In February 2020, I went to Sonora to join the Mother Lode Jewish Community in their Tu BiShvat celebration, honoring trees and the harvest. Just weeks later, the Covid pandemic would stop in-person gatherings like these, and create tensions so many communities are still navigating. So I returned, to see how the people I met are trying to connect.
There are plenty of people who — in order to pursue their passions — have jobs on the side to support themselves. It’s pretty common to hear about a novelist who does PR, an actor waiting tables. But a rancher? For this story we meet a mother and daughter in Sierra County whose supplemental work has helped keep the family in the beef business.
The soil in Tehama County is unfit, and the temperatures are all wrong, but the monks at the Abbey of New Clairvaux are still trying to make wine here. It’s part of their ancestry. Cistercian monks have made wine in Europe since the 12th century. In California, they’re turning to those traditions to try to survive in the 21st. The monks of New Clairvaux have a website, a Facebook page, a PR guy. They host wine release parties. I went up to Tehama County to meet the monks who engage with the outside world all so they can pray in peace.
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. That’s what I went off to El Dorado County in search of the Hangtown Fry.
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.
The most commonly traded commodity in the world is oil. What comes in second? Coffee! It’s been grown and loved since at least the 13th century in places like Indonesia, Ethiopia and Central and South America. As a serious fungus threatens the crop world-wide, scientists are mapping the coffee genome to learn more about this plant. But what role does our state play in the future of this most beloved and lucrative crop?
Up in far northern California, where the Klamath River meets the Pacific Ocean, this year’s drought is making a bad situation there even worse. Since early May, baby salmon have been dying from a warm-water disease. A mass death of juveniles, like this, means they won’t make it to the ocean and lay their eggs, and won’t make it back up the Klamath river in a few years. So I’m sharing this story I reported in the summer of 2017, when the number of chinook salmon making their way up the river was the lowest on record. That was devastating news for the Yurok tribe, which has lived along and fished the Klamath for centuries.
So what do baseball, a little-known religious group and a land-use fight have in common? If you’re in Stanislaus County, the answer is: nuts. Almonds are the county’s top crop, bringing in a record-breaking $1.125 billion in gross income in 2013. Walnuts came in third (after the county’s other powerhouse, dairy). Nuts aren’t just an economic driver, though. They’re also key to the story of this region’s past, and future.
Maybe you’re one of the people who started noticing birds more during the pandemic. A lot of us spent time in our yards, or looking out windows, seeing these creatures in a new way. Even though we’re noticing them more, there are fewer birds now than there were 50 years ago. So when I found out about farmers who are helping birds, and some new research that shows how those birds are helping farmers, I had to learn more.
It’s said that date palm trees want their feet in water, and their heads in fire. It makes sense, then that more than 90% of the dates harvested in the U.S. grow in California’s Eastern Coachella Valley. Irrigation water’s pumped here from the Colorado River, and summer temperatures can top 120 degrees. I spent some time in the Eastern Coachella Valley recently, and got curious about the history of dates here, and about the palmeros, palm workers, who tend them.
Tourists to the Napa Valley may visit their favorite exclusive wineries and fine dining restaurants. But locals love a more humble dish called malfatti. It’s a little spinach and cheese dumpling, shaped like a pinky finger and smothered in sauce. The most famous malfatti in the region is found in the back of Val’s Liquor in the city of Napa. The story of how that came to pass involves Napa’s deep Italian history, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and a fortuitous mistake.
Members of the military are often deployed or stationed far away from their extended families. When military families make friends, they often move. Those are facts of life for many military families in many military towns. There’s a place in San Diego, though, where active duty service members, their spouses and kids can always share a meal with their extended military family: the USO Downtown Center.
Trinity County is one of those places that doesn’t get in the news much, unless it’s for marijuana or wildfires. It’s a beautiful, remote, rural part of northern California. 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. In this story, I join the county’s food bank director on his 10+ hour food delivery to the most isolated – and hungry – residents in Trinity.
For this story, I visited a factory, 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. I went to Dinuba, in the Central Valley, to meet the family behind the biggest business in frozen Mexican food.
