Why I loved Modesto

Atti at the park

Modesto gets a bad rap. My own father-in-law hates it and calls it a “dirty little town.” Whenever I’m travelling and say where I’m from I’ll get pity in return. There’s even an extended rant about how bad it is by a comedian I really like. But I loved it.

The day I took this picture of Atticus, we had decided to have a family picnic at a nearby park. It was one of the rare days when we were all home together and had the energy to tackle an outing, so we packed up toys and our giant picnic blanket, stopped for sandwiches, and enjoyed being outside together.

Modesto is in a valley, and when the sky is blue it is electric blue and goes on forever. I’ve never been to Montana, but I feel like I understand “Big Sky Country” from living here. Bright blue skies and shocking green grass, broken up by the nut and fruit orchards or grape vineyards. If this place is a dirty little town, it’s only because dirt is necessary for things to grow.

On this day we were enjoying the perfect weather and watching as another family played nearby. It didn’t take long before the grandmother struck up a conversation, asking us about Atti and where he went to school, telling us her history as an aide in an elementary school, and offering us her hard-won wisdom in how to advocate for children with disabilites. That’s something I’ve always been able to count on here. The people.

There’s something about living in an agricultural community that makes people connected in ways I’ve never experienced anywhere else. When everyone is a farmer, their livelihood depends on one another – helping out during harvests, loaning materials, offering their expertise, pitching in. And that spirit seems to have carried over even when the farms aren’t the main employers anymore. If someone can help, they often do. And I just haven’t found that other places. Here cashiers will ask for my phone number so they can bring me plant cuttings. Neighbors will bring me vintage blue mason jars because they know I bottle. Teachers will send Atti home with lemons and blackberries from their garden.

Modesto certainly has its problems. The economy has been hard, there aren’t a lot of opportunities for education, and we have the rash of problems you’d expect from a place dealing with poverty – obesity, crime, drug addiction. But we also have roots. Having lived so many places around the country, and so many places where everybody was from somewhere else, it was a revelation to come to a place where people have lived here for generations. Where they return to run family businesses. Where the church pews are lined every week with parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. This isn’t the only place that fits that description, I have a feeling I’m going to find that same thing in Placerville, but Modesto was the first place that offered it to me, and for that it will always have my heart.

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My Favorite Things About Modesto

Aside from the things I’ve featured in my Best of Modesto series, here’s a few more things I’ll miss.

The produce
Local Tomatoes

This bead store
Bead Store

The best taqueria ever
My favorite taqueria

and the fact that since Modesto had a big boom in the 50′s, the whole place is stuffed with gorgeous midcentury architecture.
Midcentury architecture

Gable roof and stone facing

Old sign

Olive oil Store

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Year of Pleasures: Random Act of Kindness

Waffle Shop
My little family went out for breakfast together on Saturday morning. We’ve all been working incredibly hard on our different endeavors, so it was wonderful to drop everything and focus on each other. We had a great meal, Atticus ate pancakes with his dad, and just enjoyed being together on a sunny summer morning.

Atti was in full on charmer mode. Singing songs, giving hugs and kisses, chattering away. He is never happier than when we’re all together. It was a great time.

The waitress put down our check, and then came back a few minutes later and took it away. We couldn’t figure out what that was about, but I left Bear behind to sort out the bill while I took Atti to the car. He came out with a grin on his face and shrugging his shoulders. Somebody had paid our bill for us.

Our waitress said that somebody did it as a random act of kindness, so they wanted to remain anonymous. Personally, I think Atti stole their heart, and then their wallet.

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2011 Year of Pleasures #40

Elvis Impersonators

Just a regular night in Modesto. Elvis impersonators holding a hula hoop contest in the parking lot of the A&W Drive-In. Man, I love this weird little town.

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2011 Year of Pleasures #11

Flowering tree

Spring has hit Modesto, and everywhere I drive I’m surrounded by glorious flowering trees. Orchards line many of the streets near me, so I get to watch as the nut and fruit trees rejoice in the change of the season. It’s glorious.

Except for the fact that I, like most of the people living in this valley, have suddenly developed allergies. Every day at 3:00 all my energy leaves me at once and I get a splitting headache. Right now my nose is completely stuffed and my eyes are running like they’re training for a marathon. But I’ll go see the doctor and get sorted out. It’s still worth it to be a witness to such beautiful seasonal change, and the incredible produce that comes out of it.

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Best of Modesto – Elegant Stitch

Elegant Stitch
This store was one of the hardest things about leaving Modesto, and one of the pure joys to come back to.

