Over 90%. That’s how much native wetland California has lost due to agriculture and other development. That dramatic change in the landscape may sound grim, but in California’s rice country, some strange bedfellows are working together to address the historic loss of wildlife habitat, and to insure rice farming is part of the solution.
Recently, I visited a kind of factory I’d never seen before. I got suited up in safety gear — smock, rubber gloves, a hair net — not to protect me, but to protect the product made here. It’s in almost every convenience store, college dorm, school cafeteria, and in thousands of family freezers around the country: the frozen burrito.
This fall, the number of chinook salmon making their way from the ocean up the Klamath River in California’s far north is the lowest on record. That’s devastating news for the Yurok tribe, which has lived along and fished the Klamath for centuries. Salmon’s essential to Yurok ceremonies, for food, and for income.
Trinity County doesn’t get in the news much, unless it’s wildfire season. It’s a beautiful, remote, and rural. It’s also one of the state’s most food insecure places, where many people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. The county’s food bank director delivers food to the most isolated — and hungry — residents in Trinity.
Between Sacramento and Redding, Highway 5 cuts through the middle of rice country. Right next to rice fields outside the town of Willows, there’s a restaurant popular with travelers, farmers, truckers, and pilots: Nancy’s Airport Cafe. It’s just across a chain-link fence from the local tarmac. Most people leave with pie to go.
You might expect the winners of a California high school culinary competition to come from one of the state’s restaurant destinations like Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Sonoma County. In late March, though, top prize went to tiny Greenville High School in Plumas County. There are only 11 students in 2017’s graduating class.
President Trump’s “travel ban,” and his proposed Muslim registry, reminded Japanese Americans of their wartime incarceration 75 years ago. I joined a busload of people traveling to the former Tule Lake Segregation Center, and learned about the role of agriculture in Japanese American incarceration.
Every year, 80,000 people flood Yuba City to watch a parade, filled with floats, motorcycles and martial artists. They’re celebrating a Sikh holiday, the 500-year old religion from India’s Punjab region. This colorful gathering is the largest of its kind in the U.S., because Sikhs have lived and farmed in this community for over 100 years.
Few growers have a legal obligation to house employees. Little state and federal money is earmarked for worker housing. In barely-affordable Salinas Valley there’s not enough decent housing for all the people needed to pick crops like lettuce and strawberries. Which all lead to development, and tension, in Spreckels.
If you’re driving along Highway 395, chances are you’ve come to fish for trout in the alpine lakes. Fishing is synonymous with life in communities here, luring nearly half of all tourists to Inyo and Mono counties. But there’s almost nothing natural about trout in the Eastern Sierra. Why are we so crazy for trout in the West?
Napa Valley tourists visit exclusive wineries and fine restaurants, but locals love a more humble dish, born out of Napa’s deep Italian history, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and a fortuitous mistake. Malfatti’s a spinach and cheese dumpling, smothered in sauce. The most famous malfatti comes out the back of Val’s Liquor.
2015’s Butte Fire may be a barely-remembered headline, but residents of Calaveras County feel its impacts every day. Volunteers helped rebuild the soil they know is essential to their own, and their neighbors’, survival. That’s how I ended up on a scorched hill, with farmers and ranchers tossing straw on the ground.
The 2015 Valley Fire that hit Lake County was one of the most destructive in state history. The hills here, once thick with trees, now look like a moonscape. But this environment draws mushroom hunters who ‘chase the burns’,” in search of the black morel mushrooms that grow in the springtime after a forest fire.
In Nevada County, an unusual explorer with an unusual name — Amigo Bob Cantisano — hunts for remnants of the Gold Rush, just not the kind you might expect. The treasures Cantisano seeks are trees, the fruits and nuts and ornamentals planted at homesteads and stagecoach stops and small orchards in the late 1800s.
There are plenty of people who can pursue their passions because they have steady jobs on the side to pay the bills. Think: a novelist who does PR, an actor who waits tables. But a rancher? Meet mother and daughter cattlewomen in Sierra County whose supplemental work has helped keep their family in the beef business.
If you want to recreate the Gold Rush experience — without all the terrible conditions — you can pan for gold, even descend into mines. In a few places, you can even eat the most prized meal of the Gold Rush, with a kind of bizarre combination of ingredients. I went to El Dorado County in search of the Hangtown Fry.
United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez are household names, but before he became the embodiment of the 1965 strike and eventual international boycott, a small group of Filipino farmworkers walked off the fields. Now, people in the small town of Delano and across California are determined to share this rarely-told history.
Some experts say one key to being environmentally friendly is just stop wasting food. From the farm to the fridge, it’s estimated that 40 percent of what could be eaten just isn’t, and that can impact climate change. But there’s a new partnership addressing food waste by selling “imperfect” produce at the grocery store.
What do Jimmy Buffett, Jay-Z and Kenny Rogers have in common? They’ve all parlayed their fame to sell food, in restaurants and chains. In Orange County, there’s a banh mi sandwich shop run by Lynda Trang Dai, a Vietnamese pop star who’s as comfortable behind the stove as she is behind the microphone.