November 5, 2012
The presidential candidates look as suave and dapper as ever each time they step to a new podium on the long and winding campaign trail—but each man’s well-groomed countenance belies the rigors of the arduous road each has traveled during the 2012 presidential race. Following is a discussion, with some facts and figures from behind the scenes, about the two men fighting to have America’s most demanding job and each candidate’s long, long journey that ends tomorrow at the polls.
Where the candidates have been:
Between June 1 and November 2, the Obama camp—including the president, the vice president and each man’s spouse—made 483 campaign-related appearances. Barack Obama was present for 214 of them. The same four-tiered Romney party, meanwhile, made 439 appearances, with 277 by Romney. In late September, the Obama campaign’s efforts seemed to max out: on September 22, the Obamas and the Bidens made 11 appearances, and 10 the day prior. The Romney camp has more recently made its most active efforts, with 10 appearances on October 31, and 11 the next day. Barack Obama has not visited Montana, Idaho, or Wyoming, among other states, and neither candidate has bothered appearing in Maine, Kansas, Nebraska, Tennessee, Kentucky and Oklahoma.
On October 24, Obama had what may have been the busiest day of his campaign. He flew 5,300 miles and made appearances in Iowa, Colorado, California (to appear on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno) and Nevada, before, at last, catching some sleep on an overnight trip to the major swing state of Florida (which has seen 112 campaign visits by both presidential husband-wife quartets since June), where the campaigning commenced the following morning. Later that day, the president continued to Virginia, Ohio and Illinois, where he cast an early vote. A week later, Obama made another campaign sprint beginning on October 31; forty-eight hours later he had bounded 6,500 miles around the country. November 1 was a particularly exhausting day. After leaving the White House at 9:20 a.m., he hit Green Bay, Las Vegas, Denver and, finally, Columbus, Ohio. And on November 4, he left the White House at 8 a.m. and made visits to New Hampshire, Florida, Ohio, Colorado and Illinois.
How they get there:
The president gets around in his own private jet, called Air Force One. While “Air Force One” is, in fact, the call sign of any Air Force plane on which a U.S. president is traveling, the term more commonly refers to a particular pair of customized Boeing 747s used exclusively by the White House. Operating the planes is not cheap. ABC News has reported that an hour of flight on Air Force One costs about $180,000–usually of taxpayers’ money, unless a flight is considered strictly part of the campaign. But Obama does occasionally journey overland by bus—specifically in a black, slick and shiny armored coach that, just like its duplicate vehicle, cost $1.1 million when the Secret Service purchased the pair last year. By some guesses, Ground Force One, as it’s been dubbed and which has been active during this campaign, travels just six to nine miles on a gallon of gasoline.
Mitt Romney has also covered some impressive distance during his campaign. According to the Huffington Post, Romney will make a last-minute, four-day, 15,000-mile dash that ends tonight after visits to seven states, and he has traveled tens of thousands of miles throughout the campaign. As of late August, he has been traveling mostly on a private jet—a McDonnell-Douglas 83. Running mate Paul Ryan has his own plane—a similar model called the DC-90.
Where they sleep:
Luxury travel goes hand in hand with luxury lodging, and the president has stayed at the Beverly Hills Beverly Hilton Hotel in a room that costs $4,000 per night, the Ballantyne Hotel in Charlotte, North Caroline, the Hotel Bellevue in Washington, and many other fine establishments. And Romney has stayed at the Charleston Place Hotel in Charleston, the New York Palace Hotel, which can cost $9,000 per night, and the Millennium Bostonian Hotel.
How they stay fit:
In spite of their busy schedules, Obama and Romney both take the time to care for themselves and maintain physical fitness. Romney, it’s been reported, jogs three miles daily, whether on treadmills, around the hotel premises or on trails. Obama, too, keeps an exercise routine and aims for 45 minutes of boosted heart rate per day, achieved through running, basketball and even boxing. Although one of the Air Force One jets contains a treadmill, as Obama recently told Jay Leno, the stationary running machine was installed during a previous presidency and Obama does not jog on it during flights.
