I’ve met some amazing people reporting for California Foodways. At the end of 2020, I learned that three of those people passed away: Amigo Bob Cantisano, Marshall McKay, and Mohinder Singh Ghag. KQED’s California Report Magazine invited me to talk with host Sasha Khokha about three food pioneers, and remind us of their legacies.
Trinity County is mountainous, and remote, and when I visited in 2017 I learned that it’s also one of the state’s most food insecure places. Many people don’t know where their next meal is coming from, even in the best of times. But the spring of 2020, with the state under shelter-at-home orders because of the coronavirus, is clearly not the best of times. I check in with Jeffry England at the county’s food bank.
The coronavirus reminds us of another public health crisis when the federal government was slow to respond and communities had to take care of each other: the AIDS epidemic. One woman who became an unexpected caregiver is Meridy Volz. Starting in the 1970s, she ran a bakery called Sticky Fingers Brownies. Her daughter Alia — whose memoir Home Baked came out in April, 2020 — narrates.
When cannabis was 100% illegal, the price per pound was high. Since 2016, when Californians passed Prop 64 legalizing the recreational use of marijuana, the economy in the northern part of the state has been in limbo, impacting far more than the cannabis industry. Restaurant owners and farmers are seeing changes, too.
Jackson is a Gold Rush-era town. It’s pretty quiet, now, except when you walk into Rosebud’s Cafe which shouts its values from its walls: bright green paint, huge family portraits, and tons of flyers announcing arts events, supporting local homeless initiatives and advocating for LGBTQ rights. Rosebud’s has become a refuge for people who don’t always feel accepted, including the family that runs it.
In Redding, there’s a hamburger joint that’s been making its signature item the same way since the 1930s — a burger so thin it gets crispy on the edges, and never, ever comes with a tomato. Damburger helped fuel one of California’s most impactful engineering feats — the Shasta Dam — by nourishing the workers who built it.
Jim and Mary Rickert came together because of cows. They met and fell in love at Cal Poly. Within a decade, they were managing a ranch just below the Oregon border in Siskiyou County. It was a struggle. But their lives — and the business — changed when they got a really weird offer, and they said yes.
Merced County is California’s sweet potato capital. In this story, co-reporter Angela Johnston and I meet a sweet potato farming family that’s facing a crisis that could wreak havoc on the entire agricultural industry. It’s the non-native nutria, which weighs 20-pounds, has orange bucked teeth, can eat a quarter of its body weight a day, and has already done major damage to Louisiana.
When you camp in Yosemite and other parks with bears, you can’t just leave your food out on the picnic table or in your car overnight. Anything with a scent has to be stored in bear-proof containers. Reporter Marissa Ortega-Welch joins me to report on this problem of bears wanting to eat human food, a problem we humans created.
Rosa Hernandez left Oaxaca when she was 20 to work in the fields in Madera, California. Now, she co-owns a restaurant, Colectivo Sabor a Mi Tierra, where she cooks the food of her homeland for the many indigenous Mexicans who live in the area. She did it, she says, after realizing the cultural value of her food through inter-ethnic friendships and connections.
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 the Sacramento Valley, 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.