If you’ve read your John Steinbeck and listened to your Merle Haggard, or if you grew up in a farmworker family, you know that farm laborers in California have struggled to find decent housing for decades. Except in a few cases, growers have no legal obligation to house employees, and there’s not a lot of state and federal money earmarked for farmworker housing. In the Salinas Valley — the fifth- least-affordable place to live in the country — there’s just not enough decent housing for all the people needed to pick crops like lettuce and strawberries.
I’ve met some amazing people reporting for California Foodways. At the end of 2020, I learned that some of those people passed away. KQED’s California Report Magazine invited me to talk with host Sasha Khokha about three food pioneers, and remind us of their legacies.
Who doesn’t like a treasure hunt? The search for something mysterious and valuable, with just a few clues to guide you…it’s pretty irresistible. For this episode, I take you back a few years to introduce you to a Nevada County man who spent the last years of his life on a hunt for remnants of the Gold Rush…just not the kind you might expect.
At Damburger in Redding, each burger patty is so thin, it gets crispy on the edges. It’s never, ever served with a tomato. The Damburger original’s a signature item the burger joint’s been making since the 1930s, when it helped fuel one of the most impactful engineering feats in the state’s history — the Shasta Dam — by nourishing the workers who came to build it.
“Hard work, low pay, miserable conditions, and more!” That’s the actual motto for the California Conservation Corps, the state program that puts young adults to work outdoors. In Marin County, they have the tough job of building and maintaining world-class trails. I spent a rainy night with the “Cs” to learn about the role food plays for a crew of young people burning thousands of calories a day…and why their menu has barely changed since the 30s.
The coronavirus brings back memories of another public health crisis, where 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. “The business changed,” Meridy says. “It went from something fun and lightweight to something that was a lifeline.” This is her story, told by her daughter Alia Volz whose memoir, Homebaked: My Mom, Marijuana, and the Stoning of San Francisco, came out in April.
So far this year, wildfires have burned more than 4 million acres in California. That’s more than double the previous record. I thought it might be a good time to hear a story I reported from Calaveras County. In 2015, after it was devastated by the Butte Fire, a group of farmers and ranchers worked to rehabilitate their land… and their community.
Last month a parade drew over 80,000 people to the Sacramento Valley. Before any floats passed, people in colorful clothing and turbans sprinkled water on the street and swept the concrete, cleansing the route. They were celebrating a holiday of the Sikh faith: the 500-year old religion from India’s Punjab region. This gathering in Yuba City is the largest of its kind in the U.S., because Sikhs have lived in this farming community for over 100 years.
Jackson is a Gold Rush-era town with quaint brick buildings on its Main Street, and a reputation as the last of its kind to get rid of brothels and gaming halls. It’s pretty quiet, now, except when you walk into Rosebud’s Cafe. It’s a place that shouts its values from its walls: bright green paint, huge family portraits, and tons of posters and flyers announcing programs for the arts, 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.
There’s just something about cherries. They’re small, sweet and crunchy, with an early harvest that tells us summer’s coming. Right now, though, this beloved fruit is a bit of a canary in a coal mine. Since the drought, experts have looked to cherry harvests for warnings about climate change and its impact on future tree crops.
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.
The Valley Fire that hit Lake County in September, 2015 was one of the most destructive in California history. The hills here, once thick with pines and firs, now look like a moonscape with trees. This is just the environment that draws mushroom hunters who ‘chase the burns’ in search of the black morel mushrooms that grow in the springtime after a forest fire.
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 March of 2017, though, top prize went to tiny Greenville High School in Plumas County.
If you ask people in the city of Mexicali, Mexico about their most notable regional cuisine, they won’t say street tacos or mole, they’ll say Chinese food. Just north of the border in Imperial County, the population’s mostly Latino, but Chinese restaurants are super popular, too. I went to discover the history behind some dishes you won’t find anywhere else.
Between Sacramento and Redding, Highway 5 cuts through the middle of rice country. In the town of Willows, right next to rice fields, there’s a one-of-a-kind restaurant that’s popular with travelers, farmers, truckers, and pilots: Nancy’s Airport Cafe.