In the end, for all the sleepless nights and airport marathons and shaking of hands, we wonder: Did their campaign efforts steer the election? Whether Romney wins or Obama, America will know soon which man will get to spend the next four years flying in Air Force One.
September 13, 2012
Dog versus bear: An ancient duet of nature? Or an artificial battle royale staged by sport hunters?
Advocates and critics each flaunt the opposing characterizations—but either way, hound hunting can be simply defined: the pursuit of a large mammal using a pack of trained dogs that, often, chase the quarry up a tree. Many times, the human hunter, who often locates his dogs by following the signal emitted from their radio collars, shoots the animal out of the branches. Other times, the hunt ends without a gunshot as the houndsman, satisfied only by the chase, leashes his dogs and leads them away, leaving the quarry—very often a black bear, other times a cougar or bobcat—alive in the treetop. Still other times, the pursued animal may fail to make it up a tree and get mauled by the dogs.
This is hound hunting.
In England, foxes have long been the target animal of the sport as highbrow hunters on horseback follow their bawling hounds to the eventual death of the fox. Such hunting has been banned in the United Kingdom, though hunters seem to be thumbing their nose at the law; they continue mounting their steeds and trailing their hounds—”at least as much as ever,” according to one hunter quoted by the The Telegraph. And in America, hound hunting was romanticized in such literature as The Bear, by William Faulkner, and Where the Red Fern Grows, by Wilson Rawls.
But state by state, the practice—call it a sport, a tradition, a hobby, a way of life—is becoming illegal as people sympathetic to the well-being of wild animals campaign to abolish hound hunting. Of the 32 American states that permit black bear hunting, 14—including Montana, Colorado, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington—prohibit hunters from using dogs to chase the animals. Now, California could be looking at a statewide ban. Senate Bill 1221, introduced earlier this year by Senator Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), will ban the use of hounds while hunting bears and bobcats if Governor Jerry Brown signs the bill.
The ban would not affect bird hunters who rely on retrievers to recover ducks and other fowl, researchers who hire houndsmen to assist in treeing study animals, and wildlife officials who conduct depredation hunts of bears and mountain lions deemed dangerous to the public or their property.
Hunters are up in arms and have been protesting at public gatherings. Josh Brones is among those leading the defense of the sport. As the president of the California Houndsmen for Conservation, Brones says that hound hunting does not usually involve killing the bear and, what’s more, brings to life an ancient and natural drama between black bears and canine predators. During an interview, Brones said hound hunting is rather like a game of “hike-and-seek.” In these pursuits, the bear leads the hounds through the woods, often for many miles, before climbing a tree. The houndsman, slower but just as dogged as his hounds, eventually arrives, shoots some shaky video of the bear to post on YouTube and finally departs. Hunters sometimes call this activity catch-and-release—and even many wildlife researchers rely on it.
Brones, like many houndsmen, almost never kills bears, he says.
“In my 28 years of hunting with hounds, I have only killed four [black bears], and the last one was more than a decade ago,” he said. “I don’t even take a weapon when hunting for bear.”
Brones assures that catch-and-release hunting is not stressful to the bear. Though hunting publications frequently characterize bear hunting as the most epic of adrenaline rushes (just Google hunting bears adrenaline rush), Brones says black bears themselves do not experience particularly increased adrenaline levels when chased by dogs. Rather, by fleeing for miles through the woods, bears—as well as other large game—are answering to basic instincts; they are not afraid—just running, he explained to me. He also described treed black bears yawning and nodding off to sleep in the cozy crook of a tree, indifferent to the dogs below. Department of Fish and Game warden Patrick Foy similarly told of treed mountain lions, which are sometimes pursued via hounds by researchers, as appearing “like they don’t have a care in the world.” Foy said, too, that a chase covering several miles of rough terrain is not especially hard on many large wild animals—just a walk in the woods, really.
“For a bear, six miles is nothing,” Foy said.
Some biologists, however, assure that hound hunting has considerable impacts on wildlife. Rick Hopkins, a conservation ecologist in San Jose, California, said in an interview that he participated in a long-term study more than 20 years ago in which he helped catch and radio collar 30 Bay Area mountain lions. In three of the chases, a cougar was caught and viciously attacked by the dogs. He says he knows, too, of cases in which a research hunt led to a cougar kitten getting killed by the hounds.
