A stuffed pepper became the spark for this radio reporter’s California food series

Lisa Morehouse headshotLisa Morehouse has spent the last year and a half asking Californians about the food they eat and the crops they grow. She calls the project “California Foodways,” and the goal is to get one story from every county in the state. Morehouse has produced radio stories about military diners in San Diego, Chinese food on the U.S./Mexico border, and Gold-Rush-era fruit trees in the Sierras, just to name a few. FERN has partnered with Morehouse and KQED’s The California Report on a few of these pieces, including the forgotten history of Filipino farmworkers who led the 1965 Delano grape strike (which also ran on NPR). Our latest story with Morehouse tracks one California community’s struggle to recover after last year’s wildfires destroyed 70,000 acres of their drought-parched land. FERN’s Kristina Johnson talked with Morehouse about her series.

How did you come up with the idea for this project?

I guess it started with a stuffed pepper. I’d been on the road for weeks working on a series about rural California, and whenever I went to a new town I tried to eat in places that local people recommended or that I  knew I would never find in San Francisco or L.A. So this one night I was in the Eastern Coachella Valley, reporting on a story about farmworker housing, when I went into a Mexican restaurant and had a pepper stuffed with shrimp and covered with mayonnaise and soy sauce. I just knew there had to be a story behind it. The more places I went, the more that kept happening — I would run into food that had to have a story.

Why do you think food makes a good story?

I like to tell stories that have a social-justice angle to them. But if you start off lecturing people, they’re going to turn the radio dial. Food is a way to get to the really important issues I care about but in a way that everyone can grab onto. More important to me than pushing an agenda is telling stories about people we haven’t heard from very much. It’s only by meeting the people who work in food and ag that a general listening audience is going to connect to the issues.

Why California food in particular?

I feel pretty darn humbled at how messy, weird, complicated and delightful this state is. And food is at the heart of all of that. Food policy and agriculture, but also what people eat and how waves of migration and immigration have affected what they eat. For example, when the U.S. wouldn’t let the Chinese in, they went to the Mexican border. There weren’t water chestnuts, so they used jicama. There wasn’t this chili, so they used that one. They built a new cuisine. If you look at waves of migration and immigration in California, not only does that show up in music and politics but it also shows up in food. All of those different cultures brought their own farming techniques, too. For me that is endlessly interesting.

Did you grow up in California?

I grew up in Silicon Valley, in Cupertino, California. When I was a little girl it was definitely the suburbs, but there were apricot orchards and commercial flower fields. It used to be called The Valley of the Heart’s Delight. But in the late ’70s, Apple came in. There’s hardly an apricot orchard there now.

You seem attracted to stories on the edge of the mainstream. How do you find your next story?

A lot of times it’s by talking to people in rural advocacy, and not just sustainable-ag groups — because I’m not actually doing California “sustainable” foodways. The people who have been the most helpful with this series have been young academics of color who are interested in getting stories to a general audience. When I was doing the story on date palms in the Eastern Coachella Valley, I met a grad student, a woman who grew up in Indio, California, who was writing her dissertation on dates. And when I started to write on the 1965 Filipino grape strike for FERN, my main source was a professor at San Francisco State who specializes in Filipino farmworker history in Stockton. The academics I’ve connected with are really creating a people’s history of California. And there’s no way you can do a people’s history without talking about food.

Why should ‘California Foodways’ matters to someone who doesn’t live in California?

You can’t argue with the fact that California is the most important agricultural state in the U.S. And I would say that California is also the most important food state culturally.  People recognize how powerful this place is in terms of food production and food trends, and how different groups of people come together to grow and eat food.  All of the stories in this series reverberate beyond the counties they come from, and beyond the state.

You can listen to all of Lisa Morehouse’s California Foodways stories here.