Grasslands Bakery and Cafe, Sonoita, Arizona: 1996–2010, The End of an Era

Today was the last day the Grasslands Bakery and Cafe was open; as I’ve explained here before, my parents decided earlier this month to close the bakery, mostly because of concerns about my mom’s health.

It was an emotional day, because the few people who came in were really very saddened by the bakery closing; for folks who live in the area, and who appreciate good food made with integrity, it’s a huge loss.

My story of the closing began last weekend, when I drove to Sonoita to get ready for the final “sale”:  my mom had things she wanted to sell from the kitchen, like her Cordon Bleu casseroles, as well as many of her potted cactus plants behind the bar and on the patio.  I’d promised to price things and assemble a sale table to prepare for the closing weekend.

The day before I drove the 50 miles to Sonoita, there’d been a lot of rain and snow in southern Arizona, and the Santa Rita Mountains, from this view en route to the Grasslands, were all white:

Once at the Grasslands,I went behind the bar to get started my pricing project; this is the lovely view behind the bar:

All cactus plants would be for sale (most of them sold BTW); isn’t this a lovely tableau? Aside from the great food, something folks are sure to miss about the Grasslands is the aesthetic:

I stacked up #10 tins of tomatoes, roasted chiles, artichoke hearts and bags of pasta on the bar, and priced everything with stickers: here’s the bar transformed into a sales table:

And here’s the final view:  while working, I remembered that that this very tasteful dining environment was once, in the early 90s, a dive bar called El Vaquero. I went there only once, I took some friends in for a drink; my memories of the place included bright green Astroturf on the floor, a pinball machine and clearly intoxicated patrons snorting coke off of the very bar where I’d just stacked the half-price Cordone Bleu casseroles.  El Vaquero and The Grasslands are night and day. In 1995 when my parents acquired the property it took an intensive amount of work to remodel the place; today, at last 2 long-time customers told me they remember seeing my mom outside back in ’95 with a pick-axe digging the footing for the block wall around the patio. I can remember scraping up the old tile (in retrospect, I hope it didn’t have asbestos in it!) and I can also remember a few painful back sprains from that work.

Anyway, after stacking up the bar, I put price tags on all the potted plants out on the patio, even those with snow on them:

And on those that were snow-free:

So, that was last weekend. This morning, when I came in the back door of the bakery, I thought I heard a different voice inside in the kitchen….and I was right, one of my mom’s (many) younger brothers came to visit on this last day….and he was eating breakfast in the kitchen. Here is my uncle, Thomas Schmidt, with my mom:

I then started to take photos of customers who came in to eat or buy stuff to go and say good-bye; here’s my parents w/Gary Naban and Lori Monti:

And, here’s Chris and Sandy;  I remember first meeting them 15 years ago. Chris washed dishes on weekends for my parents last year and was very helpful to them on busy days; while I’m an amateur weather-geek, he’s an actually employed as a weather geek: Chris, keep up the accurate forecasting!

I got John and Kay Bevan to pose w/my mom in front of all the canned preserves; John and Kay used to come into the Ovens of Patagonia, when my folks owned that place. We’ve known John and Kay for a very long time. After I went to massage school, Kay was one of my very first clients. Thanks you guys for your many years of patronage!

And in yet another farewell pic, here’s Steve and Gabriel in the kitchen w/my mom and dad. I think Steve and Gabriel started coming in after 2001, which is when I moved to Tucson and worked less often at the Grasslands. They asked me why I wasn’t taking over the Grasslands (not knowing all the time I put in the place early on); but the real answer to that is, I’m not my mom, and she’s really the heart and soul of the bakery and is the real reason for its success. I mean, everyone loves my mom; what is there not to love?

I got one last shot of the last brotchen–what I’ll miss most–and the last cookie batter my mom made this afternoon:

In the last hour being open, here are some of our very beloved and long-term local customers–Ernie Hann, Gloria Engle-Hann (an enthusiastic and talented–yes!!–quilter) and Bernice Pomeroy, who taught piano to my brothers Frank and John when they were kids. These 3 folks just have the best vibe. I always enjoyed taking care of them and waiting on them, just lovely people, thanks so much!

Here’s me and my mom and dad, after we closed up and locked the door:

And, finally, here’s my folks with India, who moved to Arizona from Montana last year, and who’s worked for my parents since November; she’s just been a wonderful support and great help in that short time. Plus she’s a new friend! Thanks India.

I know there will be many, many people who will day-trip to Sonoita from Tucson or Phoenix or further afield, expecting to find their favorite bakery open. And they’ll be disappointed, at best; I think a lot of people will be very saddened, even devastated.

Most customers at the Grasslands weren’t locals, they were tourists or from out-of-town. It’s impossible to contact these people and let them know, so they can avoid being inconvenienced. The Grasslands webpage now reflects the closure. But the Grasslands is not hooked into social media platforms; there’s no tweets or Facebook  friends. The pace is old-world.

To all the folks out there who’ve come in over the years, thank you very, very much. The Grasslands was a special place.

Photography by Norma Jean Gargasz

When Bearbear and I discovered the wildcat dog park in my neighborhood late last year, I met Norma Jean Gargasz and her demure but sporty dog Jazz. Norma Jean is a very talented photographer and her work is visible–and for sale–here. Norma Jean remembered me from my parent’s bakery in Tucson in the late 70s and early 80s, Monika’s Bakery.

I just bought an 8×10 print of Norma Jean’s, and she said I could post the image; it’s the Mustang Mountains, as seen from the Arizona Trail in the western foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains:

This reduced-pixel version doesn’t do justice to the full-size image; this is what Sonoita, Arizona, looks like. I just love the wide open space.

Thanks Norma Jean for such beautiful work.

OMG It Finally Rained!!!!

