Exploring Steinbeck Country by Claudia Carbone

“The Salinas Valley is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.”

— John Steinbeck from East of Eden

A sense of awe overcomes me as I linger over dinner in the home of the famous American novelist John Steinbeck. After sipping cocktails in the very room where he was born in 1902, I listen intently as a volunteer with The Valley Guild that maintains the historic house speaks about his childhood in Salinas, California. “Literature was important to the family, and they all would read together,” she said. “At age 14, John declared he wanted to be a writer. A teacher in high school encouraged him, and he went on to Stanford, taking only classes that interested him—writing and literature. He never graduated, though Stanford has declared him its most famous alumnus.”

Steinbeck’s Salinas and neighboring Monterey became the setting for many of his books: The Long Valley, Of Mice and Men, Cannery Row, East of Eden and Grapes of Wrath, which is celebrating its 75th year of publication this year. In this groundbreaking and controversial novel, he portrays the plight of poor migrant workers in California during the Great Depression. Various capitalist groups banned and burned the book, calling Steinbeck a socialist and propagandist, while at the same time it sold more copies than any other book in 1939 and went on to receive the Pulitzer Prize. Much later, in 1962, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, but controversy surrounding his selection was hurtful to him and he never published again before he died in 1968. “Socially, John Steinbeck is the most important writer of this country,” said Colleen Bailey, executive director of the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas. “He started the dialogue about [immigration] issues we have today. As far as depicting the Salinas Valley, “No other person captures this area like John Steinbeck,” she said. Seventeen of his books were made into movies.

The National Steinbeck Center dominates Old Town Salinas. It is the largest literary museum in the country and one of the most significant cultural attractions between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Its immersion into the life, place and work of the iconic author is reached in six impressive themed galleries of artifacts, photos, film clips and interactive displays. Every May “Steinbeckians” descend on the Salinas Valley for the Steinbeck Festival, which has spread to other cities throughout the world as the Steinbeck Festival International Fringe Fest.

The Salad Bowl of the World

Steinbeck’s Long Valley—the Salinas Valley—lies in central coastal California in Monterey County. Nestled between two mountain ranges—the coastal Santa Lucia Range and the inland Gabilon Range—the land is so green and fertile that it’s referred to as “The Salad Bowl of the World.” Thanks to a perfect storm of weather conditions and rich soil fed by an underground aquifer, vegetable crops have thrived since the late 1800s, making it one of the richest agricultural areas in the world. Sure enough, every day begins shrouded in a morning mist they call “Marine Layer.” Like clockwork, it dissipates at 10:30, giving way to a delightful 68-70 degrees and sunshine. Then at 1:30 in the afternoon, ocean breezes from Monterey Bay float across the mountains to cool the land and make evenings chilly, but never cold enough for a frost.

The Other California Wine Country

Around 1960, vintners from Napa and Sonoma Counties and Swiss-Italian farmers in the valley recognized that this Mediterranean-like climate was also ideal for growing grapes, and by 1970 a full-blown wine industry took hold. The varietals that do particularly well are pinot noir and chardonnay. More than two dozen wineries dot the countryside. Many of them are clustered along River Road, which makes it easy to visit their tasting rooms in a day. At Hahn Estates in the Santa Lucia Highlands, we rode ATVs up to the hillside vineyards where stunning views of the valley’s farmland and Gabilon mountains filled the horizon. We learned why the Highlands is suited for grape growing and then sampled award-winning wines in the tasting room.

The farms, too, offer tours that cover everything about farming from ground prep to harvest. At Ocean Mist Farms, the largest grower of artichokes in the country, we meandered in the fields while workers cut whole artichokes from their plants and tossed them into large bags on their backs as they walked quickly down the rows. Later in a cooking class, Chef Tony Baker taught us the various ways of preparing the super healthy veggie and why we should eat the stem instead of chucking it.

Date: Jan 15