Cooking on Boonville Time

By Moira Johnston

Published on July 20, 2001

It's a springtime Saturday and I'm ''piking to Boont'', as they say in the local lingo, driving over the serpentine twists of mountain road that, for over three decades, have been leading me into a rural Shangri-la called Anderson Valley, and to Boonville, a town caught in a time warp that lets a rare country life-style—and a ''language'' called Boontling—survive. I discovered this place over thirty years ago from a flame-stitched wing chair in my Greenwich Village brownstone—a young banker's wife sick of paying obeisance to France with beef Wellingtons, croquembouches, and pompous clarets. A native of western Canada, I was starved for bare feet, a garden, and good, honest food, and in 1967 I joined the migration back to the land—to California. Too old to be hippies, my then-husband and I became part of the infant boutique winery movement, attempting to grow the finest wine grapes possible in a valley whose name we had spotted in a viticultural textbook, cited as one of the few remaining undiscovered pockets of cool-climate vineyard land.

Philo. Boonville. Magical names. We set our course for them and, seduced by the glowing pink late-afternoon light on oak-strewn hills, bought the first piece of property we saw. With book in hand, we planted grapes, hiring high school boys to help hand-water the rootstock and budwood we'd carried over from Napa wrapped in wet burlap sacks. We put in a little of everything—cabernet, chardonnay, pinot noir, riesling, sauvignon blanc, gewurztraminer. No one knew what would thrive here. We were a winery community of three: Husch, Edmeades, and us. We patched up our derelict farmhouse and, moving up each summer from San Francisco, joined an apple, sheep, and logging culture we could scarcely believe had survived the postwar deracination of rural California. I grew a garden with sunflowers so big that my son, Don, won second prize with them at the annual apple fair. I was, at last, the pioneer—the Girl of the Golden West—I had secretly longed to be.

But over time I discovered that we were merely the newest of several layers of arrivistes already stitched into a lively, crazy quilt of cultures here. Three waves of migration had intermarried and overlapped. Homesteading families who'd come in the last century—Gowans, Johnsons, Rawleses, McGimpseys, and Hiatts—were now the fourth and fifth generations to thrive on the region's bounty. With the Mendocino Coast only an hour's drive west, ''rock cod, abalone, salmon, and venison were the staples that kept people going,'' says Tom Lemons, whose family had the first store in Philo. The hills were also full of deer. ''We were selling beef, but eating venison,'' confirms star Boontling speaker Bobby Glover, who went to school with the sons of the inventors of that jargon of made-up words, contracted from names, places, and events, that let the young bucks talk bawdily in secret. For me, Boontling's vitality became a measure of the valley's immunity to change. (''Unfortunately,'' says Glover, ''there are only five real Boontling speakers left, so the language can't survive long.'')

Apples (_gano _in Boontling) were given a jump start by the Department of Agriculture, which created a valley of Johnny Appleseeds ''by telling you to plant apple trees because they were nourishing and grew well'', in the words of Charmian Blattner, teacher and valley historian. Conjuring up the smokehouse and milk house, the home canning, the eggs stored in water glass—and the sheep, pigs, beef, peaches, peas, and hand-sheared wool her family sold—Blattner recalls, ''It was the one place in the world where nothing was needed.''

After World War II, a new wave rolled in from Arkansas and Oklahoma, lured by the logging boom in the old-growth coastal redwoods. ''They built sawmills, 27 of them,'' says Bobbie Hiatt, who married into the pioneer family whose shiny big logging trucks became a valley fixture. ''You couldn't see the sky for sawdust. Couldn't hang your wash in the yard. But we all had jobs.'' Wild hogs were added to the local larder when an enterprising rancher crossbred feral pigs (escaped from drives over the mountain to Ukiah) with Russian boars; this evolved into the motley mix that still thrives in the hills—along with wildflowers: Grizzled loggers would set aside their chain saws to help their wives collect wild lilac and lupine for the annual spring wildflower show. This was a valley tolerant of contrasts.

Until the hippies came in the 1960s.... Living in handmade houses and making marijuana the county's largest crop, they were a nightmare for a while, say the Hiatts. But the '60s brought people like us, too—the wanna-be winegrowers, the city folk. Viewing the rusted skeletons of sawmills as romantic ruins, we risked loving the valley to death. We brought with us arrogant dreams of hilltop houses and an almost religious belief in grapes as the savior of agricultural land from suburban sprawl—and in wine as the sacred bedrock of civilized society. Our fervor risked turning this variegated valley into a uniculture with one crop, one product, one god.

My own dream was cleaved by divorce in the late 1970s, and I retreated, wounded, from the valley. But I held on to the land and followed news of wineries as they opened; excitement grew around the region's pinot noirs, chardonnays, and sparkling wines. Master chefs Vernon and Charlene Rollins opened a restaurant at the old Boonville Hotel, where food lovers made long pilgrimages from San Francisco for Sunday lunch. It was inconceivable—Boonville trendy! But the Rollinses' haughty cuisine, prices, and attitude alienated the locals, and the couple left overnight under a cloud.

