Serendipity gives me goosebumps. Just as I was about to write this post about “food memories,” I stumbled on a terrific example of this exact form of family-history writing.
“From Billee’s Kitchen” is a great, simple collection of not only recipes but memories. Compiled in pdf form by Melissa Corn Finlay, it honors her grandmother, Billee Barton Corn. And you can read it for free, here! It’s packed with Billee’s favorite recipes, from Shrimp Victoria and desserts to die for, and great family photos. But best of all, it includes Melissa’s memories of her grandmother.
Born in 1918, Billee used to keep a jar of bacon drippings on her stove. (Sound like anyone you knew?) She went to bed every night with a Louis L’Amour novel in her hand. Granddaughter Melissa got sips of Billee’s favorite nighttime beverage (Dr. Pepper over ice) as she joined Grandma under the puffy down comforter. And Melissa can still recall the tantalizing smells of her grandmother’s apricot “fried pies.” Special memories indeed!
So, what fascinating nuggets of family history and memoir material might be lurking in your kitchen? And how can you easily preserve and share them?
Start by pulling out that old card file or family cookbook, and thumb through the recipes. What dishes were your parents’ favorites? And what do they say about your family’s travels or the way things were?
What special culinary treasures have been handed down from long-gone relatives? I treasure my great-grandmother’s recipe for Burnt Sugar Cake just because it’s a legacy. And I love the visual image of my great-aunt’s recipe for Deep Dish Peach Cobbler, scrawled in her own spidery handwriting. How fun to know that these special treats once graced their tables, too, and how rewarding to pass the recipes along to future generations!
What memories do certain recipes bring back for you? I still remember the welcome smell of my dad’s Beans Bretonne simmering in the oven — a family favorite — as I walked in the back door after school. (In case you want to try it, here’s his recipe — with some hilarious comments from my sister.)
And you might even find surprises tucked away in that old cookbook or filing box! As I was writing this story, I discovered a long-forgotten collection of old newspaper clippings in the back of our family recipe box. Domestic goddess that she was, my mother had tucked them away in the 1960s, preparing to be the perfect party hostess.
Sharing food-and-family memories doesn’t have to be a huge production. Make it easy on yourself! You might simply copy those old family recipes and bind the pages together, or paste individual recipes into a small scrapbook, as my sisters did (see below). If you’d like to “pretty it up” as Melissa did in her family recipe book, just create a Word document with images, then convert that to a pdf for sharing.
Okay, that’s your Memoir Writing take-away for today: Let favorite family recipes prompt your memories of both food and family!
And of course I’d love to hear what stories you remember.
Our trip to Ventura, California was a fun “Vegan Vacay” – we dined our way through some fabulous restaurants! (For our vegan eatery itinerary, check out Part 1 of this story!) And of course there are plenty of sights to see and things to do in Ventura, as well. Here are some of our favorites!
San Buenaventura Mission and Church Museum: 211 E. Main Street. The Old Ventura Mission was the last of six missions personally founded by Franciscan Father Junipero Serra. This was actually the third church built on this site: the first was destroyed by fire; a second effort was abandoned when the door “gave way”. This third church was finally completed in 1809, 33 years and one day after Fr. Serra first celebrated Mass on this site. Mass is still regularly celebrated here.
Albinger Archaeological Museum: 113 E. Main Street. Right next to the Mission, this fabulous free museum displays artifacts that have been found at excavations nearby. Items found from the Mission period include millstones, crucifixes, bottles, pottery and buttons. Archaeologists also discovered Native American artifacts dating back 3,500 years, including bone whistles, arrowheads, and shell beads. An interpretive walk outside lets you see the actual site that was excavated, including an earth oven dating to 300 B.C. and a well serving the Mission occupants in 1844. https://tinyurl.com/y63mbrq6
Valdez Alley/Eastwood Park: Look for the sign beside the Archaeological Museum to find this easy-to-miss stairway leading up the hillside to the remains of a historic “filtration building.” Constructed under the direction of one of the Franciscan Friars in 1792, this old brick structure helped bring clean water to the early residents of the Ventura Mission.
