Watson Ranch Life: An Inside Look at Sunday Dinner
ust on the outskirts of town in Fallbrook, on a tiny road with only a couple of neighbors, lies what was once an Avocado Grove, and is now the residence of the Watson Ranch. Perfumes of the season ride the wind here. It’s mostly pleasantries, although depending which direction the wind comes from, you’ll meet the rich smell of farm life. The silence here is loud and the night sky beckons for a moment to pause while the sun goes down — this moment is all too inviting for city dwellers like myself. The vineyard starts the setting with a house on top of the hill, inviting chefs and foodies alike for a feast unlike any other. Needless to say, we wanted a slice of this pie.
Anne Watson is a professional, award-winning food photographer who together with her husband, book author and farmer Tim Watson, shares her ranch life with their closest friends every few months. Anne and Tim invite their friends to retreat from the daily and take the time to enjoy a pot luck at her their home. It becomes a communal experience of sharing and acts as a bringing together of people’s techniques. It is not obligatory to show off, and it is meant to be an enjoyment of food and the community around that food. But to an outsider, it is the feast of kings.
There are no rules or formal niceties that must come into play to participate in this experience, just the hope that the dinner exposes the diners to new things. In the past, items like freshly-hunted bacon-wrapped grilled squirrel have graced the menu, definitely not something one would usually have at a weekend BBQ. Korean BBQ short ribs with garlic noodles, homemade venison sausage, seared dry-aged beef tenderloin, and deep fried whole Watson Ranch turkey are other past dishes that come to mind when reminiscing on this tradition of breaking bread together. You don’t have to make your dish from scratch, and occasionally disasters have occurred where some dishes became inedible — but, there is always plenty of food to go around – and with all of that said there is no judgment, just friends. And if you plan on bringing nothing, plan to roll up your sleeves for clean-up duty. Two fire pits will be going at the end of every dinner, and the only affirmative standing rule is that no one is allowed to touch the fire, except for Anne’s husband, Tim.
Aside from the food, you must be open minded to attend a shindig such as the ones that take place at Watson Ranch. Talking points in conversation include everything from politics to family to music. She encourages her guests to be open minded, listen to other’s opinions and agree to disagree if need be. It’s a place to come and air your grievances. There is a lot of “What do you want out of your life?” discussions that people have, and then it typically ends up being 2 a.m. with 80’s music and dancing on the patio. Don’t worry — no social media posting occurs during the dance party and karaoke moments. This is where you can be yourself, but nobody has to know.
Anne comes from a huge family in the Midwest where food was often at the center of family gatherings. And although her Sunday dinners don’t showcase her grandmother and mother’s mass amounts of pies that dotted the counter tops, and the guests are not related to one another, it still feels like family. In the future, you might see a pie at one of these gatherings. Hold her to it! In honor of her mother who has been known to make 16 pies for eight people, hopefully, it’s pumpkin pie with whipped cream, apple pie a la mode, or vanilla custard pie with Nilla Wafers on top.
Should you have the opportunity to be invited to one of these Sunday dinners, don’t forget to say hi to the ranch animals. Two roosters; Clifford and James (and their harem of 30 hens). Two goats; Dizzy and Pardon. Two pigs; Emily and Earnest (who just had piglets!). One tortoise; Ferrari. Two dogs; Leonard and Montgomery. And their thousands of honey bees; which Tim wants to name but says, “They just won’t sit still long enough!”
Interview with Anne Watson
Q: What does Sunday Dinner mean to you?
Anne Watson: When I hear the words “Sunday Dinner” or “Sunday Supper” I immediately think of our ranch and the home that my husband and I have created out here in Fallbrook. When we moved out here three years ago, our goal was to have a home that was not just a home to ourselves, but also to our friends, and kind of a retreat, if you will. It is a mental and physical retreat, which is partially why we love living out where we live, because whenever I drive home from work, I feel my shoulders relax.
