Somewhere Near Salinas
click for a larger view of many colors of carrots that we grow.
When I turned on the radio at dawn a few weeks back and heard George Harrison's song All Things Must Pass I figured the one-time Beatle had died. Cancer. I loved the Beatles. The song faded and the sky brightened but my mind lingered on the melody, remembering the Beatles and their music. I remembered Shelby Moss got kicked out of elementary school in '64 because his "long" Beatle haircut provoked an outrage which reminded me that Bobby Slaughter got suspended from highschool in '76 because his skinhead look was deemed disruptive. They're probably both bald now; all things must pass. My reverie carried me and my cup of coffee from school to Strawberry Fields, and from Pepperland all the way to India before coming to a halt for a red light at the intersection of highway sixty eight and Blanco Road on the outskirts of Salinas.
You know Salinas. Steinbeck set his novel East of Eden near Salinas. Janis Joplin sang of losing her lover "somewhere near Salinas" in the ballad Me and Bobby McGee that she covered on her last record album. When Salinas isn't a cold and windy back drop for tales of fraternal jealousy, murder, heartbreak and lost love it is the cold and windy capital of California's fresh produce industry. I go there often to buy boxes, labels, staples, seeds or irrigation supplies. I grew up near there too, in the mountains to the south and east, visiting often enough but never quite warming to its frigid charm.
One day maybe 27, 28 years ago my mother, sister and I were leaving Salinas on Highway 68 in our Volkswagen bus. Mom pulled up at the stoplight at the intersection with Blanco Road right in from of Star Market. Another Volkswagen bus, older and rattier than ours, was idling in the next lane. My mother glanced over at the other vehicle and remarked how the driver looked like George Harrison. The resemblance was so striking it was funny. We all had a good laugh. I remember thinking that someday I would be able to measure my wealth by the distance I had traveled from Salinas. Several miles down the highway we made a left turn to go over Los Laureles Grade and the hippy bus in front of us made a right hand turn into the entrance of the Laguna Seca raceway.
Salinas 28 years ago wasn't much different than Salinas today, just smaller. Salinas is to fresh vegetables what Paris or Milan are to fashion. All the industry leaders have offices there from the titanic Dole and the behemoth T & A down to the merely gargantuan Mann Packing, Merrill Farms or Nunez companies. Massive cold storage facilities squat on the valley floor like toadstools. Long haul refrigerated semi trucks growl around waiting to be serviced by swarms of beeping, whirring forklifts. In the offices walls of clocks mark time for New York, Chicago, Denver, Honolulu and Tokyo. Inventories rise and fall like blood pressure. Salinas is impressive in its own way but it's not even remotely groovy.
A few days after our shopping trip to Salinas I was flipping through the newspaper and I noticed a photo of George Harrison in the sports section. He was posed next to a racing car in the pit at Laguna Seca taking his own turn at being someone's ardent fan.
Maybe I'm thinking about George Harrison so much today because we are digging this years first crop of red carrots. Red carrots come from India. Before Harrison's sitar solo on Norwegian Wood a lot of backwoods ignorati like myself would have hardly been aware of India's existence.
When I first grew the red carrots I sold them as Persian red carrots as per my seed dealer's instructions. An Indian woman paused in front of my market stall, paid for a big pile of the bright red roots, and then rebuked me. "The Persians have nothing they didn't steal," she said. "The carrots are Indian."
People, people, people. George Harrison tried to reach beyond the spitefulness that separates neighbors. In 1971 he used his celebrity and influence to produce the first rock and roll charity concert, the Concert for Bangladesh. Audiences, both at New York's Madison Square Gardens watching the show live and later kids like myself listening in by the record player were treated to performances by a Hindu, Ravi Shankar, India's master of the sitar, as he played for the benefit of Muslim Bangladeshis. The event was a gracious gesture that focused attention on our eternal option of forgiveness and charity over strife. We could use some of this energy now.
I've since researched the red carrot. Yes, it does come from India, but is also native across Persia and Afghanistan. It is an interesting carrot with a rich flavor. It is a very beautiful and healthy food but you don't see it here too often. My experience has taught me this is a plant which is difficult to cultivate with success outside of its native region. I've found that this carrot performs best if I plant it early in the fall for a midwinter harvest, otherwise it may go straight to flower without ever making a fat root. Indian shoppers have told me that even in India it is most common in the markets during the winter. The challenges I've faced learning when to plant it remind me of my life before I became a farmer, when I gardened for the fun of it, cultivating obscure plants just to see them grow.
George Harrison didn't spend much time on stage after The Concert for Bangladesh. He focused instead on his interest in religion and gardening. He even dedicated his autobiography to "gardeners everywhere." As a former and future gardener I could appreciate that nod of recognition. Gardening is love, art and a meditation. Farming has to be a business. George Harrison could afford to maintain lush ornamental gardens in both England and Hawaii because as a musician he'd been bought and sold like a sowbelly. His music is admirable to me because he managed so often to slide a touch of soul into even the most commercial product he performed on.
Unlike George Harrison I've never made it too far from Salinas. I've realized it doesn't matter anyhow. The chill I feel there isn't the town or the people, it's not the icy breath of the refrigerated warehouses or even the cold wind coming in off the Pacific; it's the objective logic of business that reduces food to a product and work relationship to dollars per hour that feels so cold. As long as I'm in farming I'll always have to play along with Salinas no matter where I drop seed. I enjoy a lot of what I do and I make the compromises I have to. But I try to take a cue from a guitar player I admire, and bend a few notes here and there, in spite of the conventions of my industry, just to add a little color and depth. This week red carrots are my bent note. Hello red carrots, goodbye Mr. Harrison, and see you later Salinas.
Copyright 2002 Andy Griffin