Food for Thought

For decades, our region has struggled to find its national identity. But actually, it’s been here all along. Who knew that dirt would be so much more valuable than gold?
A 1926 State Fair poster touting the city as the heart of the “Garden Valley of the World” (Image Courtesy of the California State Library, California History Room)

A 1926 State Fair poster touting the city as the heart of the “Garden Valley of the World” (Image Courtesy of the California State Library, California History Room)

In 2006, Michael Pollan, the celebrated author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, spoke at a fundraiser near Putah Creek in Winters and recounted his early efforts to convince his New York editors to let him cover a subject he was passionate about: agriculture.

The response, he explained, was decidedly unenthusiastic.

But after multiple attempts, he finally realized his mistake. It wasn’t the subject that was uninspiring. It was the word—agriculture. He simply needed to reframe his pitch. So he returned to the editors and—with the same type of stories in mind—told them that he wanted to write about food.

They happily obliged.

Courtesy of Rubicon Partners

Courtesy of Rubicon Partners

It’s a fun anecdote, but it should also serve as an aha moment for those of us who live here. It’s well documented that we live in the center of one of the most fertile and productive agricultural regions in the country, nestled amongst the verdant Central, San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys. That may have been a hot commodity in the 19th century, but in 21st-century California, being the Agricultural Capital of America doesn’t exactly inspire an abundance of regional pride or make for a catchy civic tagline. We all know it’s important, but it’s hardly sexy.

So let’s reframe our pitch, too.

Welcome to the Food Capital of America.

After all, in May of this year, the California Travel & Tourism Commission proudly proclaimed our state, “The Wine and Food Capital of America.” Sure, it’s a PR title, but it’s also not hard to make the case that it’s true. Let’s not forget that Michael Jackson wasn’t anointed the “King of Pop” by the media. It was a self-prescribed moniker that stuck.

And Sacramento has more than enough ammunition to make its case. After all, the Central Valley produces over half of all fruits and vegetables grown in the United States. Almonds are California’s No. 1 agricultural export, and thanks to Blue Diamond Growers, Sacramento is known as the “Almond Capital of America” (it was even a question on Jeopardy). Rice is California’s No. 2 agricultural export, and the Sacramento Valley produces 97 percent of it. The list goes on.

Our region’s claim to the “Food Capital” title was furthered earlier this year when the $93 million state-of-the-art Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science (note the absence of the word “agriculture”) was completed at UC Davis, priming us to produce even more of the top food experts in the world.

But we won’t get there without a bit of a push.

For example, one of the hottest food trends in America right now is the food truck phenomenon, and even though we have a nascent food truck scene that’s working hard to gain some traction, Sacramento’s ridiculously arcane laws (the vehicles can’t stay in one place for more than 30 minutes) are holding us back as other cities competing for the young, hip crowd are eagerly embracing the movement.

But government can only do so much. Thankfully, a handful of local chefs and restaurateurs have been actively trying to build a foodie community by offering chef-led farmers’ market tours or hosting special events and dinners that celebrate our region’s bounty.

One such restaurateur, Josh Nelson of Ella, The Kitchen and Selland’s Market-Café, is attempting to brand the city as “America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.” He even created T-shirts that proudly proclaim, “I Dig Sacramento” with the farm-to-fork logo (on sale at Selland’s for $20). He hopes to build a nonprofit organization that will help get the message out. In the meantime, proceeds from the shirts will go to the Phoebe Hearst Elementary School in East Sacramento to support its school garden program.

The logo for a concept by Josh Nelson to claim our food identity (Courtesy of Josh Nelson)

The logo for a concept by Josh Nelson to claim our food identity (Courtesy of Josh Nelson)

“I think Sacramento fits the bill, and if we do not claim it, some other less deserving city will,” says Nelson, whose father, Randall Selland, is one of the city’s top chefs and also a champion of building a regional food identity. Nelson hopes to eventually get resolutions from both the city and state to make the title official. It’s all part of an effort, he says, “to see what we can do to promote the idea … and become known nationally for ‘Farm-to-Fork.’ ”

And he’s not alone.

Last year, a group led by Citizen Hotel developers Rubicon Partners tried to convince the city to allow it to build an ambitious project that included a public market and educational center at 8th and K streets intended to celebrate our region’s agricultural heritage in an urban setting. Coined the Boqueria, its purpose was to “place Sacramento at the center of the sustainable, farm-to-table food movement.” Says Rubicon’s Kipp Blewett, “I think that’s who we are; we just haven’t laid claim to it yet.” Nervous about the scale of the project during a recession, the city opted for a less ambitous plan that’s also a worthy project. But it’s a lost opportunity in terms of honing our national identity.

The Boqueria concept is one that should be revived somewhere else downtown, and Blewett says that preliminary discussions to do just that are happening right now. The region needs a physical presence to tout its wares. Look no further than Apple, which figured out that the best way to communicate its brand wasn’t just by talking about it, but by building storefronts where people could touch and feel its products. In this case, we can smell and taste them, too.

Along those lines, the city should work with Blue Diamond—the world’s largest almond producer—to bring back the factory tours that it canceled in the ’90s. People love food factory tours. The Jelly Belly Factory in Fairfield pulls in over 450,000 visitors per year. The Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream factory tour in Vermont draws 320,000 visitors annually and is the state’s No. 1 tourist destination. Think about it—with a global brand like Blue Diamond, a food tour could become one of Sacramento’s top attractions overnight, and help cement the city’s reputation as a food destination.

To take it a step further, let’s start an annual Almond Blossom Festival, patterned after Washington, D.C.’s wildly successful National Cherry Blossom Festival, which generates over $150 million annually for the region. The cherry and almond blossoms are nearly identical, and the festival will be a boon for tourism. It’s a natural fit.

Sacramento already sits squarely at what is arguably the geographical, political and academic center of food science and production in America. And our restaurant scene has exploded in recent years, with celebrated chefs taking chances on extraordinary new restaurants and drawing talent from all over the country. As word gets out about the region as a food mecca, that critical part of the equation will only grow.

Despite the recession, now is the time to start planting the seeds for our new designation as “The Food Capital of America.” For centuries, our greatest regional asset has literally been right under our noses, but we couldn’t see the forest for the almond trees. All we need to do now is reframe the pitch.