Posted by: acooksca | 10/02/2009

Salinas Remembered

Andy Boy, Bunny Love, Nunes Bros., Merrill Farms… are not just names on produce boxes to me. These are like friends, brands I

Steinbeck House

Steinbeck House

sought out for years as a restaurant chef. Dependable produce companies I could base the cuisine, reputation and ultimately the success of restaurants and caterings on. They are from the fields of Salinas.

My good friend Martha Kostas, born and raised in Salinas, recently spoke about her down-to-earth hometown. “It’s remarkable how little Salinas has changed over the past 50 years. I see the same company names on produce boxes that I saw in my childhood. These families went through a lot together. In flood or drought years farmers could go out of business if not for the help of the neighbors. They went through the depression and the war as a group. Even today, some are very wealthy and you would never know it, they have remained modest.”

“My father brought home fresh veggies every night. He had a fertilizer business and would go into the fields to talk to farmers. He would take broccoli, lettuce, or whatever he needed and there was never a charge. Our kitchen always had a sink full of dirty veggies”  recalls Martha. “I remember we had artichokes a lot in season. They were steamed, with mayo. My mother could keep a big family (there were nine kids) busy for a long time.” 

Salinas River Valley is one of the great California success stories. The Spanish founded their first presidio (fort) in nearby Monterey in 1770. The valley stretched nearly 100 miles southward. It was portioned to a few Spanish families who raised free range cattle for their hides, tallow and meat. The land was dry and uncultivated but with a river. The area near the town of Salinas had consistently fine climate due to the cooling effect of the nearby Pacific Ocean.

It was not until the Gold Rush in 1848, when huge amounts of wheat was needed to satisfy the eating habits of easterners, that irrigation became important. Over the next 30 years Salinas was a prime grain and dairy provider for the exploding population. But the capriciousness of nature has always been a major issue in Salinas.

The Monterey & Salinas Railroad, the first narrow gauge in the state, was finished in 1875. It carried 6,000 tons of grains that November and December to waiting steamships for the trip to San Francisco. The next month a trestle over the Salinas River was washed away. It was rebuilt but washed away again the following year. 1877 saw less then five inches of rain all year and the crops failed. 1878 was so rainy in June that the wheat crop was destroyed.

The improvements that made the Salinas Valley into “The Salad Bowl of the Nation” came about in a slow, steady fashion. By the turn of the century greater efforts were made at controlling water for irrigation. Beans and sugar beats became the prime crops. After World War One, a new wave of European immigrants to the valley farmed lettuce, asparagus and artichokes. The “green gold” that would make Salinas one of the richest communities in the nation needed just one more improvement: refrigerated shipping cars.

Train box cars used blocks of ice to keep produce cool but a delay of a few days would mean tons of rotting vegetation would roll into New York along with a big clean-up bill. It was not until 1949 that a roof mounted air conditioning unit was developed to keep produce refrigerated in train cars and cross country trucks. Today 80% of the nations’ lettuce and 95% of artichokes, as well as many other crops, come through the town of Salinas for packing and shipping.

Martha’s career as a commercial airline pilot took her away from California. She now makes her home in Ohio with her husband (also a pilot) and their four children. Most of her 7 surviving siblings, as well as her mother, still live in or near Salinas. She acknowledges the cultural changes that she sees when returning home to Salinas. ” Many of the original residents have moved to Carmel or Monterey. There are new developments in & around the Salinas area, which accommodate people who commute to the “Peninsula” from Salinas for other work. The demographics of the city of Salinas have changed to be mostly Mexican. The tremendous advances in the farming business has helped lead to this new agricultural middle class. The children and grandchildren of early Mexican immigrants live much better in Salinas now. The biggest challenge seems to be in education, to bring up the quality for this group.”

Another area where Salinas has changed since Martha’s childhood is in the fields. “The selection of what is grown here has gone up tremendously. Over the years gorgeous new veggies have come to the farms. It’s fun to see new produce grown here.”

Not everyone in Salinas agrees with trend setting veggies. “Recently I saw an older guy in a market carefully choosing asparagus” Martha told me. “I watched him for awhile then asked what he was looking for. He told me that he had been an asparagus farmer. He was looking for big, thick stalks. Pencil thin asparagus is in fashion now, but the large ones are more flavorful. Thick stalks come from young plants. The stalks diminish in size and flavor as the plant ages.”

We visited Salinas recently and, like the families Martha has known for years, the town remains modest. The historic center is a few quiet blocks of older, architecturally utilitarian buildings. At One Main Street, however, lies a fine reason to visit Salinas, The National Steinbeck Center. This is a lively museum and arts space dedicated to the author John Steinbeck, Salinas’ most famous son.

The Steinbeck Center shows off the writer’s life and works in interactive exhibits. Passages from his stories, so many of them set in Salinas Valley or nearby Monterey, are creatively woven into touchable exhibits, audio tracks and film clips. Some of Steinbeck’s personal belongings help tell the story of his life.

There is an agricultural hall in the Steinbeck Center that uses innovative ways to express the cultural and agricultural heritage of the valley. A visitor can design a produce label, crawl around the cab of a long-haul truck and play the Produce Game where you use market indicators to stay in business.

Two blocks from the Steinbeck Center sits Steinbeck’s birthplace and boyhood home. Meticulously restored and furnished with family memorabilia and photos, this charming Queen Anne Victorian serves luncheon and Victorian teas. It is staffed by volunteers in period dress.

I can see why Martha feels that her home town remains down-to-earth. Its people, its farms and way of life are based on hard work and the bounty of the fields.  Their wealth is displayed in produce counters across the nation and we all participate in the success of this small town.


Here is a 5 minutes You-tube about Salinas lettuce packing:







    • Ralph:
      Claudia in the Andy Boy Produce Company has e-mailed us about your box. D’Arrigo is the name of the family that started Andy Boy Produce. They came from Sicily to California in the 1920’s.
      Here is her comment:
      D’Arrigo has been in the produce business since 1923, so, yes that was our box with wrapped lettuce. We started out in San Jose, moved to Gilroy, then Castroville and we are now in Salinas (office and cooler).
      Please let me know if you require more information. Thank you for connecting with D’Arrigo!

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