Ortega Adobe: The carefully preserved adobe of the Emigdio Ortega family can be found at 215 W. Main Street; there’s easy parking in the back. Son Emilio Ortega gained fame as the founder of the Ortega Chile Company, making chili sauce in his mother’s kitchen here in 1897. The Adobe itself is not open for visitors to walk inside, but you can stand in the (barred) doorways and peek inside. We especially admired the gardens around the outside, including trees that (we’re guessing) were popular in Ventura’s early days: olives, pistachios, and pomegranates (which had fruit on them when we arrived!) https://www.cityofventura.ca.gov/640/Ortega-Adobe
Although we didn’t manage to visit, there’s also an Olivas Adobe to visit at 4200 Olivas Park Drive — the restored home of one of the early settlers, it dates to 1847. The grapes and fuchsias in its front yard are both said to be over a century old.
Grant Park – Take a drive up the hill above City Hall to find a scenic overlook, then all the way to the top of Grant Park for amazing views of the city and the historic Serra Cross. Father Serra himself is said to have erected a wooden cross here in 1782, and ships once used the prominent landmark for navigation. There are botanical gardens here as well. We found a “pop-up yoga” class getting started on the lawn when we arrived! https://visitventuraca.com/business/serra-cross-park-at-grant-park/; www.VenturaBotanicalGardens.com
Stroll downtown Ventura’s Main Street for some fun and eclectic shops, and don’t forget to look up to check out the interesting architecture here, as well. You’ll find great old brickwork and ironwork adorning the fronts of the old downtown shops.
If you love old buildings, there’s also a fabulous Historic Walking Tour that will take you to 36 of Ventura’s historic sites and buildings. (Pick up a brochure with map at the Visitor Center, 101 S. California St., or you can find it right here: http://www.itqw2019.com/public/files/Ventura_history_map.pdf).
The Ventura Pier is historic in itself. Today it’s 1,700 feet long, with food and other concessions. Find a convenient parking garage at the end of California Street (at Harbor Boulevard); just $2 bucks to park for an hour. Fish, picnic, or just stroll out and watch the surfers lining up to catch the waves — Ventura boasts some of the best surfing anywhere! http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=600
Post Office Murals by Gordon Kenneth Grant: 675 W.Santa Clara. Stop in to see the famous WPA-era murals painted by artist Gordon K. Grant in 1936-37 at the downtown Ventura Post Office. These folk-style paintings showcase the “industries and agriculture” of Ventura in a beautifully stylized way. Other murals by this talented artist have since been painted over, but Ventura’s have been preserved and remain open for the public to enjoy — for free. https://visitventuraca.com/blog/ventura-post-office-gordon-k-grant-mural/
Channel Islands National Park & National Marine Sanctuary: This free visitor center includes informative displays about the Channel Islands flora and fauna, plus a gift shop. Find information here about whale-watching and wildlife cruises as well as full- or half-day trips to the Channel Islands. Find the Park at the very end of Spinnaker Dr., past Ventura Harbor Village (a classic tourist venue with lots of shops, dining, and activities). https://www.nps.gov/chis/index.htm, https://www.venturaharborvillage.com/.
Pick up the Local Lingo: Want to sound like a Ventura native? “California Street” is one of the town’s old-time drags. Locals have embraced the far-more-cool surfer moniker for this north-south byway, dubbing it simply: “C Street.” Use the term and they might just think you live here, too. (And don’t we wish we did!)
Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.
Ventura, California. It’s been called the “most under-rated beach town in America.” And frankly, that’s why we love it.
Tucked between the L.A. bustle and Santa Barbara glitz, Ventura’s undiscovered energy makes this coastal burg even more special. It’s pedestrian-friendly, temperate year-round, and right on the ocean. Despite recent growth, it’s kept the small-town feel. And oh, did I mention the Ventura sunsets?
