Friday, October 12, 2012

A trip to San Francisco, or, How I learned to play

The week before the big move, when we could have been packing or cleaning or resting, Kevin and I claimed our retrospective escapes. He went to Lover's Leap for some rock climbing, and I spent an afternoon in San Francisco.

My jaunt included the obvious: a croissant from Tartine, a Lavender-Honey Ice Cream cone from Bi-Rite Creamery, a pistachio macaroon from Miette, and a cappacino (or two) from Blue Bottle Coffee. I sat on a slope of hill in Delores Park and read. I browsed the aisles of Bi-Rite Market, got lost in my car, watched the barges in the San Francisco Bay, and walked a whole lot.

All that was delightful and fluttery, but the one thing I think I was supposed to find but almost missed entirely was Omnivore Books. The shop has loomed legendary in my mind for some time. If you don't have the privilage to know it by word of mouth or in person, imagine an entire, if tiny, bookstore solely dedicated to the subject of food. It had sounded like something I was supposed to by thrilled to see. But though it was on my list of places to go in San Francisco, I was not terribly excited about it. In truth I had planned to skip it. But after getting lost and nearly driving to Hawaii, I found myself just blocks away from the store and decided to have a break from my grand automobile adventure (a word of wisdom to remember: take public transit) and make the stop after all.

I got into the store and something shifted. Something about the world of food and writing and about myself moved.

Bookstores generally overwhelm me. I love to read, and I love books in general. But bookstores are so full of them--the books--so daunting and overstimulating. So many possibilities. Who knows which one is good? I want to get what I need and get out, not browse about and find something.

Not so this time! Celia Sack, the owner and mastermind behind Omnivore, really knows her books. Not only does she stock the store with a wide gamut of popular new books and hard-to-find UK and French publications, but she also specializes in  antiquarian and vintage books too. Maybe I shouldn't admit it, but I did not know this before I talked to Celia and looked around the store. Honestly, I am glad I live in a cave, because the shock value of getting in there and finding this trove was enough to jolt me out of my stupor.

Omnivore Books was the manifestation of what I love about food: the history, the up-to-date trends, the recipes, the oddities, and the culture of food. All of it--from how to make dandelion wine to how to break down a hog, from cocktails to fruitcakes, from loquat salsa to quince paste tart, from figs to goat meat, and from bitters to butter--all of it is why Omnivore Books exists at all and why people make a point to get there. It is all why I started this blog in the first place. The shop showed in a physical, present way that food has been a subject where serious reflection and tradition, fun and frivolity have met together not just recently but for a long time.

For some reason I don't think I knew that before I walked into Omnivore Books. Then all of the sudden, I am standing in front of a shelf of some rare books on food from the 19th century, and finally I got it. I looked at the old books with faded binding and gold lettering. I looked at the new books with glossy covers, pretty photography, and the flashy marketing that gets me excited and proves what a sucker I am. I picked up a book published in 2007 and it was so very obvious that it was published then, not now. And I loved it. I saw the timeline. I saw the connections. I saw the culture and the constant push deeper, wider, deeper again.

All of the sudden also I noticed I was browsing. I was really having fun. I don't do fun. I laugh, smile, frolic, and so on, but I don't do fun. But looking around, letting myself get swept away into this whole world of food thought and culture, I couldn't deny it and I didn't want to. I was having fun. I was playing. I kept letting little squeals slip out every time I turned around. It was embarrassing, having such a transformation in the middle of the store like that. But Celia was gracious. She acted like she didn't notice when I was too loud, but when I talked to her directly she was engaging and all mirrored emotion.


In celebration of said revelation, I did buy a book. It is a skinny, unassuming little number, and though I've only read a little here and a little there, I like it very much. Port and Sherry: The Story of Two Fine Wines is an introduction of sorts--how they got started, how they are made, how to drink them, save them, and cook with them. All in sixty-three pages.

I bought the book because I liked it and could afford it, but also, I bought it because it would have been one of those books I would have never picked up because I didn't know how to pause and breath and browse and play. Play. I didn't know how to consciously play. But I have learned a thing or two. I picked up this book because I thought the title was witty, even if it really isn't. I brought it home to learn a bit more and remind myself what I love about food: the simplicity, the seriousness, the history, and the play. It is sustenance, but it is so much more. For me it is the key to browsing, and it is the key, apparently, to living a different way.

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