Edging down the steep embankment, it felt like a secret world was opening up in the bushes alongside the San Lorenzo River in downtown Santa Cruz. Sun glinted off the silver Airstream of Breana White’s Kraft cocktail bar, a clutch of periscopes sprouted from the center of a field, old timey bluegrass music filled the air and waiters magically appeared bearing trays of bubbly and platters of nibbles.
El Salchichero chorizo and salami, lamb meatballs with sheep’s milk yogurt from Garden Variety Cheese and tempting crostini from Tabitha Stroup’s Friend in Cheeses Jam Co. were just part of the first round of the annual Meander dinner party—a locavore’s delight held every June to benefit the Coastal Watershed Council.
While cities across the nation are revitalizing their riverfronts, the San Lorenzo River that flows straight through the center of Santa Cruz gets little love. Hidden between two flood levees, it usually dries up to a trickle in summer and its banks are a no-go zone for many residents, who worry about homeless people, drug use and crime there.
“We’ve kind of turned our backs on the river and left it to its own devices, and that’s unfortunate,” says Kendra Baker, chef and co-owner of the fiercely local Penny Ice Creamery, Picnic Basket and Assembly restaurant.
Baker and designer Timerie Gordon are the masterminds behind Meander, responsible for convincing more than two dozen local food, wine and beer artisans to work together on the event to benefit the river.
“We are all passionate food people with varied interests, but what brings us to Santa Cruz, the reason we’re all here is because we value the natural environment and the beauty of what we have here,” says Baker.
Meander is designed not only to raise money for the CWC, but also to spark the imaginations of those who attend and provide a vision of what the Santa Cruz riverfront could be like.
“Lots of activities, dining and events are possible. I want to see more food and entertainment out there with our natural re- sources,” she says. “It’s the heart of Santa Cruz and we should embrace it.”
CWC is a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the watershed, and executive director Greg Pepping believes getting people down to the river is the first step.
“We want to reconnect the community to the river and help people realize there is this ribbon of green that runs through the city,” he says. “It’s where our water comes from, it’s home to some unusual species, it’s part of our history and it could be part of our future.”
Money raised at the dinner goes to fund year-round San Lorenzo River education programs for children and adults, but it is still a challenge to attract the city’s attention. In addition to the social problems, there’s stiff competition from other natural attractions.
“This is a surf town and we have awesome waves, beaches and oceanfront, so people tend to ignore the river,” says Pepping. “Then there’s the challenge of leadership. When was the last time you heard a politician make the river a top priority?”
Yet he feels privileged to be working on Meander with a virtual who’s who of the Santa Cruz artisanal food scene.
“Quality of life matters to them and to the readers of Edible, for example, and improving the river would improve the quality of life of the city,” he says.
The sit-down part of the dinner is a dazzling experience. Guests meander down the riverbank to a second clearing filled with the bustle of chefs cooking over an open fire. Jessica Yarr of Assembly works shoulder to shoulder with Mark Denham of Soif, for example, while other local culinary stars like
Damani Thomas of Oswald, Katherine Stern of La Posta, Heidi Schlecht of Feel Good Foods and Erin Lampel of Companion Bakeshop do their part. Chef Brad Briske of Home joins the group for this year’s event taking place on June 11.
Dishes like warm shelling beans with squid, handmade spätzle with summer corn, local albacore and grilled pork loin are served family style at beautifully set round tables— which allow diners to face each other and maximize conversation.
“Really long tables are super dramatic and lovely looking, but make it difficult for people to connect,” says Gordon, the wildly creative designer in charge of the look and feel of the dinner.
She devised the periscopes so guests could look at photos of some of the CWC educational projects and she made sure each table was provided with an old-fashioned View-Master loaded with slides of river revitalization projects around the country and the accompanying benefits, such as tax revenues and crime reduction.
Then near the dessert station, located under a string of party lights, Gordon created the “tree of commitment” decked with metallic streamers and ideas on how each guest could continue to interact with the river in the upcoming year. Take a hike, join a wildlife survey and have a picnic were some of the options—canoeing and kayaking are currently prohibited due to sensitive habitats.
“We’re trying to create memories,” says Gordon, who grew up along Soquel Creek in Capitola and loved taking part in the rowboat races. “When we can engage all the senses with the food, the drink, the social, the laughter, then it becomes ingrained.”
Kendra Baker—who also grew up on a river, in her case the American River near Sacramento— has a memory of her own of Meander: “There were lights in the trees, the DJ was spinning music and it was that magic hour just after sunset. Everyone had rosy cheeks and a glass of wine or a beautiful dessert in their hand. Everyone was happy and I could see that this is how we should be using this space.”