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(article, Cheryl Sternman Rule)
It's not that worse things haven’t happened in the past two weeks, because they have. From the devastating tragedy in Mumbai to continued layoffs, foreclosures, and the dismal economic forecast, the recent announcement that Napa Valley’s Copia has filed for bankruptcy seems like small potatoes. But the news still hit me hard. My husband and I went to Copia — wine country’s paean to food, wine, and the arts — in July 2006, during our first-ever vacation from our kids. My mother-in-law, visiting from Dallas, agreed to watch the boys so we could have a little time away. In a twist of unfortunate timing, the region experienced a massive heat wave that weekend, with temperatures in Napa and Sonoma nearing 110 degrees. [%image reference-image float=left width=400 caption="At Copia."] But Copia was an oasis. As we paid our admission and entered the building, my breathing quickened almost imperceptibly. A whole museum devoted to food, wine, and cookery! Due in part, I'm sure, to the scorching heat outside, the air-conditioned museum was quite crowded, but visitors gave one another wide berths and the space never felt cramped. We wandered the first floor, then rounded a corner and came upon several long tables set up for a plum tasting. Scores of plum varieties and hybrids were sliced and laid out for sampling. We savored plum after plum, and grabbed index cards and pencils so we could jot down our favorites and share feedback with the local growers, all of whom stood by to answer questions and interact with visitors. It was all so, I don't know, California. Some people assume Copia to be highbrow or elitist, but that wasn't my experience. It was a friendly place filled with approachable, knowledgeable people and a diverse array of visual, sensory, and culinary displays. The part that moved me most was a photography exhibit with portraits of career waitresses. Not a glamorpuss among them, these women had spent their lives working in diners, truck stops, and coffee shops across the U.S. Accompanying plaques described who they were, where they lived, and why, in their own words, they continued to find great personal satisfaction in their largely low-paying jobs, even though many of them — in their 60s and 70s — had been on their feet for decades. I looked at these portraits and thought, truly, how terrific it was for a museum to celebrate a sector of the food industry that's so often overlooked. These were not celebrity chefs, or fly-by-night actresses waiting tables on their way to their next audition; they were hardscrabble, everyday women, and Copia thrust them proudly into the limelight, in full color. Copia deserves to remain open not just for its wine tastings and visits by brand-name chefs, but so people like me and you can remember just how important a role food — and the people who grow it, produce it, cook it, serve it, and enjoy it — plays in our ever-more harried, complicated lives. p(bio). Cheryl Sternman Rule is a San Jose-based food writer, a contributing editor at Eating Well, and the creative force behind the blog 5 Second Rule.