junk food, the panel makes one thing abundantly clear: food is a shared experience.
“You can see the history on your plate,” Parker Bowles says. “You can see the culinary footprints through what you eat.”