So, when I think of Sunday Supper, we actually started a tradition every month or so where we open our home to our friends, and it is a potluck, where everyone is welcome. We just had one this past weekend, and it ended up being about 8 of us; a few from Los Angeles and a few from Orange County will come up. Everybody brought something, whether it be drinks or desserts. We even have one friend who will bring these crazy two-day marinated short rib and garlic noodles. So, in this way, it becomes a communal experience of sharing. It is very rare that we prepare something for our guests. It is a bringing together of people’s techniques.
It is kind of funny because one thing that we have found that when we have friends that are chefs come out, they will bring something if they want to, but then sometimes we tell them not to bring any food; to let us cook for them. They have been cooking for everyone all week! It is not obligatory to show off; it is meant to be an enjoyment of food and the community around that food.
Q: If you had a set of rules (ideology) for Sunday Supper, what would it be?
AW: It is kind of funny, but the first thing I think of is Fight Club. It is not that we don’t talk about Sunday Supper, but we don’t have a formality about it. There are no rules!
There are no structured rules, but I would say this; You are able to do as much or as little as you want when you come. You can show up with nothing – whatever you want to do. Anything goes, and everything is welcome, provided that you share. You must share.
I hesitate to say this, but it would be great if one of our rules would be to expose us to new things. Somebody once brought lamb neck, which is not something that I would normally go out there and buy and he barbecued it for us, and it was delicious. The garlic noodles that we had over the weekend, our friend David incorporated fried fish cakes in them. It was delicious. Expose us to new things and be different, there is no judgment. If it is a total disaster, and we have had a couple of disasters where something is inedible, we don’t judge.
Also, you don’t have to make it from scratch. We have one friend who says she is not a cook, but she will always bring amazing cookies from some bakery, or macaron, or chocolate. Then the people who bring nothing, usually end up on clean-up duty.
Q: Aside from the food, what do you talk about? Is there a rule for that?
AW: As far as what we discuss, I think a rule has to be that you are open-minded. Because there will be everything; guns, there will be some people that are pro-guns and own them, and some that are very anti-guns. But there is never any heated argument. We listen to each other’s opinions, and we agree to disagree. It is really interesting because none of us are actually related, so it has also become a place where we can come and air our grievances.
Here’s another; there will be fire, and no one is allowed to touch the fire except my husband, Tim. He has two fire pits going at the end of every dinner, and his rule is that you cannot touch the fire, even though people end up poking it with a stick.
Carlos (Salgado) ended up playing guitar for us last time. There is a lot of “what do you want out of your life” discussions that people have, and then it just ends up being 2 a.m. with 80’s music and dancing on the patio. We usually have karaoke very late at night. I don’t know if these are rules, but these are just the things that happen! One rule is that my husband must sing at least one song of karaoke so we can all admire how bad he is. Another rule is that we do not post social media videos of each other doing embarrassing things. This is where you can be yourself, but nobody has to know.
Q: Can you give us a time-lapse of traditions of breaking bread in your life? Did they start with your family, and how they have evolved now?
AW: Some of my first memories of breaking bread together as a child would be vivid memories I have of going to my grandparent’s house in Indiana. I was probably about three or four. My grandmother was Mexican, and my mom is the eldest of eight children- I have a ton of relatives, so our family Thanksgivings were huge. My dad cannot cook to save his life, but he loves to clean, so he would usually clean. It does translate to Sunday Suppers; if you don’t cook, you clean, but you can still eat and enjoy.
I do remember my grandmother making pies. I vividly remember pumpkin pie with whipped cream, apple pie, and vanilla custard pie with Nilla Wafers on top. Very Midwestern- there were just pies everywhere!
It’s very cute because that translated to my mother. My mom makes Thanksgiving meals at our home in California. She started the tradition because my brother or I always had friends who didn’t have family nearby or a place to go, and so we just opened our doors, which is very much like what we do at our home out here. Our Thanksgivings were never just the five of us. It was always my brothers, my mom, me, random college roommates, and best friends and their parents; everybody was welcome, and my mom made 800 pies. There was one Thanksgiving I remember that my brothers and I were crying-laughing because there were 8 of us, and she made 16 pies. We each had two pies!