Unlike its sister town, uber-hip Ojai, Ventura doesn’t especially tout its vegan offerings. But those sunsets and ocean breezes were calling, so a friend and I set out together for a two-day “vegan vacation” in Ventura. Could we make it work?!
Bottom line: Teasing out vegan venues took a bit of digging here. But what we discovered was well worth the hunt! Foodies can find great vegan options here. So we wanted to share thejuice!
It was a long drive to get there. But our first vegan dinner made the trip worthwhile: Thai food at Rice 2 By Mama, 583 E. Main Street. (Don’t be confused by yet another “Rice by Mama” just to the west — that one is so popular it’s hard to get into on a Sat. night, but Rice 2 isn’t far away!) You’ll find many vegan options to choose from; we dug into Mussamun and Panang Curries. Be sure to try their delicious, nutty “red rice.”
If you decide to stay at the Bella Maggiore Hotel, as we did (see below), the Busy Bee Cafe, 478 E. Main Street, is a must for breakfast. It’s literally right around the corner from the hotel. (For the in-crowd, there’s even a closer entrance off the alley!) The Busy Bee is a Ventura classic — not to be missed, if only for the decor. Think iconic red-and-white tiles, old-fashioned juke boxes at each table, and waitresses with coin-changers at their waists.
The menu is pure down-home American. But with a little ingenuity you can create vegan options that work. I started with an order of their hearty whole wheat toast, slathered it with a side of sliced fresh avocado, and topped those wedges off with Busy Bee’s tasty homemade pico de gallo. Bee-utiful!
For lunch, we found our way to Himalaya, 35 W. Main Street, a restaurant boasting Nepalese, Indian, and Tibetan food. Tucked into a shopping center at the corner of Ventura Avenue (just north of Main), the restaurant is a former Taco Bell location. Vegetarians will be delighted to discover a whole page of vegetarian options on the menu, and vegan options are helpfully flagged. And the food was amazing! We started with a shared order of Tadka dal (yellow lentils with Indian spices/vegan), and splurged on a house favorite, Saag naan (traditional naan bread stuffed with spinach dip — a non-vegan naan variation, as it included sour cream, but so good!)
Be sure to try an order of their wonderful vegan Samosas – little towers of a deep fried potato/pea mixture, accompanied by two sauces: tamarind (red) and mint (green and a little spicy). While you’re relaxing, browse the shelves of traditional crafts from Nepal, Tibet and India, including figurines and artisan-made clothing.
For our second night’s dinner we stopped into Nature’s Grill & Juice Bar – 566 E. Main – Vegan options include a creatively veggie-filled vegetarian chili (including corn, carrots and black olives) and sweet cornbread; just ask them to hold the usual cheese. My travel partner ordered the “Old Town” salad (brown rice, tomato, guacamole, and carrots) — again, just ask them to leave off the feta cheese to make it vegan.
Our third morning opened with breakfast at Harvest Cafe – 175 S. Ventura Avenue, Suite B. We were surprised to find no dedicated parking lot, but there’s plenty of street parking a short walk away. The Harvest Cafe proudly displays its “Ocean-friendly” rating, and it’s certified as a “Ventura Green Business.” And their menu is completely gluten-free. I opted for the “Golden Protein Porridge Bowl”: oats, quinoa, buckwheat groats, coconut, banana, raisins, nut butter, flavored with tumeric and cinnamon. Delightfully sweet to the tongue despite no added sugar. My companion chose the “Cashew Yogurt Bowl”: house-made granola and yogurt, topped with a delightful fresh fig!
