Heart of the Valley
Elsewhere, the valley bed is irrigated cropland. From the San Joaquin's back roads, much of this cropland appears empty, fields of green without nearby farmhouses. Agriculture here is truly agribusiness, dominated by huge corporations. There are, of course, plenty of small farms, too, but corporations reign. As early as 1981, most of the 700,000 acres irrigated by the State Water Project in three prolific counties—Tulare, Kings, and Kern—were owned by just eight huge companies. This pattern, which can be traced to the earlier Spanish and Mexican land grants that concentrated huge tracts in the hands of an elite, has led to great wealth for a few, great poverty for many. Annually, five of California's ten poorest communities—populated mostly by migrant Hispanic farm laborers—are located in this cornucopian Valley.
There has always been a hard edge to life here, but until the current economic depression, the Great Valley also boasted the state's fastest growing population, and a society as varied as the multiplicity of commercial crops grown—Chinese, Dutch, Hmongs, Basques, Armenians, Sikhs, Mexicans, and, of course, plentiful varied palefaces, among many, many others. Says journalist and memoirist Richard Rodriguez, who grew up in Sacramento, "Here it is much easier to remember that the world is not simply derived from Europe." It has been estimated that more than 100 languages are spoken in the Great Valley's communities, all of them belonging to people who migrated here to be a part of the enormous engine of food production.
Yet the agricultural setting—its vast distances between built structures, its monolithic fields—can be deceptive. Driving down the more populous east side of the Valley on Highway 99, one passes through Sacramento, the state capital, then Stockton, Modesto, Merced, Fresno, and Bakersfield. These are modern cities with colleges or universities, with progressive urban centers. They are also little worlds, populated by people who may have come for seasonal labor, but who have left their indelible cultural—and culinary—mark.
Near Tulare Lake's now-desiccated shore is a town locals favor for its food: Hanford, on Highway 198. It is famous for China Alley, the remnant of a historic district founded by Chinese railroad workers in the late 1870s, and its culinary legacy: celebrated restaurants such as the Hanford Chinese Kitchen. It also hosts other gems, like the Hanford Portuguese Bakery, which offers Portuguese doughnuts and other pastries, along with cheeses, sausages, and breads. The dairy industry in the San Joaquin Valley has been dominated by Portuguese immigrants, like the Fagundes family who runs Fagundes Old World Cheese in Hanford, producing queijo fresco and other award-winning cheeses.
In Bakersfield, at the southern end of the valley, Basques who settled here in the 1890s have lent their own style of life and, of course, of dining. Old restaurants such as Noriega's and the Pyrenees Cafe that once hosted and fed bachelor shepherds from the old country, now serve vast, rib-sticking, family-style meals that have become a regional tradition. Here, at long tables, you meet fellow diners as you compete for that last slice of pickled tongue or dig into oxtail stew.
Nearby is a local Italian institution, where Jan and I sometimes grab lunch: the 101-year-old Luigi's Delicatessen. Jan orders a tri-tip sandwich—a local specialty made using meat from the lean triangle of beef cut from the bottom of the sirloin—and I get a house favorite, the "Half & Half," a half plate of pasta with savory meat sauce with a half plate of Luigi's vinegary, garlicky white beans. On the wall, my high school football team's photo from 1953 is still posted along with hundreds of other local sports shots.
You find Armenian food in Fresno at places like Bedrosian's Armenian Deli, George's Shish Kebab, and Nina's Bakery; Merced's Houa Khong features delicious Laotian and Thai fare; Asian dishes from several traditions highlight dining in Stockton at establishments such as Saigon (Vietnamese), On Lok Sam (Chinese), and Sho Mi (Japanese). Great Mexican regional foods can be had virtually everywhere in the Valley, often from what are locally called "roach coaches," roving taco trucks that turn out everything from grilled carnitas to homemade tamales to—on weekends—delicious menudo, a long-cooked tripe and hominy soup.