“Even in research hunts, which are carefully controlled,” dogs catch and maul the quarry, he said. “And I can guarantee that in less controlled hunts, bear cubs get caught.”
Hopkins went on to say, “It’s absolutely silly to suggest that it’s OK to run animals to exhaustion and chase them up a tree, and think that they’re fine.”
To the sport’s many opponents, hound hunting appears like little more than brazen wildlife harassment. Jennifer Fearing, the California director of the Humane Society of the United States, recently told the press, “It’s just reckless wildlife abuse. Even if [hunters] don’t intend to kill the bear, there isn’t such a thing as benign catch-and-release hound hunting.” Fearing noted that many public parks prohibit unleashed pet dogs.
“And yet we allow this narrow field of people to not only run their dogs off-leash but with the express purpose of chasing wildlife,” she said.
Brones says bears are very rarely injured by dogs, and he says he doesn’t know of any incidents in which cubs were attacked, though this (incredibly graphic, so be forewarned) video shows it happening. While such tooth-and-claw combat may be rare, no one seems really to know how often it occurs. Hunters are regularly separated for lengths of time (that’s why they use radio collars) from their dogs, which may show extreme aggression toward the pursued animal (the dogs often mob dead bears that have been shot from a tree). And for every dog-and-bear fight videoed and posted online, other similar skirmishes likely go unseen or undocumented. In one case described by an official with the Haven Humane Society in a recent letter to Senator Lieu, an injured bear fleeing from hounds happened to enter the city limits of Redding, California, where it climbed a tree. The said official tranquilized the bear, discovered that it bore severe dog bites and euthanized the animal.
Hounds on the chase almost certainly scare and disturb nontarget wildlife. One European study (Grignolio et al. 2010) found that roe deer, though not the subject of hound hunts, would shift to less desirable habitat during the boar hunting season, where food was less abundant but where regulations precluded hunters and their hounds from entering. And in a July 2006 report (PDF) from the Pennsylvania Game Commission’s Bureau of Wildlife Management, wildlife biologist Mark Ternent wrote, “Pursuit with hounds also may impose stress, disrupt reproduction, and alter foraging effectiveness of bears or other wildlife. Family groups may become separated, or cubs occasionally killed by hounds. However, several studies have concluded that most biological impacts from hound hunting are minimal (Allen 1984, Massopust and Anderson 1984), and the issue of hound hunting is largely social.”
As a species, black bears are not considered threatened. Scientists believe that there are about 30,000 in California, some 300,000 in the United States, and as many as 725,000 across their entire North American range, from Mexico to Alaska. Every year, licensed bear hunters in California take no more than 1,700—a quota set by the Department of Fish and Game. Half or less of these are currently taken with the assistance of dogs—and it’s almost certain that in California, even if houndsmen are soon banned from unleashing their dogs onto a scent trail, the bear hunt will still go on.
The dogs will just have to stay home.
Weigh in in the comment box below: Is hound hunting of bears, bobcats, mountain lions and other animals a fair chase? Or a sport whose time must end?
September 11, 2012
Across the sun-drenched country, as far as the eye can see in the river-valley lowlands between the mountains, live armies of clones—millions and millions of fruit trees, each almost identical to every other nearby tree of its kind. These are the orchards of California’s Central Valley, fruit basket of America and one of the most fertile and wealthy agricultural regions in the world. Peaches, walnuts, almonds, pistachios, grapes and many more fruits are harvested here for eight months of the year—but what this productive region has in sheer volume it largely lacks in diversity. For just several varieties of each species constitute the bulk of the state’s produce market, and the Central Valley’s fruit orchards are, to use that dirty word of the agricultural cognoscenti, vast and unapologetic monocultures.
