OFF THE ORTEGA
Not too long ago, Alba — sometimes referred to as the Warden — and I were sitting having dinner and shooting the breeze, and I remarked about the great mushrooms that we were chomping away on. Well, this opened the dam for a bunch of memories to flood around in my brain about mushrooms, but it didn’t stop just there. No, I can always enlarge the story I’m on at the moment, and it may end up miles and miles away before I’m through — or interrupted, which seems to happen a lot lately — or maybe I have simply forgotten what I was zeroing in at the time, losing my train of thought.
From my earliest days, I can recall mushrooms being served, and I loved them, and I started to tell her how we would go up “off the Ortega” to pick mushrooms. Off the Ortega refers to The Ortega Hwy, State Highway 74, which winds its way east out of San Juan Capistrano, through the old Mission Viejo Ranch over the mountains, and then up at the top where the mountain ends, it drops down in a deep descent into Elsinore and the Lake. Spectacular! Through the Ortega Hwy. There are these canyons that we would go to in the old days. There was La Cristianitas Canyon, Los Gobernadores Canyon to name a couple.
In the summertime, we would take vacations off the Ortega — maybe a week, or maybe less. It depended on when the women got sick and tired of the kids, and all the dirt and dust from the camping in tents, and having to cook out on a grate over a fire pit. There would be quite a group of us. By the time you had my family — parents and 3 kids, Aunt Mae and Titán, Uncle Frank and Aunt Ada, with only a couple of their grown children, and about 6 grandchildren quite a good-size little tent city would spring up. In the early morning, the men, and the teen-age boys would go off hunting for dove, if it was dove season, or it might be quail. When it was deer season only the men went, which was nice because they were out of the house and the wives’ hair for about a week. Now at the camp, the women would clean up after breakfast then they would sit around gossiping about what was going on down the road about 15 miles in San Juan. They also would be yelling at the kids trying to keep them in tow and out of trouble. The kids were running all over the place playing all kinds of games, tag, hide-and-seek were popular and you could make book that there would be some sort of disagreement, then the moms would have to step in and settle things down and perhaps mete out some punishment to the instigators such as a whack on the behind. No doubt I was on the receiving end plenty of the time. I had one second cousin, “he,” who was 6 months younger than I, and we used to vie for the control of our “subjects,” the other kids. It could lead to “bloodshed.”
When the fellas got bored or tired shooting at those little birds, back they would come to camp with our dinner. They would relax with a beer or a whiskey, while the women and kids would spring into action to get those birds clean. The birds were dropped into a big pot of boiling water, then the hard part –picking off the feathers. I loved this action with a couple of the boys racing to outdo one another. Vivian, my sis, did not engage in this part of the preparation. She was too fastidious to have her hands get dirty, and all those feathers! Ugh!!
When the birds were cleaned, they were laid into huge roasting pans and smothered with chopped tomatoes, sliced onions, garlic (don’t forget the garlic,) bell peppers, or Ortega chiles and placed on the grate to cook over the fire pit. We always spent these little vacations in this same campsite because then nobody would have to dig a new fire pit each time. Dinner was delicious. There would be frijoles, homemade tortillas, and some kind of salad, and always home made olives. For refreshments there was Dago Red for the folks, and cream soda or milk for the kids. Good eating! It seems like only yesterday —-
Off the Ortega for these hunting excursions, or just plain old camping, we would go into the canyons off the north side of the highway, and when we went to pick mushrooms it was off the highway to the south towards the San Juan River. Something else we would go to the river for was watercress, and how good was that!!! Oh, oh. there I mentioned the mushrooms, and it stirred the Warden from her reverie while I had been droning on and on with my story trying to entertain her only to discover it had been putting her to sleep. She had the audacity to interrupt me and quiz me about “mushrooms” and if I knew about the poisonous ones, and how to tell them apart. I guess I did — I’m still here, and I never heard of anyone croaking in Capistrano from eating the wrong ones.
Now I’ve forgotten where I was in my “Off the Ortega” story, but I can tell you just one more thing and let it go at that. I have a sort of Rules Book. It is not like the monstrous edition that the Warden has to keep me in check and which is named Home Alone Rules Book. My book is short (one page) and to the point. This is it.
AT ALL TIMES, the following items must be in stock in the refrigerator, or in the pantry: Tons (well, 2-3 pounds) of butter
At least one back up jar of Best Foods Mayo
Plenty of mushrooms, fresh and canned
Lots of jars of varied types of olives And don’t EVER forget several backups of nice Tequila, Silver or Añejo