Lunch was at Zack’s Cafe, 1095 Thompson Blvd. — an experience so unique it deserved its own write-up! The menu is upscale Italian crossed with farm-to-table foodie. They’ll happily adjust anything on the menu for food preferences, and vegan options were easy to find. We ordered a delightfully light tomato soup, laden with floating bread cubes and topped with ribbons of fresh basil. For the main course we split a tostada salad topped with a mixture of grilled vegetables, all presented on a (homemade) baked whole wheat tostada. And don’t forget to try their passionfruit iced tea!
Our farewell-to-Ventura dinner was a lower-Main Street find: Maria Bonita, 256 E. Main St. The decor’s a blend of colorful folk art (think Frida Kahlo) mixed with an Old Mexico flair.
The tortilla chips were thick, hearty deep-fried wedges. Be prepared: the homemade salsa is super-fiery but excellent! Vegan options are limited here, but the black bean-and-rice soup makes a wonderful meatless meal in itself. Vegetarians and pescatarians will find many more choices. In addition to the bean soup, the vegetarian in our party tried a cheese-and-veggie quesadilla, which came sizzled to perfection on a grill, blessedly light and free of extra oil.
Cool B&B Stays:
We relished our stay at the marvelous “Bella Maggiore” – 67 S. California St. Located on California Street, the Bella is an easy walk to everything downtown. The hotel is an updated 1930s classic that’s retained its Old World charm.
We were greeted by live guitar music in the courtyard when we arrived, along with complimentary wine and hors d’oeuvres.
Fresh flowers were liberally distributed throughout the hotel, and the concierge was extra-helpful when we had questions. Don’t forget to ask about the ghost of “Sylvia,” a former inhabitant from the hotel’s red-light past, who supposedly lingers in Room #17 — said to be one of the hotel’s most-requested rooms!
Our amazingly large room on the second floor featured not only a fireplace but a padded window seat, perfect for lounging the afternoon away with a great book. (Check out the local bookstores we visited in Part 2, “Sites & Sights”!) Vintage antique faucets have been lovingly preserved in the luxuriously-large bath. And a packet of Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory chocolates on the pillow made us feel extra-welcome.
For our second night, we stayed at the “Inn at the Beach” — 1175 S. Seaward. A newer building decorated to look like a Victorian B&B inside, the Inn reminded us a bit of the home of a well-loved aunt: gracious and welcoming, but in need of a carpet clean. Staffing at the front desk doesn’t start until 7 a.m., so if you plan to check out early you’ll be asked to just drop your key card and they’ll gladly email a receipt.
The beds were comfy and the rates terrific. And best of all, it is literally right on the beach. Be sure to ask for a room with an ocean-side view! Big sighs as we watched windsurfers cavort in the waves from our second-floor balcony. We snapped lots of can’t-wait-to-come-back photos of the sunset over the ocean.
HIP TIP:Pick up the Local Lingo: Want to sound like a Ventura native? “California Street” is one of the town’s oldest drags. Locals have embraced the far-more-cool surfer moniker for this main north-south byway, dubbing it simply: “C Street.” Try it and they might just think you live here, too. (And don’t we wish we did!)
Karen Dustman is a published author, freelance journalist, historian, and story-sleuth. For more about Karen, her books and other fun stuff she’s written, check out her author website: www.KarenDustman.com.
It was the last day of our Ventura vacation when we wandered into Cafe Zack for lunch. You won’t find it jostling its culinary competition among the bright lights of downtown. Instead, Zack’s welcomes guests more quietly from a charming bungalow closer to midtown. A fairy-tale garden cascades beside the front steps, a tiny hint of the magic that awaited us inside.
We’d settled in at a table by the window and were checking out the menu when our energetic host appeared. “Welcome to Cafe Zack,” he beamed. “I’m Hector Gomez, the owner. Try the passion fruit iced tea. It’s very good.” It was like a thousand-volt jolt of lightning had just entered the room.
Hector is clearly passionate about his restaurant. And he’s equally passionate about pleasing guests. Looking for something vegan? He’ll pop in the back and chat with the chef, just for you. Trying to avoid gluten? No worries; they’ll happily make your dish gluten-free.