But tucked away on the western edge of this great valley is a small but glittering treasure—a farm containing almost a planet’s worth of biodiversity. Many have likened it to a Noah’s Ark of the world’s tree fruits, while those attuned to the vernacular of plant genetics call the site, located in Winters, California, a germplasm repository. Operated by the federal government with American tax dollars, Wolfskill Experimental Orchard includes more than 6,000 types of plants. Thousands of grape varieties, with two specimens of each vine, grow on the premises, as do hundreds of varieties each of walnuts, olives, peaches and almonds. Mulberries are grown here, too, and kiwis, and plums, and persimmons, and pistachios. And perhaps best of all, the Wolfskill Experimental Orchard is a public resource. Seeing the site by appointment, tasting fruit harvested by the staff and requesting wood for propagation are all welcomed.
And perhaps best of all, the Wolfskill Experimental Orchard is open to the public. Seeing the site, tasting the fruit and borrowing wood for propagation are all welcomed.
The best time to visit this remarkable farm is during one of the site’s annual tasting events. Most recently, Wolfskill’s managers hosted the always popular Fig Day. This annual September gathering draws farmers, hobbyists and general fig lovers from around California and even the country to taste across a spectrum of unusual figs, hear several short lectures on the various species grown at the Wolfskill property and tour the orchard itself. Howard Garrison, Wolfskill’s orchard manager and one of the chief fig experts in the state, had assembled a tasting table of sliced and diced figs of several varieties. Among them were the Calimyrna, the large and popular yellow-skinned fig imported from Turkey in the 1800s; the absurdly beautiful supermodel of the species—the Panache, or tiger-striped, fig; the fudgy-fleshed Santa Cruz Dark; the highly regarded Black Madeira; and the elegantly stemmed Pied de Boeuf (means “cow-foot” fig in French). Garrison also served platters of large green Excel figs wrapped with bacon and, for the vegetarians, just stuffed with goat cheese. Finally, Garrison delivered a brief talk on figs, their history and their botany. Among the scores of guests, one had brought with him a shoebox containing several show-and-tell figs of the most bizarre sort anyone present had seen. Harvested from a single, decades-old tree in Ventura County, this mystery fig, with its extremely elongated stem, delicate skin and honey-like flesh, baffled every geneticist, collector, farmer and hobbyist who had a close look. It was also a giant, with at least one fig from the tree weighing more than half a pound.
Fig Day 2012 also included an adjacent grape display and discussion arranged by Wolfskill’s grape horticulturalist, Bernie Prins. Prins had selected a half dozen of the 3,600-plus grape types in the orchard—almost all of them ripe and ready. Selections included the Kyoho grape, a Japanese giant about the size of a golf ball with a black skin; a golden brown, elongated hybrid grape that tasted faintly of chocolate and melon; and the show-stealing Black Hamburg, a musky, perfumey grape as shiny as obsidian.
A variety of tasting events are held at Wolfskill each year, and those who gag at the thought of figs (many people do) may take interest instead in the November persimmon and pomegranate tasting, the January kiwi tasting and the June mulberry and peach tasting. Visit their website to inquire about directions and the calendar of events—and if you go, don’t forget some cash for the donation pot.
But Wolfskill Experimental Orchard is not simply a venue for fruit-tasting events. The site is a public resource. John Preece, a USDA horticulturalist and researcher, told the small crowd before the tasting, “What we do here is preserve heirloom plants so they don’t go extinct, and then we make them available to anyone in the world who requests [wood for grafting or propagating] free of charge.” Farmers and gardeners may also submit online requests for wood cuttings by variety.
And John Baum, a member of the California Rare Fruit Growers, also took a moment to speak to the fig and grape tasters. “When you get home today, write to your congressmen and senators and tell them to support these operations,” Baum said. “Because there are people who think these collections should be run by private industries, and if industries controlled them, they would bulldoze up all the trees, because all they want are the market varieties.”
Which would leave us in a world of mostly black mission and brown Turkey figs—two industry staples of California. We might lose the huge and decadent black Zidi fig; the almost seedless, jelly-fleshed Mary Lane fig; the favorite cold-weather fig of Northwest gardeners, the green-skinned Desert King; and that supermodel of them all, the Panache.
Other fruit tastings:
Olives. A variety of events occur year-round in California.