Q: Will we ever see pies at your Sunday Supper?
AW: That’s really funny because I have never made a pie. I’m not really a pie-maker! I need to clearly get into making pies! I have to carry this on, in honor of my grandmother and my mother.
Then, I got really interested in cooking in high school, and I would collect Martha Stewart Living Magazines- I worshipped Martha Stewart- and I would make sugared fruit centerpieces, and I would make my friends dress up and come over, and I would cook them Filet Mignon. I loved throwing dinner parties – I carried this on as I got older. I loved having my first house when I was in my twenties because I could have dinner parties! It was always very happy. I always hear these tales where people are complaining about Thanksgiving or Christmas, and they say it’s so stressful, and everyone argues, and I just don’t relate to that at all. We have never had big-blow up arguments at the table. We never took each other too seriously, somebody would ask for a dinner roll, and we would throw the roll across the table. That translates to what we do now because it is supposed to be fun, it is not supposed to be formal, stuffy and uncomfortable.
Q: How do these meals vary from your day-to-day meals?
AW: It is just me, my husband and my three-year-old son who live here at the ranch. In the summer, we have my fifteen-year-old step-daughter here with us. Our meals are small, and we eat outside. I like to try new things, and my poor husband is the guinea pig, and sometimes I fail miserably. It differs because life is busy, so one day Tim will cook himself a steak and Russell will be eating a hot dog in front of the television, so we are not a sit-down, formal meal every night kind of family at all.
Q: What themes do you see transfer over to the daily dining from these shareable meals with friends?
AW: One thing that is pretty consistent, is that we tend to buy local, and we try to eat very fresh things. I shop a lot; I usually go to the store every day or every other day because we have a great little market in town where we buy lots of small things. It is very European. My husband and I used to live in Italy, and that is how you shop there because the things go bad quickly. So we continued that. We also try new things a lot. Sustenance and adventure.
Q: Could you go more into the setting of the ranch for our readers?
We are on the outskirts of town, and it is a definitely a rural environment. We live on a tiny lane, and we do have a couple of neighbors. Where we live actually used to be one giant avocado grove. They divided the grove up into three, four, and 5-acre plots, and we are on a four-acre plot ourselves, on top of a little hill that used to be an avocado grove. Over time, water became an issue, and irrigating avocado groves became really expensive, and many people had cut their trees down. We cleared the property, and that is where we put in the vineyard. We have all our parties at the house on the hill, and then when you stand on the balcony and look down, you will see the vineyard on our property below. We also have little animals that take up another quarter of the property. It is very rural and open, and very, very quiet. It is a very live, and let live environment.
Q: What does it smell like during your Sunday Suppers?
AW: There is one smell in particular that is happening. It is citrus and jasmine season. Our lane is lined with orange trees, and then, as part of our property, we have a fruit tree grove. There are tangerines and clementines, lemon, lime and blood oranges. All of these blossom in the evening, and so you have a beautiful perfume of citrus trees and then we have jasmine trees in the back of the house. You definitely get a nice little farm waft every once in a while, too. The barbecue and the smoke from the fires are wafting through the air. And you smell the wine that you are drinking.
Q: What’s life like the following day?
AW: The feeling I always feel on that Monday morning when I wake up after our dinners is that I just love life. It’s a celebration of life and friendship and it’s what we should be doing. Life is very short and sweet. You don’t have to have a reason to celebrate. I have a philosophy: You don’t save the good champagne for later, you open it now. It is being present with your friends and where you are at in the moment.
It all ties into why I feel so incredibly lucky to do what I do for a living. I hope that my pictures help express my passion for food and what it means. It is more than just food; there is so much that goes into that. These dinners are about that; the soul, and passion and what food is and how it brings people together.
I have been asked to take photos of other subjects, and I don’t have the same passion. It is the philosophy my mom taught us as kids; chase what you love, don’t chase money. If you do what you love, the money will follow. Do what you love and do it well, and that is enough.