Heart of the Valley
It was indeed California, but not the one travel agents advertise. This is the southern end of California's Great Central Valley; it is called the San Joaquin, while the northern section is termed the Sacramento, both named for their major rivers. The entire Great Valley is an enclosed prairie, geologically an ancient seabed in a trough between uplifted mountains, nearly 450 miles long and up to 90 miles wide. The entire area is about the size of Egypt.
This is where I am from. A great-great grandfather of mine from Missouri, on my father's side of the family, entered the Valley in the 1840s in search of free land for a farm. An ancestor of my mother migrated north from Mexico across the border in the 1850s to work as a vaquero, or cowboy. I grew up in Oildale, in the Valley's southern reaches, as the son of an oil worker; like most working-class kids, I earned my spending money as a seasonal farm laborer. I irrigated sugar beets, swamped seed potatoes, and drove tractors in Arvin, east of Bakersfield.
My experience here has shaped the way I think about food—about where it comes from, how it grows, and where it goes. The San Joaquin Valley is considered to be the most productive agricultural region in the world; more than 50 percent of California's crops come from here. Paul F. Starrs and Peter Goin, in their definitive Field Guide to California Agriculture (University of California Press, 2010), refer to it as "the agricultural giant in California," which means something when you consider that California is the country's leading farm state. If you buy a bunch of asparagus in Iowa or Indiana, chances are it was grown in the Valley and shipped out of a huge refrigerated warehouse in Stockton or Fresno; same goes for grapes, almonds, pistachios, oranges, pomegranates, and prunes.
Because soil and sun are provided by nature, and seasonal laborers are cheap and plentiful, only aridity has been a problem for agriculture. Two massive irrigation systems have changed that: the Central Valley Project, begun in 1937, and the State Water Project, started in 1957. Both are considered incomplete, despite scores of dams and reservoirs, as well as hundreds of miles of aqueducts. This is thirsty land. A few years ago, my wife, Jan, and I were cruising south through rain-cleansed air down Interstate 5 on the Valley's western edge toward our hometown. The freeway here runs along the eastern edge of the Diablo Range, treeless but grassy hills dotted with range cattle. Then, near Kettlemen Hills, a little north of Bakersfield, an unexpected expanse of water appeared along the side of the road. I nosed our car to a stop on the highway's shoulder and gazed as if upon a ghost; this was a remnant puddle of what was once was Tulare Lake, the largest body of freshwater west of the Great Lakes. In the 19th century it provided tons of fish and turtles for San Francisco's restaurants. Then the diversion of its feeder streams to create new irrigation routes caused the lake to dry, so that only in the wettest years are locals now reminded a lake ever existed.