Drove up to Mendocino County last week, stopping along the way in Baywood on the Central Coast to visit an old friend, a refugee from Echo Park. We went to the local alehouse for charcuterie and libation.
Here, California on a plate. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit up front how awesome this was. The napkin is covering some truly sublime sausage. We basked in the sea breeze off the bay, chatted with the locals, scarfed the finger foods, swilled the grog and lived as the anointed for an hour. In our munificence we forgave each other our sins and toasted the health of all.
California cuisine: grab every tasty idea from around the world, source it locally, then serve it on a patio close to the ocean.
San Luis Obispo County is where white people and their dogs land when they leave L.A but can’t bear relocating to a red state. You get to pretend you’re still in Venice, but at half the price.
The charcuterie plate put me in an exploratory frame of mind. In the morning I decided to make the rest of the journey to San Francisco on farm roads in the valley. The big one. The San Joaquin, where the food comes from. I cut over on the 41, a highway much more crowded with cars than I remember it from my motorcycle days in college, then meandered off into farm roads, zig-zagging in a northerly way.
It is difficult to overstate the sheer scale of industrial agriculture out there. The vastness of the fields. The monotony of endless rows of nut trees and grapevines. You keep thinking, just up the road at the next little name on the map, the real valley will reveal itself…and it will be a charming farmstead with organic honey…and then you get to Raisin City…
…and the one commercial structure has bars over every window and is out of business. You can get snacks at the gas station, and probably buy meth from the kid on his bike riding in pointless circles in the parking lot, but you can’t get a sandwich. County after county, there is really nothing but fast food trucked in, frozen, then fried, fuel for the laborers.
All is utility and practicality. The San Joaquin has no retail face. A gigantic factory of food production, charmless and unironic, it smiles at no one. Anyone not behind the wheel of a farm implement drives 70 mph on two-lane roads.
When restaurants on the coast say locally sourced, this is what they’re talking about. When I worked at Whole Foods the rule was: “within five hours of L.A.” When they say grass-fed, they mean ground up cornstalks unloaded from a feed hauler at a CAFO.
Poverty is front and center in the San Joaquin Valley. There is no avoiding the subject. It’s like pre-civil rights Mississippi out there. No white people toil in the fields. When the anointed in the cities argue for open borders, they are speaking in favor of corporate interests. Oligarchy on a plate, in this, the bluest of states.
A permanent flow of cheap labor robs all workers of bargaining power, regardless of legal status. This extends beyond agriculture into other realms of the service economy. There is very little progressive, or just, about any of this. But it’s happening somewhere over the hill, in Uglyville, to people who know nobody and nobody knows.
Besides, the charcuterie is delicious…