I was appropriately born in olive oil country - Burbank, California. The sleepy little San Fernando Valley town sits in a fertile area where ocean breezes occasionally meet with near-desert climate. The civilized region began as a couple of large ranchos where for 6,000 years before Indians continuously lived. In September of 1797 San Fernando mission was founded on the site of one of these prominent ranches and joined the other 21 missions established by the Franciscan order in California. It wasn't long before San Fernando became especially rich in crops, cattle, sheep, groves of citrus and olive trees. It was the Spanish missionaries who first brought olive tree cuttings from San Blas, Mexico to San Diego in 1769 and hand carried cuttings up the state. So began the long history of olive oil production in California, the ingredient that Homer called "liquid gold".
Long after the mission era ended Italian Americans continued the production of olive oil in the San Fernando area. The hospitable climate of Southern California, so like Italy, drew many Italian immigrants to the area. My own grandparents made their way from New York harbor across the country to settle in a place so like their old home. My great uncle maintained a plot of land just over the Hollywood hills from his home in Los Angeles where he grew his own vegetables and citrus crops. It was obvious that the valley produced better results. Not only famous for being hospitable to farmers, the area drew those seeking better health. People emigrated from the east coast to soak up the reliable warmth of a sun that appeared most of the year in Southern California towns like Santa Barbara, San Fernando, Burbank, Riverside, Rancho Cucomonga, Murietta, Palm Springs and Warner Hot Springs. It was the frightening era of tuberculosis and the cure involved warm weather.
In the 1880s Mother Frances X.Cabrini-the woman who worked among the Italian American community cultivating orphanages, schools and hospitals in the United States - came to California to work among the poor. She ultimately founded an order of nuns who built a facility known as a Preventatorium high in the Verdugo Hills above present day Burbank. Here young women could live and ultimately study in the clean and healthful air of the southland without danger of catching tuberculosis. The health facility eventually became Villa Cabrini Academy on land that crept up a hillside. High above the valley floor a small chapel was erected that was said to protect the community against raging fires common in parched Southern California, and where prayer was offered for the success of the crops planted below. Young girls attended the Academy founded in 1906 as late as the 1970s and used to pick the olive in their slips so as not to soil their uniforms!
Burbank and me and olives go way back. Thinking about those days in Burbank makes me consider having a garden again and raising some of what my family needs to eat myself. I haven't done this for years partly due to being so busy with working outside of my home. The daily race home - sometimes not until 7:00 PM - often meant throwing together some sort of meal based on speed, not freshness of ingredients or visual appeal. But this tradition of raising vegetables is deeply rooted in my mother's peasant family history. These people came from a hilly, infertile part of the South in Calabria. They forced the land to yield wheat, citrus, tomatoes, artichokes, onions, broccoli, zuccini and eggplant. We grew up eating fabulous vegetables cooked in deliciously simple ways.
I smile to imagine the girls in their slips! Having attended Catholic school I totally get the experience. There's not much difference between that scene and me going out into the yard in my nightgown to pick flowers or pull a weed. I love the early morning in the yard especially now that it is spring again. One good way to enjoy the enforced free time that I now have might just be to create a vegetable garden again. There is no greater pleasure than to watch things we nurture grow and flourish. Remember the Victory gardens of WWII? Well maybe Mrs. Obama is on to a wonderful idea with her White House kitchen garden. Perhaps this is a way to fight back during these grim times. Maybe she has inspired me to find a way around my big labrador retrievers to pick a spot in the yard for a vegetable garden. A good thing for this lovely spring day!