Ernest Miller left us last week. The name may not sound familiar even if you profess to be a Southern California foodie. However, if you’ve ever gone to the OC Fair and spent time in the hangar-like OC Promenade, you saw his face. It was hard to miss, because it was always beaming. When you did see it, you also saw a careful arrangement of jars and cans filled with jellies, pickles, briny veggies, and other foods nearby. This was his handiwork. His forte at the fair was food preservation, and he was a master of his craft. But they were more than curated cylinders of food. They were starting points to larger, enriching conversations about the history and science behind what we eat.
They were great conversations, and they continued with great fluidity whenever I was asked to come by the fair to judge a culinary event. Oftentimes, the chance to catch up with Ernie – if you knew him well, you knew him as Ernie – outclassed the judging experience. There was always something new and fresh happening in the world of food science for him to share with me, and there was always a piece of local culinary history for me to learn about. Not once did he let his knowledge make him sound superior or condescending. He knew I loved and understood food, and he anchored everything he shared with me with that in mind. His words always left me fulfilled after the judging session was over.
It was also a pleasure to watch him work the fair, whether he was surrounded by his jars of preserved excellence, or on the OC Pavilion stage as a presenter or as a fellow judge. He brought a certain vibrancy to whatever he was doing, but it wasn’t the energy of a carnival barker or a PR pitchman. It came from a place of dude-you-gotta-see-this level of excitement, like a teenager sharing a viral video with his buddy for the first time. His passion was infectious. You may not have known anything about food preservation before sitting in on one his sessions, but you’d leave an invested believer.
When a person goes, those left behind contemplate which moments to hold dearest. When I learned that Ernie had passed at the way-too-young age of 51, one moment instantly emerged, and it’s been kicking around my bean for days. It was 2014, and I was at the OC Fair with my family. I had just finished judging an open-to-the-public food competition, and I was ready to spend the rest of the day fawning over barnyard animals and riding rides with our daughters. We stopped by Ernie’s booth before we embarked on the rest of the night. Our kids – particularly our youngest – was fascinated by the preservation process.
A little context here: My wife and I had adopted our girls in 2012. They were 8 and 9 when they moved in with us through the foster system, and they lived the McDonald’s lifestyle before they came to us. They knew about pickling thanks to their love of kosher dills, but for the most part, Ernie’s canned and preserved foods practically came from alien lands. I had previously told Ernie they were adopted, but I didn’t go into detail about their limited food exposure. I didn’t have to – Ernie picked up on that swiftly and organically. He spent the next 20 minutes explaining the importance of food preservation, the science behind fermentation, and how jelly was made, all while sneaking the girls a few choice bites of goodness. This was the first time our girls had truly been exposed to food science, and Ernie’s patient, kind lesson made it easier for us as parents to close a few culinary holes that years of excessive Happy Meal consumption had created.
I’m very grateful I was able to share the importance of that moment the next time I saw him. Now that he’s gone, I’m just very grateful that our paths crossed as often as they did. RIP, Ernie. You’ll be missed terribly.