The Lettuce of Wrath

Salinas is Monterey’s overlooked stepsister — the workhorse that produces $3.8 billion of lettuce, spinach, broccoli, and strawberries each year, earning it the nickname “The Salad Bowl Capital of the World.”

But the town has had its fair share of fans, too. Most notably, John Steinbeck. The Nobel Prize-winning author was born and raised here and, in 1998, citizens of the community united to build the National Steinbeck Center to celebrate his life and work.

Steinbeck’s one of my favorite American authors, so I just had to zag inland for a side trip. And when I got to Main Street, I could understand why he had so much love for his hometown.

In a letter to a friend, just a few novels in to what would become a nearly 40-year career, Steinbeck wrote, “I think I would like to write the story of this whole valley, of all the little towns and all the farms and the ranches in the wilder hills.”

And he did — in little sleepers like Of Mice and Men and East of Eden.

But things didn’t always fall into place for Steinbeck. Before he made became a writer, he was a Stanford drop out and spent his young adulthood toiling away as a construction laborer, summer handyman, and wintertime caretaker.

I’ve always loved stories like this.

As I stood there in the well-designed exhibit studying black and white photos of Steinbeck as a young man, I imagined him toiling away as words swam through his mind — which he would run home to put to paper at the end of his shift. I pictured him repeating this day in and day out, until he managed to get his first manuscript, Cup of Gold, published in 1928. I don’t know if he did this or not, but it’s a nice thought.

The installation on the The Grapes of Wrath brought back memories from high school. Steinbeck’s vivid descriptions of the devastation caused by the Dust Bowl gave me my first inkling that unhealthy land was bad for people, too.

Soaking up all of this information made me hungry, so I followed a tip from a friend and headed to El Oaxaqueño. I found it just as she had described — on an unlikely side alley, just off the 101 and the 68.

The man at the counter greeted me warmly, and introduced himself as Gaddiel.

After devouring a mole dish that had been made from scratch by his mom, who was working in the kitchen, I dusted off my rusty Spanish and asked him about his life.

“We are our own town,” he joked, referring to the size of his family. “Many of my friends came here from Oaxaca for jobs in the field, too.”

He talked about how tiring it can be, and how the chemicals from the fertilizers and pesticides take their toll. But, he said, working the land was the surest way to make a living.

“When it’s not growing season, it gets slow around here,” he explained. “We close for a month in winter, because there’s not enough business.”

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I wondered how much had changed since Steinbeck’s time. The disenfranchised lot in The Grapes of Wrath had come to California looking for work after fleeing the Dust Bowl. And now here I was hearing the same old story.

But Gaddiel described it all with bright eyes and a smile. Maybe the situation has improved, I thought to myself, the rich smell of mole still lingering in the air.

There was one thing I knew for certain: I wouldn’t mind spending more time with the overlooked stepsister and paying Gadiell and El Oaxaqueño another visit.

Follow Shannon’s adventures on Twitter @CuriousTraveler and on Instagram @ShannonSwitzer

Shannon is photographing with an Olympus PEN E-PM1 and an Olympus Tough TG-820.

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