When I found the courage to return to the valley in the mid-1980s, it was still holding the fragile balance between grapes, apples, and sheep, and converting the new urban grape folk to Boonville Time—which can stretch a stop at the gas station to 45 chatty minutes and closes the whole valley down the night of the variety show, yet sends an army of pickup trucks into action when the fire siren sounds; it's time that ticks to its own priorities.

With the joy of the wanderer's return, the children and I reclaimed my hilltop property, slept out under the stars, and established a Mayfest with potluck feasts and maypole dancing. We picked blackberries in our patch, roasted whole spring lamb—but we were still weekenders.

It took another family to commit its life to holding the line. In 1993, Don and Sally Schmitt left their famous Napa Valley restaurant, the French Laundry, to grow apples here with daughter Karen and son-in-law Tim Bates, to open a small cooking school, and to help son Johnny and his then-wife, Jeanne, run the Boonville Hotel. (Jeanne remains a partner in the hotel and is still considered part of the family.) They breathed into a moribund apple farm and the 110-year-old inn the same rural integrity and quality food sensibility they had brought to the tiny Napa town of Yountville before tourism turned it into the bustling upscale community it is today.

It was the Schmitt children who first scouted Anderson Valley, restlessly seeking a place where they could live the authentic agricultural lifestyle they had learned in their mother's kitchen and seen vanish from the Napa Valley. (I knew things had changed in Napa the day I noticed that the valley's best cooks—the winery wives—had started hiring caterers.) On a visit to Anderson Valley, Sally and Don found a dilapidated old orchard. It was Tim who took the call from his excited in-laws: ''Do you want to be an apple farmer?'' Now a dozen members of the Schmitt family live in the valley and help with the family businesses. ''We looked and listened,'' says Don, ''before making any moves. People cannot come here unless they can figure out a way to do it. Resourcefulness is the key.''

Johnny and Jeanne renovated the Boonville Hotel's rooms and took over its kitchen, and Johnny combined the pure, fresh cooking style he'd learned from Sally with flavors from his foreign travels and with the Hispanic influences that now spiced the valley. Tim turned the apple orchard organic, fighting a ''seat-of-the-pants'' battle with the scab fungus that thrives in the same coastal climate that gives the apples their wonderful flavor. He grafted seven varieties into 60, and became a voice for organic farming on local radio. Karen and Sally developed a dozen apple products, raised chickens. Herb, vegetable, and flower gardens sprang up from their gifted hands. Johnny catered wineries, weddings.

Today, it is the Schmitts, as much as my hilltop, that lure me over the twisting road to the valley. As always, the magic grips me as the thick blanket of morning fog burns off and Octopus Hill's velvety green flanks emerge through the mist. I roll past Johnson's sheep ranch on the right and the fairgrounds on the left into Boonville, whose sleepy main street I scan anxiously for signs of change. Valley wisdom holds that as long as the road coils through the hills like a rattler, the rural quality here will prevail. But I am vigilant. I cruise Boonville's few blocks: the small wood-frame stores, a few boarded-up buildings. Hungry for valley news, I park with the pickups at the market to buy a copy of the Anderson Valley Advertiser, the inflammatory weekly newspaper whose liberal credo—''Peace to the cottages! War on the palaces!''—earned it a national reputation. There are small changes—like Bruce Bread, whose chewy French loaf locals call the best toasting bread in the world—but no serious threats there; it's the few cute tourist shops that make me nervous.

I head for the Boonville Hotel, relaxing as I walk into this scrubbed and sunny place of handmade wood-and-steel furniture and fresh flowers. I peek into the kitchen to see what Johnny Schmitt is cooking for lunch. Increasingly I come here to feed the food memories that hold values I fear are vanishing: the wild salmon bought fresh from the docks of Noyo; blackberries picked from the patch in our creek bed; the woolgrowers' barbecue, where burly ranchers brush lamb chops with branches of rosemary dipped in their secret marinade; the self-reliant men skinning a deer in the woods and teaching me how to cook every part of it; the marathon pie bake, where the Methodist ladies cook 200 apple pies for their booth at the apple fair—the local name for the Mendocino County Fair and Apple Show.

I'm reassured by the crackle of Johnny's mesquite grill and by the smells of fresh herbs from the garden, just-baked bread. I'll be back for dinner. But now I must drive on down-valley—past my own abandoned vineyard on the right, where a few tenacious leaves still unfurl after 15 years of neglect—to the Apple Farm, on the banks of the Navarro River. This low-key cluster of redwood farm buildings evokes the apple dryers and hop kilns of the valley's past. From the farm's outdoor stand, I choose jams, chutneys, apple syrup, and apple balsamic vinegar for my Napa pantry, paying by the honor system. For me, the Apple Farm and the Boonville Hotel are the culinary forts that defend the self-sufficient country lifestyle, which, in Northern California, has been largely subsumed by suburbs and the manicured sophistication of the neighboring wine valleys.

