Friday, May 22, 2009

Green Gold

Salinas may be best known as the birthplace of Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck, but it’s been lettuce not literature that has driven the area’s economy. For nearly a century, the city and the 60-mile long Salinas Valley have been called “The Salad Bowl of the Nation” because more than half the lettuce eaten in the U.S. has been grown on those fertile fields. The cool climate is ideal for lettuce and allows three – sometimes four – crops a year. The growers in the 1920s learned how to pack head lettuce in ice so it could be shipped all the way to the East Coast, expanding the market dramatically. Head lettuce became known as “iceberg” because of that packing method, and it dominated the fresh vegetable business through the 1980s. After a bag was invented in 1989 that can keep cut vegetables fresh for several days, ready-to-eat bags of salad popped onto the market, changing eating habits, tripling the value of lettuce crops and creating new markets for vegetables that can be mixed together for inventive salads. The more delicate leaf lettuce surpassed iceberg in acreage and income in 2002, as Salinas continued to be the nation’s major supplier of lettuce and salads. Note: a failed experiment to send iced lettuce east via rail was featured in East of Eden, both the Steinbeck book and the movie.

(Salinas Valley lettuce field courtesy of Stones55)

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