Letter From California
10/16/05 0555.41 pst
San Jose, California
It is rather strange, after a little reflection, that there is no formal October harvest celebration in the greatest agricultural entity the world has ever seen. The huge grape crush is over, tons of rice and nuts are towered in silos, grain overflows every elevator for winter, and yet after all the vast public water and resource efforts for the crops their annual great success always passes totally un-noticed, never formally celebrated.
One reason, of course, is that the “harvest” in California never really stops. It started in January with the legendary red, green, and iceberg lettuce off the coast and Salinas valley, soon to be followed by asparagus, artichoke, navel oranges, broccoli, cauliflower and massive strawberry haul off the central coast.
Then the rush of early fruits: cherry, apricot, peach, plum, nectarines. Just the first harvest of corn turns, planted in April, as a fleet of tomato trucks teems over the central valley loading and unloading the gargantuan tomato crop. Gilroy goes crazy with the garlic festival. The melons, squash, and valencia oranges come on line as every possible agricultural ware imaginable is hawked nationally and internationally from the fields: kiwis, herbs, potatoes, carrots, grapes, radish, olives, lettuce, beans, a rainbow of peppers, squash…
With the bounty never ending it’s hard to put a finger on the finish of anything, and excellent national and international shipping have obliterated the seasons—there are always grapes, oranges, melons and fruit in the stores from the southern hemisphere. The beacon of the October moon, so central to human existence in the northern hemisphere for tens of thousands of years, now shines on soft suburbanite souls, oblivious to the lunar rays that used to keep them alive on the planet.
Another reason there is no mad festival for all this bounty is that it would draw attention to certain public policy decisions that would be rather kept hidden, to put it politely. Why is half the state’s water going to agricultural interests, again? True, it is the greatest agricultural region the world has ever seen, but Apple brings in more than the tomato crop. Why raise cotton with water for 5 million people? Are we sure that dumping hundreds of thousands of tons of insecticide and fertilizer on our land every year is really wise?
The Golden Triangle this very day is curing a crop worth at least 20 billion dollars from its legendary pot harvest. Right now. They are not interested in a blaring celebration from the incredible haul, that’s for sure.
Yet another reason to keep the harvest quiet is the outrage of exploited labor from Mexican immigration. This annual human disaster is an utter evil disgrace that permanently stains the history of the United States, and Californians who sneer at conditions in the third world would do well to shut up and take a good hard look at how their own food is harvested.
Almost all of the foodstuffs above are produced for commodity shipping. It’s fine for vegetables but a disaster for fruits; rocks called oranges, stored apples from God knows what year, useless tomatoes, sawdust strawberries, inferior apricots, plums, nectarines, and peaches. California grows amazing amounts of the stuff but it just isn’t very tasty, so Californians aren’t inclined to gush over the mid-grade product.
Alice Waters and the organic food movement have done a lot to change the available fruit and produce options for most California suburbanites. Organic markets have sprung up everywhere where one can get fresh, organic, in-season fruits and vegetables. The choices and options for menu are of course narrowed shopping for food in these markets and it’s not as fast or convenient as Safeway, but it is much closer to the traditional human cycle of food and the quality is what it should be. After a real strawberry the snowtops at Safeway are forever unmasked as the travesty they are.
Traditional food stores, too, have undergone great change in the last 25 years. I started grocery shopping when I was sixteen in the standard Lucky 16 aisle market where half an aisle was devoted to produce (I shopped for my mother as soon as I could drive and the matronly union checkers, all of whom knew me by name, thought it was adorable a boy would do this for his momma and rang up twelvers and cigarettes without a thought) and there was only one grade of hamburger, 65% fat.
Today I will enter a vast Safeway that has a bank, a Starbucks, a bakery, deli, and butcher counter. The four aisle produce section has a special wood floor while strobe flashes and recorded thunder announce the soft misting of the vegetables. The California vegetables are excellent while the rest of the stuff, shipped in from Lord knows where, is of dubious quality, even though the list of available fruits is very impressive. What Californians are doing with those star fruits I have no idea, but they keep them out there so someone must be buying them.
There has been a great upgrade in stores and there are some great food experiences to be found at farmer’s markets, but for the most part Californians are still chowing on industrial meat production and commodity shipping for everyday produce. The seasons are gone and there is never a want for anything, as long as one has a little money, so food and its productive cycles just passes unseen through the California fall season.
Thanksgiving, the Gilroy garlic festival and the Half Moon Bay pumpkin festival don’t cut it, somehow, as recognition for all the vast water, land, and human resources we devote to one of the most precious aspects of our lives, what we eat every day. Unless Californians decide to move away from commodity shipping for their food and move back to a small farm model (organic), something that seems extremely unlikely, the harvest moon of October will simply continue to herald Halloween, nothing more.