Two years ago, I sent my 10-year-old son Kapp to the Philadelphia suburbs for a week with my brother and his family. Being from the land of the Liberty Bell and the Philly cheesesteak, Kapp’s cousins couldn’t wait for him to tuck into a greasy hunk of beef and cheese dripping with fried onions.
“What’s a cheesesteak?” Kapp asked innocently when his cousins told him about the hometown classic.
“It’s like a sub,” my brother offered to my son’s bewildered face. “Or a grinder.” Still bewildered. “You know, a bun with meat and cheese.”
Kapp’s brow didn’t unfurrow. “You mean, like, on a baguette?” My son ultimately ate the famed downtown grub—spongy white roll slathered with mayonnaise and all—but not with much gusto apparently. Ever since, my brother’s burger-and-spaghetti household has made that San Francisco foodie moment the target of endless mockery.
In our 49 square miles, there’s no denying we are hunkered down in a haze of handmade pasta and single-cup, slow-drip coffee. No slice-and-bake Pillsbury rolls with sticky orange frosting in these parts. Cinnabon? That’s downright contraband. And why wouldn’t it be? The 100 miles surrounding the Golden Gate Bridge produces 20 million tons of food a year. In fact, according to the American Farmland Trust, if the San Francisco foodshed were a state, only Texas, Iowa, and the whole of California would rank higher in farm production.
Sure, I’m implicated in my three kids’ gastronomic corruption by virtue of raising them here amidst all the fresh mozzarella and fleur de sel. Still, I largely claim innocence. Neither my husband David nor I would even register on any bona fide foodie meter, and we don’t aspire to. Yes, David is five years a vegan—definitely a liability—but he’s generally lowbrow about it all. His go-to dinner is sliced polenta drowned in a half-jar of Newman’s Own tomato sauce. He also chows down on plenty of cookies.
In our Presidio home, veggies don’t come from some local purveyor we met at the Fort Mason farmers market. We buy bagged romaine lettuce and peaches so out of season that they travel from Chile. We’ve never been to Flour + Water or Dynamo Donut and Coffee, and we certainly don’t raise bees, chickens, or anything edible. Several years back at a preschool auction, we purchased a tomato-squeezing, melon-thumping tour of the Ferry Building with Alice Waters. It went unused. Slow food sacrilege, right?
Yet somehow, my kids are still seaweed-snarfing, San Pellegrino-slurping, Burmese food-loving squirts. They fight over the last pluot and prefer their edamame salted, please, and hot. When set free at AT&T Park with $40, my son and his sister Elliot bypass the hot dogs and pizza, going straight for pad thai served in a handy little Chinese food takeout container. Other times, they split an order of pot stickers.
“Can you believe the pot stickers cost $6 an order?” Kapp marveled once. When I asked him how they tasted, he crinkled his nose. Not Clement Street’s finest, apparently.
But really, could my absolutely run-of-the-mill San Francisco kids have turned out any other way? At every turn, my children meet the grass-fed, herb-infused, and hydroponically grown. A stroll down Chestnut Street from our rental offers up an albacore tuna tostada and Molinari’s famous meatballs, all of which can be chased down by a Pacific Puffs choux pastry stuffed with Madagascar bourbon vanilla cream or a lemon oil tea cake from We Olive. Even on restaurant menus, chefs reinterpret and elevate classic schoolyard junk food. Think pickled hot links with arugula and blue cheese at Show Dogs and an apple-pear “pop tart” at Foreign Cinema. Kids, eat your hearts out.
Although David and I aren’t overly discriminating, our children get plenty of food education at school, where they rub elbows with the knowing progeny of some of SF’s It restaurateurs. When the Western Addition hotspot Nopa first opened, my then-5-year-old daughter sampled chevre crostini and French fries dipped in smoked tomato, compliments of the restaurant’s owner Jeff Hanak, whose daughter was in her class. That same class celebrated their birthdays with agave-sweetened lemonade and forwent store-bought cupcakes with two inches of hydrogenated oil chocolate frosting for one of three sanctioned brands of naturally sweetened fruit pops. What fun! These days, Elliot recesses with the daughter of Delfina owners Craig and Annie Stoll, who bring perfectly crisp, wood-burned margherita pizzas with just a touch of basil to San Francisco Day School picnics. The school also ditched ice cream Fridays and added whole-wheat pizza and soy nut butter to its cafeteria offerings.
But that’s only half of it. I was recently trolling the web for bento boxes to replace my daughter’s moldy, almond-butter-crusted lunchbox after a friend at the Writers’ Grotto pulled one out of her bag. It had struck me as nifty with its cute, stacking snack compartments. “Oh, Abigail and Lucinda have those,” Elliot said drolly when she glanced at the red enamel box on my screen. Figures.
Another time for dinner, I grilled up some juicy watermelon and charred yam planks. “We’re so weird,” quipped Kapp. “Do you think anyone else we know has ever had this?” Probably not outside of SF. But as he jabbed a thick melon “steak” with his fork, I think I detected a note of pride.
Diana Kapp is a member of the Writers’ Grotto and has lived in San Francisco for 20 years.