Elegant Stitch is one of the best independent needlework stores in the country. And it’s right in my backyard. Among crafters, the local specialty store (LNS if needlework is your passion, LSS if it’s scrapbooking, LQS if you’re a quilter, you get the idea) is the holy grail. The place where you can go for serious selection from smaller designers, specialty items, in depth knowledge and customer service from people who are as passionate as the subject as you are. It seems that everywhere I live I find myself getting really into whatever medium is reflected in the independent stores. My needlepoint really suffered during the San Diego years while my quilting took off. Now that I’m back I find my fingers itching to pick up a needle and thread and to play around with beautiful overdyed linen.

Elegant Stitch 1
On the day I came by to visit Elegant Stitch had just moved locations from a cozy storefront to a massive industrial space, and already they were hard at work transitioning the warehouse into a feast for the eyes and offering serious inspiration. Everywhere I look I find some other intricate little treasure I want to hold in my hand with awe.

Not only do they have rooms full of beautiful things to marvel at, but they also have rooms full of patterns to pour through, including an incredibly gorgeous floor to ceiling card catalog of patterns from popular designers. If Atti would let me, I could spend hours there.

Elegant Stitch 2
The customer service is wonderful. I swear there have been times when they lady helping me was just as excited about what I was making as I was, pulling out bolt after bolt of linen to pick out exactly the right shade to use.

And best of all, not only does this place have a couple of store cats, but the owner also brings her little doggies around. The last time I was there the doggies and Atti couldn’t get enough of each other as they licked his little toes and crawled into the stroller to snuggle. All while I dreamed of intricate little designs and all the beautiful things that could be made with them.

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2011 Year of Pleasures #4

Bare tree 2
San Diego had many charms, but I don’t miss the palm trees. I’m loving being back in a place where trees lose their leaves and I get to look at these beautiful bare branches up against that pale winter sky.

Bare tree 1
Modesto is in the heart of the breadbasket of California, where everything grows so beautifully, and each town has their agricultural specialty. For Modesto it’s nuts. Our minor league baseball team is even named the Nuts. It’s a major point of local pride.

The nut trees in winter are such glorious grizzled things of unconventional beauty. They’re so gnarled and twisted they look like ancient cowboys marked by life on the plains.

Bare tree 3

These trees are just the ones that live at the end of my neighborhood and aren’t anything special, but even these ordinary ones look beautiful when they’re bare and stripped down. And they’ll be beautiful again in a few weeks when they break out in buds.

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2011 Year of Pleasures #3

Shockingly green

The overcast winter light makes indoor picture taking nearly impossible, but it’s also wonderful to look out the window. All the vacant lots left behind by building companies going bust are filled with bright green grass that only looks brighter up next to that pale gray sky. It makes me want to stroll amongst it and let my thoughts turn to Willoughby.

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Best of Modesto – Sciabica’s olive oil

Sciabica's olive oil

By now you all probably know of my obsession with flavored oils and vinegars. I’m such a sucker for them I swear that as soon as my feet hit the pavement of a fair or farmers market, I can smell the balsamic calling to me. I was telling a local friend about the day I ate an entire 8 oz bottle of dipping blend with a big hunk of bread, and she told me that I should check out Sciabica’s.

I’ve driven past this building a million times and only admired the architecture. It’s straight out of the late 50′s with gorgeous stonework and it just sent my midcentury design alarm pinging (More on that in a future post). But the other day when I found myself stopped at the light on the corner with this building, I decided to go in and poke around.

I didn’t take too many pictures for two reasons. 1) I managed to leave home without a stroller, so I had to carry a squirmy and angry Atticus in my arms the whole time I was there, and 2) the clerk was the most adorable boy who couldn’t have been older than thirteen, and I thought it would be wiser to avoid taking pictures without parental approval.

olive oil tasting
My host gave me an olive oil tasting, and talked me through all the different flavors of each variety, sounding every bit like a practiced sommelier. I got such a kick out of him. Here was this sweet toehead in a black t-shirt with Darth Vader on the front, pointing out the nuttiness of one variety of olive oil, and the earthiness of another.

It really was wonderful stuff, though. Most flavored oils I’ve tried are flavored by immersing ingredients in the oil, and then the oil picks up the flavor. But it’s always subtle, and the major note is still olive oil.

Sciabica’s actually cold presses the other ingredients at the same time as the olives, so you get tons of wonderful basil oil or garlic oil or lemon oil right along side the olive oil. The taste is so exceptional. My young friend was telling me about all kinds of uses for them besides just dunking them in bread as I am wont to do. My favorite was when he mentioned that they’ll brush the griddle with orange olive oil before spreading out waffle batter. Is that a great idea, or what?

Sciabica’s is a family business, as evidenced by my young olive sommelier. He told me stories of running the cash register when he was too short to see over it. A great, local product from a family business in my new hometown. It just warms my heart with the all-American-ness of it all.

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