Stop 1: Sanger, CA
The second of our virtual trails begins today on the topic of Food. This one will encompass a lot of things that make American great – great restaurants, great food producers, great craft brews and wine, great food trucks, etc etc etc. America’s history as a melting pot of all cultures has made it the most diverse food scene in the world but as much as that is true, it all starts with farms.
When I think of farms I tend to think of the Midwest, it’s the whole Amber Waves of Grain thing. And if you have spent any time driving in the middle of this country you know that there are miles and miles and miles of just that. It is also tempting to think that farming is something that happens “out in the country,” far away from cities and towns.
But the largest U.S. state in terms of agricultural output is California, which, of course, is also the nation’s most populous and much of that farming is done within a few hours drive of both San Francisco and Los Angeles. Nearly all of the top 10 ag counties in any given year are in California and tops on that list recently is Fresno County…right in the middle of California’s Central Valley.
There are not that many restaurants of note in Sanger, CA – a search on Trip Advisor reveals that Starbucks is 9th and Jack-in-the-Box 12th among the best restaurants in town. But every great restaurant in San Francisco or Los Angeles (or New York for that matter) owes a debt to Sanger and the other towns of Fresno County for many of the fruits and vegetables on which their chefs work their magic.
I’ve chosen Sanger as the base for this stop on the Food and Drink Trail but it might easily be nearby Clovis, or Kingsburg or Reedley, where the 2021 Fresno County Blossom Trail officially opened yesterday. Here’s a cool video of what the Blossom Trail looks like from this time last year. For those watching from snow-covered climes, that white stuff on the ground isn’t snow…it is almond blossoms.
California is said to produce a third of the nation’s vegetables and two-thirds of its fruit and most of that is grown in the Central Valley, an expanse of about 18,000 square miles primarily made up of the Sacramento River valley in the north and the San Joaquin valley in the South.
Fresno County is particularly known for fruit and nuts. Roughly 80 percent of the world’s supply of almonds grows in the Central Valley, much of it here and grapes (and the raisins they become) are also a huge commodity. The burgeoning Almond industry is controversial on multiple levels (see below) but it has been a boon to the area’s farmers as prices for almonds, which now rank as the US’ most valuable specialty crop export, have risen steadily over the last decade.
Today’s virtual celebration, though, is really about all the crops that grow in this region. I have never been to the Central Valley at blossom time, which is about to begin, but I spent a lot of time going up and down the region during my two baseball trips in April of 1991 and again in 2003. There are minor league teams in several towns in the region and everywhere I went I was blown away at the abundance of fruit and vegetables growing in the fields all around you. I camped next to an almond grove outside Modesto and recall buying artichokes 15-for-a-dollar a little farther west near Salinas.
In addition to being a fan of restaurants I also like to cook so posts on the Food & Drink trail may also include recipes. Here’s one from Chicago restaurateur Rick Bayless for Mole Poblano. It is a classic Mexican sauce most notable because it contains chocolate, but both of Fresno County’s prime crops, Almonds and Raisins, also play a starring role. I’m going to try it with some roasted turkey this weekend, if you make it let me know how it turns out.
A Work in Progress
As abundant as the farm lands of the Central Valley are, they are equally controversial. Water – where it comes from and how it is used is a vitally important issue throughout drought-stricken California but nowhere is it more front and center than in the Central Valley.
Almonds are a particular source of contention. As successful as almond growing has become many critics worry that the water they consume (apparently much more than grapes, for instance,) is endangering the state’s water supply, perhaps permanently. There are one-sided shame pieces under helpful headings like “nuts you should stop eating” like this one and more well-researched articles like this one. There are also articles encouraging people to stop vilifying almonds.
Like most other tough challenges facing the United States there are plenty of strong feelings and it is much easier to say what should not be done than what should be. Meanwhile the issue has created a growing gulf between the urban dwellers who live on the coast of the state and the farmers in inland California. Valley PBS, the Central Valley’s public broadcasting station is in Season Two of a fascinating program called American Grown – My Job Depends on AG…it’s worth a look some evening even if you live far away from this area…chances are some of the food in your pantry comes from here.
That’s it for this week. Enjoy Super Bowl weekend, we’ll see you next week for the start of the 21st Century Industry trail and if you missed last week’s post, here’s the start of the Innovative History Trail.