There’s nothing like being on the road. Green hills beside you, flat black pavement stretched out in front of you. Around that bend is a farm stand, selling the first ripe strawberries of the season. Maybe there’s a Beatles cd playing, or you’re listening to Kate Winslet read Roald Dahl’s Matilda. The kid’s quiet in the back seat, staring out the window at the world going by, taking it all in. And you realize with a jolt that you are no longer the kid in the back seat but the mom, the one dispensing snacks and answering the inevitable question: are we there yet?
Not yet, my love. Not yet. We’re almost to Madera.
On our California potluck road trip, we were thrilled to spend the day in Madera, visiting farms and meeting the people who make our food. As one woman said to us, “No one ever comes to Madera on a book tour!” But this wasn’t a book tour, per se. We were on a listening tour, a sharing-food-with-people tour, a visiting-farms tour. We wanted to see the places where the food we eat is grown and shipped. Madera, just outside of Fresno, is right in the heart of what folks there call the Breadbasket of America. There’s no bread growing, of course. Luckily for me, there wasn’t wheat growing either. Instead, this part of central California grows everything in abundance. Almonds, olives, strawberries, grapes, carrots, potatoes, spinach and asparagus —— they flourish in this fertile ground. And most of us benefit from the work happening on farms in central California. According to the latest statistics, 1/2 of all fruits, nuts, and vegetables eaten in the United States is grown in California. The state grows the most of 66 food crops of anywhere in the country. “99 percent of artichokes, 99 percent of walnuts, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, 71 percent of spinach, and 69 percent of carrots (and the list goes on and on),” according to this piece in Slate. The work of this area is incredible.
And yet, I had never been there.
Thanks to K.C. Pomering, we had a personal tour of some of the best farms in Madera that day. You might remember K.C.’s gluten-free food club, The GFree Foodies Box Club, one of the sponsors of this site last year. When K.C. and I started writing back and forth, she urged me to come visit her hometown. “If you ever want to meet some of the farmers in central California, just let me know.” How could we resist? K.C. is a force of nature, the kind of woman you listen to and follow. I’m glad we did.
Tom drove us around the farm on a golf cart. Some of his workers were harvesting potatoes. Others were tilling the land to put in more plants. Lucy rode up front with me and Tom, sitting forward on the golf cart bench, excited. “What’s that growing there?” she pointed. Tom would stop the cart and look. “Those are parsnips.”
“I love parsnips!” she shouted. And she wasn’t lying.
She asked about every crop and every green leaf. When we passed the workers pulling carrots from the ground, she begged him to stop and let her pull one. We rinsed off this carrot and she nibbled on it the rest of the ride.
I wanted to stop and fling myself into this field of kale. Danny teases me but it’s really true: I could marry kale.
Then again, he’s almost happiest when he’s eating artichokes. Tom Willey’s farm had everything we needed.
This year, however, the farm might not be as productive as usual. The California drought has already been bad on this farm, and every farm in the Central Valley. We visited in February and the soil looked like this. Imagine August.
This is the most severe drought California has faced in decades. The governor has called for a voluntary 20% reduction in water usage. Farms have irrigation systems in place, of course. And there is some water given to every farmer in the Central Valley. But in a drought, farmers have to turn to their wells. Tom Willey told us that the last time there was a big drought, they had to go down 60 feet to reach water. This year, in February, they’re having to go down to 120 feet before they hit water.
Of course, there are measures the government and farmers could take in the rainier years. But those plan-ahead measures require money and planning, laws and allocations. As someone in Madera told us, the farmers in this area might grow most of the produce you eat, but they’re still only 2% of the voting populations. Lobbyists don’t care much about that 2%.
For most of us, the effect of the drought in California will be higher produce prices. But most of us won’t know anything beyond that sticker shock. When we were in San Luis Obispo the next day, I heard a young woman complain to her mother about the water cuts, saying, “They want us to take 5-minute showers, but I need a full hour in there.” I wished I could drive her back to Tom Willey’s farm in Madera to look at this soil.
Look at these potatoes, ready for cleaning, part of a 4-acre yield of organic potatoes that season. You might be eating some of these for dinner tonight.
And these are the people cleaning the carrots that might be sitting in a plastic bag in the produce section of your grocery store right now.
There’s no way of saying how hard these folks were working. Or how much respect we owe them.
We could have stayed with Tom all day, helping to plant and asking about crops. But K.C. had more places for us to visit.
We spent part of the afternoon at Ficklin Vineyards, the oldest port vineyard in the United States. We had the pleasure of meeting Peter Ficklin, the third-generation of Ficklin to make wine at the vineyard. He graciously gave us a tour of everything, from the gnarled grapevines to the cool brick room where decades’ worth of port was stored. I don’t drink much these days, but these ports were phenomenal. We loved the story of family and weather, careful cultivation, and the joy of grape crushing days. These were good people.