It didn’t take us long to realize that both Hector and his cafe were totally extraordinary. The food, for one thing, was amazing. The bread was fresh; the passion fruit tea as refreshing as promised.
The tomato soup when it arrived (laden with glorious chunks of bread) was delicately-seasoned and sprinkled with fresh licorice-basil ribbons on top. Our tostada salad came piled high with grilled fresh vegetables and rested on a baked (not deep-fried, thank you) whole wheat tortilla. Yumm.
But the real treat was getting to meet Hector. When he told us he was approaching his 19th anniversary as owner of Cafe Zack, we asked where he’d come from and how he’d happened to buy this special place. So he pulled up a chair and told us.
Turns out his story is worthy of a Horatio Alger novel — a real-life fairy tale come true. The saga (and it is a saga) of how Hector became the Cafe Zack’s proud owner is a testament to both his willingness to leap and never giving up. We asked if anyone had ever written a story about him. Hector just shook his head slightly at the odd question, as if what he’s done is nothing special.
No, it’s definitely special. It’s hero’s journey worth celebrating, an ode to hard work, a message of inspiration. We’re tickled to be able to pass the wonderful story of Hector and Cafe Zack along to you.
Hector’s arrival in the world was a tad, well, inconvenient. He was born in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico to a mother who wasn’t married and an airline-executive father who was — to someone else.
When he was eleven months old, Hector’s mother went off to seek work in the States, leaving him in the arms of his grandmother. “I first met my mom ten years later, when I was eleven,” he says with a shrug. There’s no trace of animosity as he describes his parents. “They had their own lives.”
Grandmother Elia was good to him. But counting Hector, her household numbered eleven people, spanning four generations, all in one tiny house. And out of those eleven, Elia was the only breadwinner. She worked as a maid for a local family in a private residence.
By the age of 8 or 9, Hector began walking a mile after school every day to the home where Elia worked, to help his grandmother. “I would sweep floors, I learned to clean pools,” he says with a shrug. And when her usual workday was over, Elia sometimes would walk the neighborhood, knocking on doors to ask if there were clothes she could wash or iron to bring in extra money. Hector would help his grandmother carry two big metal wash buckets loaded with laundry down to the river, a mile and a half from their home. Elia would beat the clothes on rocks there to scrub them clean.
One day when he was 12, Hector announced he was going to find a job. “I want to help you,” he told his grandmother firmly. He requested permission to serve as a greeter at a local restaurant, opening taxi doors for arriving guests and offering a hand to help ladies out of the cab. “I made that my little business,” Hector smiles. “I wasn’t on the restaurant’s payroll, but sometimes guests would tip me.” A few months later, he moved up to a job as a dishwasher. He was 13 years old.
At 14, Hector begged a manager at another local hotel for a job as a busboy. The man quibbled about his age and tried twice to turn him away. “Don’t pay me,” Hector pleaded. “I just want to learn.” The man relented, and Hector spent the next year and a half as an unpaid “busboy for the busboys,” pulling silverware and cleaning ash trays. “I worked hard. Really hard,” he says. “And I did it for no pay.” There’s a far-away look in his eye, as if he’s remembering. “Sometimes I made a little in tips from the busboys. But there were also days when there were no tips at all. I’d come home cussing.”
Those were the nights his grandmother would console him. “Just remember, mijo, you are there to learn,” she told him. “Someday it will pay off. One day you’ll have your own restaurant.”
Hector finally got a real job as a busboy when he was 16. He looked up to some of the waiters at the restaurant (“my favorites”), who “dressed so beautifully and smelled so nice.” Some waiters spent half of every year working in the States, returning to Mexico to spend the other half working at the resort. Hector yearned to follow their example. He made up his mind he was going to go to the Bay area to find work when he turned 18. He spoke no English.
