Real Eaters of San Luis Obispo County
Call it voyeurism or good old-fashioned nosiness: I love exploring how other people really eat. Sure, I enjoy borrowing their healthy meal and snack ideas, but I also delight in discovering their cravings for potato chips and Ben & Jerry’s. That’s how I know: Yup, they’re human, just like me.
Photographer Jen Olson and I set out to profile the average eating habits of several people in SLO County and discovered they eat pretty cleanly most of the time. The rest of the time? Yup, they’re human, just like us.
Bun in the Oven
When she became pregnant with her first child, Paula McGrath of Edna Valley posted a message on Facebook: “Where I can get fried pickles?” Four months later, Paula continues to watch her cravings evolve, waking up for a glass of whole milk in the middle of most nights and eating an egg almost every morning—two foods she’d given up years ago.
Paula and her husband, Patrick, are both vegetarian, employed in public service and self-declared homebodies who plan home-cooked meals according to the seasons. “Warm weather sees a lot of sushi and salads, cold weather sees rich, spicy Thai and Indian and wet weather sees primarily grilled cheese and tomato soup or ramen ... There’s never a meal that doesn’t have a vegetable or two tucked into it.” As for items always in their fridge, Paula lists kefir, cottage cheese, whole milk, almond milk and Kerrygold butter.
When duty calls at San Luis Obispo’s Fire Station #2, the three firefighters working a 48- hour shift are often in the middle of cooking a meal together. “We get really good at eating cold food,” jokes firefighter Alec Flatos. Shifts come every four days, and, as firefighter Mike Harris says, “A lot can happen in those four days. Meals are important catch-up time.” Captain Dave Marshall agrees. “Cooking is one way we show appreciation for each other. For 48 hours, we’re family.”
Meals at the station are heavy on protein, as the firefighters never know if they’ll be called out or for how long. Kitchen duty rotates and each firefighter has a specialty. For Harris, it’s breakfast, including eggs from his home chickens. For Captain Dave Marshall, it’s “killer” enchiladas with shredded chicken, El Pato sauce and smashed, seasoned and flash-fried pinto beans. And for Flatos, it’s gyros with homemade French fries, a dish he learned to make from his Greek grandfather, who was also a firefighter, known around the Los Angeles Fire Department as “The Cook.”
A Healthier Kind of Fun
For five Cal Poly students sharing a house in San Luis Obispo, preparing a meal together for up to 10 friends is a normal part of any week. “Honestly, I look forward to it,” says sociology and psychology major Max Shulman. “Eating together at home with friends is a much healthier kind of fun than downtown bars or house parties. Those will always be there.”
Whether they’re shopping, chopping, cooking or cleaning, each of the housemates chips in, and the cost of groceries—typically from Costco, Food 4 Less or Trader Joe’s—is split five ways. (“Our more pulled-together friends shop at farmers’ markets,” says Shulman.) Typical meals include big salads, pasta, grilled meats and roasted veggies. And, of course, beer. Industrial engineering major Troy Mogensen likes Coors, while mechanical engineering major Justin Miller goes for IPAs.
“Bottom line,” says Max: “If it’s in our house, it will get consumed.”
Tradition Across Generations
“We have always eaten together, ever since I can remember,” says Alicia Cruz, who was born and raised in Michoacán, Mexico, and lives with her mother, Rosa, and grandparents, Carmen and José, in Nipomo. For their family, meals are almost always cooked at home, usually consisting of a main dish with meat, chicken, fish or pork; as well as rice, pasta or soup, beans and a salad, as well as Carmen’s aguas frescas. The holidays mean traditional Mexican dishes like posole, tamales, atole, enchiladas, buñuelos and corundas.
Carmen, Rosa and Alicia say that, for them, healthy eating means avoiding too much fat or sugar, particularly with their family history of diabetes and high blood pressure. Alicia also stresses the importance of eating at regular times, and eating at home, together. For José, it’s avoiding large portions. He says a healthy day of eating might include orange juice, toast and an egg for breakfast, a salad with baked chicken for lunch and a small bowl of Cheerios in the evening. “I think it is important to teach your body to consume salads every day because vegetables are healthy for your body,” he says.
The Chef at Home
When Chef Will Torres first started at Paso Robles’ The Restaurant at Justin Winery 12 years ago, he’d usually grab Jack in the Box on his way to work and Taco Bell on his way home. “It’s common for cooks to eat quickly over a trash can during service, or pick at food throughout their shift.” But upon discovering his young son Mason suffered from Celiac disease, Will cleaned up his family’s eating, as well as his staff’s. “Now, we do ‘family meals’ before service,” he says.
Recently, Will and his wife, Kari, launched Torres Catering (TorresCatering805.com), offering everything from simple street tacos to cocktail parties to five-course dinners. At home, Will, Kari and their three children make a point of supporting local purveyors like Larder Meat Co, HoneyCo Coffee, Eclair Bakery and farmers’ markets, with extra shopping from Costco and Whole Foods. Favorite home-cooked dishes include spaghetti with riced cauliflower (instead of meat), baked potato bars, beer-can chicken on the grill, and eggs and Soyrizo on tortillas. As a chef, says Kari, “Will can make stuff taste and smell so good before he even cooks it.”
Bringing Japan Home
When Kazuko Oliver emigrated from Japan in 1970, she found American food shocking. “It was all hamburgers and steak with a baked potato and a tossed salad with - what’s it called? - iceberg lettuce,” she says, smiling. Thus, as a young homesick bride, Kazuko taught herself how to make traditional Japanese food from books and, later, from the internet.
Today, she cooks for herself and husband, Bill, and every Wednesday evening for her son John, his wife, Colby, and their two children, Zoe and Quinn. (“She’s been known to make thirteen different dishes for a simple Wednesday night meal,” jokes John.) Sourcing many ingredients from Los Angeles and the Bay Area, Kazuko recently prepared a stunning New Year’s feast that included multiple traditional Japanese dishes, tidily composed in lacquered jūbako boxes, symbolizing wishes for joy, prosperity, and long life for 2017 - an organized riot of color and flavor.