The Apple Farm kitchen, where Sally Schmitt teaches cooking classes, is another such outpost. Like the hotel, it is a scrubbed and glowing place. I think of it as a series of sunlit still lifes: bouquets of cabbage roses and fresh-cut basil, blue pottery bowls, gleaming copper pots, hand-painted tiles, shelves of jam and chutney, baskets of perfect tomatoes. But this is not a decorator's showplace. Everything has a purpose. The same uncontrived beauty spills beyond the kitchen's doors into the gardens, orchards, arbors, and leafy alfresco dining bower, into the barns, sheds, and greenhouses. How can a family—a committee!—make such consistently right choices? Perhaps by letting Boonville Time work on their intuitive, sensitive responses to the setting and the need. This is more than a farm: It is a philosophy.

A lump comes to my throat as I remember taking my daughter Christie into Sally's kitchen for the first time three years ago. Sally's cooking class was a rite of passage. Now a beautiful young New York photographer, Christie was the little girl I'd watched from the window as she and her brother Don walked hand in hand, along a country road roaring with logging trucks, to Phil and Delitha Clark's cottage, where a fresh-baked pie always awaited them. Delitha and Phil are gone now, but as I watched my daughter following Sally's deft ways of chopping onions and preparing chutney, I saw values being transmitted to another generation. ''Back to basics'' is Sally's slogan for her cooking school: ''You won't find a Cuisinart or microwave here. Just good knives, pots, and chopping blocks.'' Like the valley itself, Sally's cooking is tolerant and inclusive, absorbing outside influences without disturbing deep local traditions. Here, a few years ago, Sally prepared one of life's memorable meals for my husband Lee's birthday, a mix of Anderson Valley, Tuscany, and ideas from her own childhood on a farm near Fresno: bread and tomato soup; marinated leg of lamb, inspired by Fresno's Armenian cooks, grilled outside by Don; and apple clafouti made with pink pearl apples, beauties with rose-colored flesh. She generously credits her sources, but it is true ''Boont gorms''—Boonville food—that Sally serves up.

Back at the Boonville Hotel, Johnny Schmitt calls on the same valley spirit as he preps for Saturday's dinner. ''The menu is determined by what the truck turns up with,'' he explains. (He ordered salmon. Surprise—he got blue-nose bass.) He has only an hour or two to set the menu and start cooking. ''I'm changing lightbulbs or painting a room until 3 p.m.,'' he says, moving deftly between seven pans on the stove and six bowls on the counter. There's no time to turn plates into bravura architecture, just beautiful, explosively good food. ''When hotshots from San Francisco restaurants come and help,'' says Don, ''they can't believe it's done so simply. We're cooks, not chefs.''

''Resourcefulness hasn't left the valley,'' twinkles Bobby Glover, who leads chanterelle hunts in mushroom season (''Haven't lost anyone yet''), fixes TVs, is restoring a Model T Ford, and keeps Boontling gabfests alive. Admitted former hippies George and Kate Castagnola survive by delivering produce in a refrigerated truck ''to keep people from having to leave to shop''. Leather-working hippies have become the fine carpenters who now build houses in the hills. This spirit of self-sufficiency has created perhaps the liveliest community of its size in America. It stages three festivals—film, folk, and blues—and supports a public radio station; four watershed awareness groups; plays, concerts, and community meetings at the Anderson Valley Grange; a weekly farmers' market; and volunteer fire and ambulance services. ''Everyone's needed here,'' says Tim Bates, the Schmitts' son-in-law.

Through Karen Bates's efforts, apple tasting has joined wine tasting at the apple fair. The spring wildflower show has become a major event. The Gowan apple orchard continues to supply the roadside fruit and cider stand that has been an institution for 40 years. The three layers of valley folk still comfortably coexist in downtown Boonville. The Horn of Zeese and the Redwood Drive-In serve up platters of bacon, eggs, and pancakes to the old logging crowd in their battered jeans, as they play gin rummy over their coffee mugs. Just feet away, the Boont Berry Farm, a quaint countercultural hobbit house that sells organic produce and caffe latte, tacks up ads for New Age retreats. Across the road at the Boonville Hotel, the growing wine and tourist cultures fuse with the old valley style.

Shangri-la, though, is not secure. Water wars have erupted as the parched and plundered creeks and river struggle to meet the competing thirsts of grapes, apples, livestock ranches, and homes. As sheep and cattle are pushed back from fragile creeks, Eva Johnson, whose flocks graze the valley's most visible gateway, says, ''If they force me to sell, I'll subdivide.'' That is unthinkable: Chronic water shortage will curb residential growth. Still, houses have popped up on the ridge-tops. Reluctantly, the old orchards and ranches are selling out to grapes. Even Bobby Glover recently sold some land.

Can Anderson Valley hold its precious uniqueness? ''We have an ideal, and we can set an example by living the way we do,'' answers Karen Bates. ''It's our only politics.'' The Schmitts say that they count their victories by how many visitors to Anderson Valley truly ''get it''. My family certainly does. We plan to spend next New Year's Eve here, in fact. While others toast the new millennium at the Pyramids or the Eiffel Tower, we'll be ''piking to Boont'' to raise a glass of Roederer Estate and toast a new century, which, here at least, will beat to Boonville Time.

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