Of Steinbeck, soil and Salinas

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Toronto Star May 8, 2014, Salinas, California–We all know where lettuce comes from; the produce aisle for most of the year and for those of us lucky enough to have a little patch of dirt in the back, the garden for at least for a few months. But as you drive into Salinas, California, two hours south of San Francisco and see transport trucks driving stacked with boxes of lettuce, you get a feeling you’re going to get a different view of leafy greens.

The Salinas Valley calls itself the “Salad Bowl of the World” for its vast production of 40 different crops. Lettuce, broccoli, kale, artichokes, green onions — you name something good for you and chances are it’s growing here.

The town at the top of the valley, Salinas, was founded in the 1850s when a wagon broke down and the driver, who was heading up the road to build a stage coach station, decided this spot would do. Today, one of the biggest produce growers in the world, Taylor Farms, is building its corporate headquarters on the spot, across from the pretty little buildings that line Main Street.

At the top of the street, you’ll find the largest literary museum in the U.S. at the National Steinbeck Center.

John Steinbeck grew up in Salinas and built his career writing about the desperate lives of those who fled the dustbowl to work in the fields of California during the depression. He won a Pulitzer Prize for The Grapes of Wrath and a Nobel Prize for Literature.

Steinbeck’s writing about “the eyes of the hungry” wasn’t always appreciated in his hometown, and “the men who had never been hungry.”

“It’s lucky your parents were dead so they did not have to suffer this shame,” reads a letter from the Salinas Public Library, one of the thousands of items at the Steinbeck Center.

The six galleries combine plenty of mixed-media sizzle along with the literary steak. There are loads of photographs, quotes, film clips, diaries and other artifacts of life during the depression. Steinbeck’s classic American novels were “absolutely dedicated to sparking change,” says the Center’s Colleen Finegan Bailey. “We’ve moved the dial a little bit since the 1930s, but we still have a lot to do.”

Steinbeck’s books were burned twice in Salinas, but the Steinbeck family home has been carefully preserved and converted into a restaurant.

“I talk about Steinbeck for a living,” says a chipper guide in the parlour-turned-dining room. The writer, once reviled for shining a light on the uglier side of farming industry, has become an industry himself in this town. A sign outside Sang’s Café on Main Street proclaims: “Where John Steinbeck ate.”

Even a guide at Monterey Bay Kayaks works in a reference, comparing the abundant otters frolicking in the water of Elkhorn Slough to Lennie in Of Mice and Men.

Still a blue collar working town, much the way Steinbeck left it when he died in 1968, Salinas wakes up early. The coffee is on by 5:30 a.m. for the workers heading out into the fields. On an artichoke farm, which forms just one small part of the 275,000 acres growing crops in the valley, crews wear hoodies and wide brim hats. Some have radios strapped to their chests, tinny music keeping them company as they walk up and down the fields, tossing artichokes into giant red packs strapped to their backs.

Within hours, the produce is packed in giant warehouses, the tidy rows in the dirt converted to row after row of towering stacks of produce. Forklifts move walls of lettuce into transport trucks, hundreds of which head out every day loaded with produce destined for a grocery store near you. And Tokyo.

“Everyone always wants to know where their food comes from,” says a guide at the Steinbeck Centre. “I grew up here, I know exactly where it comes from.”

People in Salinas also know that it takes 80 days for romaine lettuce to be ready to harvest. They understand that books about their rough history spurred American social consciousness. And they know that without a doubt the fog in the morning will burn off and there will be sun in the afternoon.

“Not everyone is lucky enough to be born in Salinas,” Steinbeck wrote. But for those of us lucky enough to pay a visit, chances are we’ll never look at a head of lettuce the same way again.

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