Danny and Lucy and I also had a chance to visit the Rosenthal Olive Ranch, a fourth-generation family farm, growing Spanish and Greek varieties of olives for oil. (Somehow, I don’t have any good photographs of their trees, which disappoints me.) Talking to farmers is so different than talking to food bloggers or fiction writers or policy makers. The conversation centers on weather patterns, frost, the unexpected, and the not-knowing —— grounded in the earth and the uncertainty of life. Every year is a gamble and a chance to learn.
The Rosenthals make wonderful olive oil, plus balsamic vinegar. We’re still enjoying the orange-infused olive oil and white balsamic we bought in the Rosenthal’s kitchen. They’re the easiest combination for a great winter salad vinaigrette. With good ingredients, you don’t have to do much.
That night, we gathered at the San Joaquin Wine Company for our potluck that night. What a lovely job they did of preparing the space and making us all feel welcome. Thank you so much, Steve and Cindy. And thank you for your wines.
Thank you to the folks from P*DE*Q, a gluten-free bakery in Fresno that specializes in pao, the Brazilian cheese bread. I’d never thought of cutting them in half and using them as the base for appetizers. These were gone mere moments after I took this photo.
With good food and wine, we gathered, talking. I heard, at every table, the story of growing up in Madera, surrounded by great food and produce. “You’d come home and there’d be a big bag of fresh tomatoes on your doorstep. Your neighbors just couldn’t eat anymore!” The folks at the potluck said they all learned to make fresh salsa as kids, thanks to the Mexican influence in the valley. There aren’t many great restaurants in the area —— people were a little stymied by where to send us for breakfast the next morning —— because everyone cooks and invites people over for dinner.
Nicole told us that it took her going to live in Sicily to appreciate what she had growing up. People love the culture and fresh foods of that area of Italy, and clearly the flavors are quite different than they are in Madera. But the culture is the same: food made simply and in the moment with fresh produce, shared with neighbors and friends.
It’s a good way to grow up, it seems.
However, not everyone in the area has access to that fresh produce. The next day, as we were driving out of Madera toward the coast, we stopped at this gas station, one of the only businesses open for miles. Inside stood a man with crinkly kind eyes who spoke very little English, surrounded by a sea of packaged food. In the back was a tiny produce section, the slightly wilted iceberg lettuce and older carrots protected from the air of the store by wide plastic strips. There wasn’t much for me to eat, but luckily, we only needed gas and a promised popsicle for Lu before we headed back on the road. But for the folks who live near that gas station, this is the only grocery store around.
The night of our potluck in Madera, a lovely woman who teaches social work at a nearby university talked with us about the social justice issues that folks in the area struggle with as well. There is all this bounty. And then there is terrible poverty and nowhere near to buy the produce that grows everywhere in the Central Valley.
We’re going to need more than stores selling that kale in food deserts to make food a more equal opportunity.
You might think a trip to California would be sunny and light, a blessing of sunlight in February when the rain came down in Seattle once again. And it was, most of the days of that trip. But this day in Madera left us with more to think about the food we eat, with more complexity, than any other trip we have taken. I’m still thinking about it now.
Inspired by the vegetables we saw growing in Madera — as well as Lucy's excitement about carrots and parsnips — we came home and made this simple dish. With toasted cumin and fennel seeds, the carrots and parsnips are slightly sweet, with a tiny pungent taste. They're familiar but a bit unexpected.
This is the kind of dish you make when you've pulled the last of the root vegetables out of the garden, waiting for new green vegetables to appear. And this simple yogurt sauce works on any vegetables you might roast up these days, in the time between winter and true spring.
- for the carrots and parsnips
- 1 pound fresh medium-sized carrots (the more color, the better!)
- 1 pound fresh medium-sized parsnips
- 2 teaspoons toasted cumin seeds
- 2 teaspoons toasted fennel seeds
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- salt and pepper
- for the yogurt sauce
- 1 cup full-fat yogurt
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley
- 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
- salt and pepper to taste
- Heat the oven to 375°.
- Peel the carrots and parsnips. Cut the carrots into 2-inch pieces, on the bias. Cut the parsnips in half down the middle. Cut the thick ends into half lengthwise, then cut them into 2-inch pieces, on the bias. Leave the thin ends whole.
- Crush the cumin and fennel seeds in a mortar and pestle, or in a spice grinder, until they are a fine powder. Toss the carrots and parsnips with the olive oil and salt and pepper. Lay the carrots and parsnips on a parchment-lined baking sheet and toss them with the cumin and fennel powder.
- Roast the carrots and parsnips until they are tender to a knife inserted in the middle of them, about 30 to 40 minutes. Remove them from the oven.
- While the carrots and parsnips are roasting, combine the yogurt, dill, parsley, lemon juice, and salt and pepper. The longer the sauce sits, the fuller it will taste. (You might even make this the day before.)
- Serve the carrots and parsnips and drizzle with the yogurt sauce.
To toast cumin and fennel seeds, set a small pan over medium-high heat. Put in the seeds. Toast them, shaking frequently, until the smell of the seeds fills the room, about 3 to 4 minutes. Do not burn them!