I’ve had no real measurable rainfall at my house since last July; 2009 saw Tucson get about 6 inches of rain. It was a disaster; even the saguaro in my yard looked parched.

But all that changed this week: in the past 5 days I got 2.5 inches of rain at my home. And when it rains that much here in the winter, there’s snow in the mountains.

I’ve posted photos on this blog of the (usually dry) bike/pedestrian path where Bearbear and I go for walks. Here’s a shot near sunset today of the semi-urban path, with water:

The condos kind of ruin things. Oh well. Bearbear was very good and sat–per my instruction–as I took my photo:

Once the sun goes down, the Catalina Mountains usually turn pink in the fall, winter, and spring when the angle of the sun is just right. The pointy bit, which you can barely see,  is Finger Rock. Again, too bad about the condos.

I remember going on a forced march up that trail to Finger Rock when I was in 6th grade. I don’t think I’ve been back since; that trail is like going up stairs, and I think it’s about a mile of elevation gain per mile of trail.

Writing this, I’m reminded of  a story in the Arizona Star about 15 years ago, when I think Forest Service employees found a fort someone had illegally built up near the base of Finger Rock; someone had hauled up concrete (!) and water up the murderous trail and actually mixed and poured concrete and built a small, barely perceptible fort; there was evidence that people had spent some time living in it, too.  Insane. I mean, that is really nuts.  I admire whoever had the nerve to do that; though  he or she may very well be eligible for admission into a psychiatric hospital.

I just searched for a link to the story, but, I can’t find one. Too bad. It’s a unique bit of local history. Here’s a final shot of it getting dark as Bearbear and I headed home, to the unusual sound of running water:

More soon on updated quilt art, fiddle tune transcriptions, and the closing of the Grasslands.

Randal Bays House Concert

A couple of nights ago Randal Bays, a talented Irish fiddler and guitarist, was in Tucson for a house concert;  about 40 people showed up. I never met him before but heard only good things about him. And what I heard was true; he not only put on a good show, he really made an effort to make sure everyone present felt welcome and included.

I asked if I could take some photos of him while he played, to post on this blog, and he was kind enough to say yes. The photos look fine, but in them you can’t see how friendly he is; most fiddlers, when you take a picture of them, are looking down or away and they look asleep or else deep in thought, though I remember one who smoked a pipe while playing, Vincent-someone, a big tall fellow, that was years ago, in New Zealand.

So please click here for a better photo than what I was able to take; Randal’s website is impressive.

It is so hard to be a traveling musician these days, dependent on patrons–either listeners or students–for an income. While listening to Randal, I found myself wishing musicians and artists like him got more support. And why not? The arts greatly improve the quality of our lives.

I was talking to my fiddle pal Beanie today–of the Red Wellies–about the  show and about my sense that it’s probably never been harder to be a musician on the road, trying to drum up interest and business. Even in this nation’s Great Depression there was funding for the arts, which supported the likes of Mark Rothko. Geez. And yet today, we have no interest–as a collective–in giving the next Rothko a leg up. You’d think I’d no longer be stunned at what we value, as a collective. But, I continue to be stunned. No doubt it’s why I spend so much time with my sewing machine and my fiddle.

Anyway, as for the house concert; it was a fantastic listening experience. A good friend of mine said later of Randal that he’s a real mensch:  I agree. Well done! As they say in Ireland (perpetually, it seems, at sessions): lovely.

Grasslands Bakery and Cafe Closing 01-31-10

My mom called me last Wednesday, January 13, to tell me that she and my dad just decided to close The Grasslands at the end of the month. My mom has some health concerns. Even though it’s very sudden, that’s just how it has to be. I think only people who’ve confronted a serious health crisis know how it becomes easy to just drop everything; there really isn’t any alternative.

My brother John was visiting from Boston when my parents made the decision to close; he’s going home in about….8 hours. John teaches music at Clark College in Worcester, MA. I went to visit him and my parents today at The Grasslands; here they are, doesn’t my mom look just crazy-happy? Probably because she has about half-a-dozen days left to wake up at 3:00AM to bake:


John’s piano teacher–Bernice Pomeroy–from his teen years came in to see John, and also because she heard The Grasslands is closing:

John and my dad played some music together, here they are playing a Lenorard Cohen tune:

And here they are playing a guitar duet, an Eagles tune:

And finally, here’s John playing guitar, accompanying me on the fiddle. Notice that the chairs have arms. DO NOT play the fiddle in a chair with arms. I should know better. Ouch.

John is a very gifted musician. It’s too bad he doens’t live around here, because I’d love to be able to play with such a great guitarist; he makes even the most mediocre playing shine! Oh well. One day I’ll live somewhere with great Irish tunes.

The mood was very happy. There weren’t a lot of customers. The Grasslands has been open for 14 years. It’s really an oasis, and my mom’s very kind, upbeat energy has always drawn people in; plus, she’s very good at creating a harmonious, beautiful environment–who wouldn’t want to eat in such a place?

I’ll post more photos in the next few weeks. Get in while you can for some danish.

Weeknight Sewing

I’m midway through Highest Duty by Capt. Sully Sullenberger and I continued listening to the audio book last night while I sewed; I think the story is very compelling. I love listening to a good story while I’m working on a creative project. When I’m finished I’ll write more about what I think about the book.

So, this is my “quilt top”; all my pieces of hand-dyed or screen-printed fabric are sewn together here, along with the piece of fabric along the sides with the reverse applique clouds. Remember, all this fabric was once as white as snow:

Now I’ll start adding shapes to the top, as well as cutting some away; here’s the first “sheer” shape I added, you can see it in the upper left-hand corner:

It’s faint, but that’s the idea. Soon I’ll have layers of different shapes. I hope it’ll look as cool as I imagine it.