On this Day of Remembrance, here’s a story about Japanese Americans in California. Japanese Americans have been particularly vocal in opposition to President Trump proposed Muslim ban and Muslim registry. They have long memories of being incarcerated during World War II in what were called “relocation” or “internment camps” over 75 years ago. For this story, I joined a busload of people traveling to the former Tule Lake Segregation Center, just south of the Oregon border in Modoc County. I learned just how much how agriculture was linked to the incarceration of Japanese Americans.
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 Lisa Morehouse meet a sweet potato farming family that’s facing a crisis that could wreak havoc on the entire agricultural industry. It weighs 20-pounds, has orange bucked teeth, and can eat a quarter of its body weight a day.
The Capay Valley is pretty serene, except for the cacophony inside its most lucrative business: the Cache Creek Casino. Up to 2,000 visitors a night swell the valley’s population and traffic, causing tension between local farmers and the tiny tribe that runs it. In this story we ask: do farming and gambling mix?
Making license plates is the stereotypical job for a prisoner, but there’s a group of inmates in the Central Valley have very different work. They supply milk to almost all the prisons in the state system. The low hourly wages may shock some people on the outside, but for this story I talked to inmates who say the job gives them something else.
The thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail start in Mexico, traversing 2,650 miles into Canada. The lazier among us might have just read Wild, Cheryl Strayed’s PCT memoir. But the hikers, their toenails fall off, and their feet can swell whole sizes. They say the only thing they talk about more than their feet is food.
At the beginning of September in 1965, one of the most significant movements in modern day labor history — the Farmworker Movement — began in California’s Central Valley. You’ve probably heard of the United Farm Workers and know the name Cesar Chavez, but before he became the embodiment of the strike and 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.
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, like bear lockers for car-campers, bear canisters for backpackers. Along with reporter Marissa Ortega-Welch, I found out: This problem of bears wanting to eat human food, it’s a problem we humans created.
If you are driving along the striking Highway 395 in the Eastern Sierra, chances are you’ve come to fish for trout in one of the area’s alpine lakes. Fishing is synonymous with life in the communities that dot the highway, and it’s responsible for 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?
Rosa Hernandez left Oaxaca when she was 20 to work in the fields in Madera, California. Now, she co-owns a restaurant, cooking the food of her homeland for the many indigenous Mexicans who live in the area. She did it, she says, through inter-ethnic friendships and connections.
California grows a lot of rice, second only to the Mississippi Delta. But like a lot of agricultural development, rice cultivation took away a lot of habitat for native wildlife, including key resting spots for migrating birds along the Pacific Flyway. In this episode, I follow up on stories I heard about some strange bedfellows working to reverse that, to make rice farming part of the solution to the wildlife habitat problem.
The Mitla Cafe in San Bernardino is proof that sometimes a restaurant is more than just a restaurant. It’s the first stop in this new podcast: California Foodways. I’m Lisa Morehouse, and I’ll be travelling county by county, reporting on people and places at the intersection of food and culture and history and economy. Places like the Mitla Cafe.
From politicians and celebrities to homesick Californians who make it their first stop when they return from their travels, Mitla Cafe has been a favorite spot for Cal-Mex food lovers since it opened in 1937. Through four generations of family ownership, the San Bernardino institution remains a key gathering point for civic and religious leaders to discuss the issues of the day. This down-home taco joint inspired the beginnings of the Taco Bell chain restaurant empire. but it also played a role in political change: desegregation that reverberated across the country.
California Foodways producer Lisa Morehouse spends a lot of time in her car. She’s on a kind of mission: to travel to every county in the state, finding stories about food, agriculture, and — most importantly — the people that make both possible.
California’s story can’t be separated from food. Food industries here generate $100 billion annually, our farms feed the nation, and kitchens set international culinary trends. But the real story is how people, work, and land connect to food – in the richest, most diverse, most complex state in the country.
Listen to the trailer for season one. The first episode landed June 26 — with new episodes every two weeks. Subscribe now!