With the eminent closing of The Ripe Tomato, Fresno loses yet another gustatory landmark and many will reminisce about softly lit evenings, the rhythmic intoning of the specials of the night and subsequent plates of beautifully presented fare. There is, however, a select group who will also remember an unexpected connection between the restaurant, the high desert and the collective aromas of unwashed bodies.
For more than 20 years, I have taken students and community members on field trips to a canyon within the Coso Range, a high desert zone north of Ridgecrest and within the confines of the Naval Weapons Testing Center. We journey to Little Petroglyph Canyon to study the greatest concentration of ancient rock art in North America. The annual spring, sometimes fall, trip, followed this pattern: Our carpool would leave Fresno State on Friday morning, check into the base in the afternoon, then head up to camp at Birchum Springs. Saturday morning after breakfast, we would drive the additional 10 miles to the mouth of Little Petroglyph, spending the entire day wandering the mile-long canyon with its gleaming desert varnish basalt walls, into which the ancient inhabitants had pecked their designs.
After a long, often hot and always intense day — one has to be vigilant for the Mojave Green, a spectacular species of rattlesnake native to the area — all travelers are bushed and eager for the evening meal, the campfire and the sleeping bag. Sunday morning is spent breaking camp and returning to Fresno State.
Coso evenings were as varied as the participants of the moment: A student suddenly grabbed a moth and popped it into his mouth, thus beginning the CSUF Coso moth-eating competition; an unexpected fiddle once hummed by the campfire; another evening the strains of the love themes from "Spartacus" and "Cinema Paradiso" continued to haunt long after the alto saxophone was in its case and the embers had cooled; on many evenings Ken Pringle, a retired geophysicist from China Lake and trip co-sponsor, regaled us with explanations of celestial patterns in the clear desert night.
One Sunday morning, a small group, maintaining deliberate silence, padded softly through the desert sand and sat at the edge of a scarp looking through the gauzy atmosphere toward the Panamints when, the cloudless sky notwithstanding, came the sound of thunder. ... But this thunder was unshod hooves against basalt as a small herd of wild mustangs, ignoring our silent sitting, sped by us, leaving our jaws agape as their passing gave way to the morning silence.
Of all Coso trip memories, perhaps saddest of all, remains fixed in the minds of those of us who sat around the November fire in 1978 with the gentle Marjaree Mason, not knowing — how could anyone? — that this was to be her last Saturday evening on earth.
Our evening meals were varied and splendid — and not simply because "anything tastes good when you're camping" — but because of the talents of those who volunteered special dishes. But there is special … and then there is special, and for such occasions one needs co-conspirators.
One of my long-term students, Linda Lim, was married to Sunny Lim, then manager of The Ripe T. "Might it be possible," I asked, "for The Ripe Tomato to produce a special secret meal for a Coso Saturday night?" And thus a plot was hatched and left to simmer on the back burners of the conspirators' minds.
On that Saturday evening, the students emerged from the canyon and sat, sweaty, hot and fatigued in their cars for the return to camp. Linda had printed a menu that I distributed from car to car. The sun seared, the sweat ran and these words were read: "Caviar on Pointe Toast … Stuffed Mushrooms … Marinated Spareribs … Potatoes au gratin … French vanilla ice crème, Crepes and Brandy sauce." Most smiled at the absurdity of the obvious joke.
An older student, bone-tired and perhaps thinking the gesture unseemly and mean-spirited, growled "that's not funny." Actually, it was, and delicious to boot.
Once back in camp, the students found the tables covered with linen and the hot menu mains; all attended by several of the conspirators in tuxedo T-shirts. Henry French, who, having squirrelled along his special pan, produced piping crepes and brandy sauce. The French vanilla ice cream that Sonny had hidden in dry ice capped the evening. All marveled at the incongruity of place and meal.
And so, should you be fortunate enough to snare a final reservation at The Ripe Tomato, catch Sonny's eye and look around for a discrete few who seem to slowly search each bite, seeking perhaps a faint trace of fine wind-blown sand … some concrete vestige of a high desert, high-end restaurant liaison of long ago.
Raphael X. Reichert is professor emeritus of art history at Fresno State, where he taught for 38 years.