The following year, fortified with $100 and a backpack, Hector flew to Tijuana and eventually found his way to a Greyhound bus headed for San Francisco. But once the bus reached Ventura, Hector saw the beautiful ocean passing by on his left. “I wanted to check it out!” he says. He got off the bus and walked down Thompson Boulevard — his steps taking him past the restaurant he would someday own. It was like Fate was calling him.
Those first two nights in Ventura Hector slept in empty cardboard box near the railroad tracks. Then Fate stepped in one more time. Buying lunch the next day at a burrito stand, Hector met a man named Frederico who hailed from his home state of Jalisco. That chance meeting would shape his life.
Frederico offered to let Hector to stay at his home. “There were 29 guys there already in a four-room house; with me, it would be 30,” Hector says. But it was better than a cardboard box. Frederico’s friends at the house shared a rumor that the Elephant Bar might need a busboy. Hector applied for the job and, as he puts it, “the rest is history!” But a single job didn’t bring in enough, so Hector soon picked up a second job as well. He did room service, worked as a busboy, learned to cook, and eventually became a server for various local restaurants.
Meanwhile, his roommate Frederico had a job as a cook at the restaurant Hector had walked past on his first day in town — yes, the very same one that’s now known today as Zack’s. Hector stopped by one day to say hi, and the owners asked if he wanted to be a server. “I didn’t speak a lot of English at the time,” Hector grins. “They handed me a menu and a wine list, and that was it!” And oh yes, he kept his two other jobs, too.
Hector worked for the restaurant owners for seven years, eventually picking up both lunch and dinner shifts. That meant 14-hour days, but it also meant he was able to ditch his side jobs. In 1993 he met Frederico’s sister, Suzie, who’d arrived with her parents from Mexico. Eight months later they were married. Things were on the up-swing. The restaurant owners treated him like a son. Hector had even been talking with them about purchasing the restaurant someday.
Then in 1998, he returned from a short vacation to devastating news. The restaurant had lost its lease. Instead of offering the business to Hector without the security of a solid lease, the owner had decided to sell it instead — to the landlord’s niece.
It was a tough blow. Hector swallowed his disappointment and continued to work at the restaurant, for the new owner. It was a difficult transition, and despite her enthusiasm, the new owner struggled to make a go of it. “She was young and inexperienced,” Hector says kindly. “It wasn’t for her.” Eleven months later, on November 1, 2000, Hector was able to purchase the restaurant himself. Astonishingly, he’d saved enough over the years to pay for it in cash.
“One of my best memories,” he tells us, “is when I called up my Grandma and told her I’m going to buy this place. I’ll never forget — we both cried on the phone together. She told me, ‘Remember when you used to bitch about working for no pay, and I told you that you would own your own business someday?’”
Today Hector is a U.S. citizen. He has three children, who’ll be 21, 17 and 13 this fall. He tells his oldest son to stay in school: “Life is not easy, mijo.” Grandmother Elia passed away nine years ago, but she was able to visit several times and see the restaurant. Hector has purchased a 4-plex, where his wife’s brothers and others in the extended family now live. Three family members help him in the restaurant. Still a workaholic, Hector describes the restaurant as “my life.” But he proudly adds that he never misses special occasions with his family.
Hector is a living example of the power of gratitude. “God gave me this –” he pauses to find just the right word — “this gift. I’ve always had lots of energy. I’ve been doing double shifts for the last 25 years. I’m just really thankful for all the people who helped me along the way.”
Between the great food and Hector’s outgoing personality, Cafe Zack has built a devoted following. Most of its customers are locals, a statistic Hector shares with pride. “Ninety percent of the people who come to the restaurant are repeat customers, not tourists,” he emphasizes. “We know them by name; they come to my home. They know my kids. We are like family.”
It’s easy to see why. As we leave, Hector offers us each a hug. It’s warm. It’s sincere. We may have walked into Zack’s Cafe as strangers. But we leave as friends.