When I look back on some of the earliest times of my life, I realize that I was born to be a food geek. It is no wonder I spend most of my time these days eating and writing about food.
At twelve I was a bit of a skateboard nut, quite stupid, and usually hungry. I am sure I would be 300 pounds today if it weren’t for the lengths which I would go to just for a good hamburger. To a twelve-year-old boy trying to get by on a $ 1.50-a-week allowance, a satisfying meal was difficult to come by, but we had a method that worked every time.
I grew up high in the hills of Palos Verdes in Southern California. Most weekends, skateboard in hand, my friends and I would hike our way down into a hot brushy canyon near my house. When we reached the bottom, we’d squeeze our way through a huge flood control grate and enter a cool dark oasis of a storm drain. The pipe must have been four feet tall, made of smooth concrete, sloping gently downwards into pitch darkness. What more perfect venue could a skateboarder ask for?
The tunnel was too short to stand up in, so we would lie face down on our boards and with a quick push would soon be careening headfirst into the snaking abyss toward our perfect hamburger. We are talking about a dark tunnel here — nothing to be seen but the occasional flash of light from a sewer over our heads as we flew by. This went on for over a mile. Sometimes our wheels would hit a horrible swarm of huge nasty potato bugs and come to a screeching halt, sending us hurtling down the concrete on our stomachs. Finally, after about a mile we would come out at the mouth of another canyon not too far from the local golf course.
The golf course was beautiful. Dotted with huge stands of fragrant eucalyptus trees, trestle bridges, and deep canyons, it was an amateur golfer’s worst nightmare. The fairways were long and narrow; balls would frequently drift off the course and plunge into the canyons below. We would stake out a group of golfers that looked promising – usually, they were carrying beers and their cart would be swerving as they made their way from tee to tee. Hiding in the brush just off the edge of the green, we would lie in wait for the inevitable golf ball and were rarely disappointed. First, you’d hear the groan from the golfer and the laughter of his friends, and then a ball would appear white against the dark blue sky before plunging down towards our waiting hands.
Over the period of a few hours, we would usually collect eight or ten balls. The bad golfers tended to lose them so quickly that they were practically new, and a quick polish in the washer would shine them right up. Then we’d race ahead of the groups, trying to catch them about the 10th green when they were running low on balls. With the most innocent look only a sweet child like myself could muster, we would offer to sell them golf balls at a substantial discount. They knew, of course, but played along with our little game, netting us eight to ten dollars in an afternoon – a small fortune to hungry kids.
Armed with our new-found riches we would pick up our skateboards and head on down the dusty horse trails until we finally arrived at our destination, The Palos Verdes Drug Store in the Malaga Cove Plaza.
It was a corner store in a two-story building with curving brick arches, a replica of the Neptune fountain bubbling across the parking lot. Long gone now, this was an old-fashioned drugstore straight out of a movie, with a food counter complete with rotating bar stools. Most importantly, they made real chocolate malted, not the fake imitations they have today but with real chocolate syrup and malt powder. We would always order the large size and sit dangling our feet off the stools thinking about our new riches. Then it was off to Irene’s Bakery next door, which in our opinion had the best hamburgers in Palos Verdes. It wasn’t some slapped-together fast food thing; this was good quality beef with all the fixings on the side, to our young minds a culinary masterpiece. There was only one problem. Getting home was a long climb up winding roads, across a canyon, and several backyards. After having downed a large malted and a cheeseburger with fries, this was no easy task, even for a twelve-year-old.
In spite of the difficulties I still have fond memories of the long walk back. There was a tire swing hanging from a pungent eucalyptus tree over the edge of a canyon. We always crossed an old creaking bridge. I remember my mother telling me that the volunteer fire truck had driven off it at some point. Underneath there was a leaky water pipe that fueled the growth of a thick tangle of nasturtiums. We would always stop and climb down, picking the peppery flowers that turned our mouths orange, marveling that something growing wild could look so cool and taste so good.