Citrus. January, at UC Riverside.
Cherimoyas. February, at UC Irvine.
Strawberries. March, at UC Irvine.
Avocados. August, at UC Irvine.
Apples. Not an official tasting, but the USDA, which manages a huge apple collection in Geneva, New York, will be offering an open field day on September 22, where several apple varieties may be tasted.
What other tastings did we miss? Tell us about them in the comment box below.
The United States government has compiled a tremendous range of the existing diversity in many of the world’s cultivated food plant species—almost comprehensive, but not quite. That is, many varieties (or “genetic material,” as collectors often refer to their quarry) remain undiscovered in faraway places and uncollected. This means that the most exotic, most wonderful fruit tasting of all may be the one you host yourself while traveling. Want pomegranates? Go to Montenegro or Albania, where mountainsides are covered with wild pomegranates. Want grapes? Hike through the vine-draped forests of formerly Soviet Georgia. Want mangoes? The jungles of Borneo are thick with untasted varieties. Want figs? Try cycling through Greece, the Balkans or Turkey, one eye ever on the roadside.
August 16, 2012
Headlines this summer have announced 2012 as America’s hottest year on record, with particularly brutal heat waves striking the Northeast, and stunning temperature highs all but cooking Death Valley and other Southwest desert hotspots.
What many papers have not pointed out, however, is that 2012 is shaping up to be among the warmest on record worldwide. In June, across the planet, the average land temperature was the highest since such record-keeping began in 1880. And factoring in ocean temperatures, the month of June was the fourth hottest June since 1880. The same data source, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, shows that May 2012 was comparably scorching in the Northern Hemisphere. The global report for July is not yet available, but the national analysis is in—and the month burned like never a July has before. The lower 48 states’ 31-day temperature average of 77.6 degrees Fahrenheit made July 2012 the warmest single month ever recorded in America since national records began in 1895. Also during July, fires across America burned more than two million acres. Now, it’s August, and while we’re eagerly awaiting the next monthly summary, we don’t need a government climatologist to tell us that it’s broiling out there. Fires are sweeping the country, and farmers are grumbling about a drought. Global warming? It feels that way.
Following are a few of the hottest of hotspots where recent weather extremes are making 2012 a summer to write home about.
Spain. I was there, pedaling a bicycle through the Spanish interior in late June, and I almost cooked. The land was erupting in flames. Distant plumes of smoke marked brush and forest fires while helicopters in response came and went. Nights were balmy and comfortable, and mornings weren’t intolerable—but by noon each day the mercury edged past 100, and from 3 p.m. until about 7, the heat made riding a bike impossible. For four days I baked, spending one miserable afternoon on La Ruta de Don Quixote, a pathetic gravel trail through the scrub and desert, and itself the subject of a feeble tourism marketing campaign. Signage was poor and of water there was none. Windmills towered above me on a low ridge—but there was not a shade tree to be found. Relief came two days later, on the 26th, when, at last, I rolled into the air-conditioned terminal of Madrid-Barajas International Airport. June 2012 in Spain would clock out as the fourth-hottest Spanish June since 1960. The day I got out of that oven, temperatures peaked, reaching 111 degrees Fahrenheit in Cordoba.
Death Valley. On July 11, the temperature hit 128 degrees Fahrenheit in Death Valley. Through the night, the mercury crashed more than 20 degrees to 107, which tied the world’s record for the warmest daily low, and the 24-hour average for the same day was a world record 117.5 degrees. Just four days later, scores of ultramarathoners embarked on the annual 135-mile Badwater foot race, which leads from 282 feet below sea level, where asphalt can get hot enough to melt rubber, to 8,360 feet above, at Whitney Portal. And while the race is considered one of the most brutal competitions in the world, climbing almost two miles straight up from the aptly named Furnace Creek, starting point of the race, may be about the surest way to beat—or simply escape—the heat of Death Valley.
Austria. Since the country began keeping records in 1767, Austria recorded its sixth-hottest June this year. On June 30, temperatures maxed out at 99.9 degrees Fahrenheit in both the capital city of Vienna and in German-Altenburg, Nope.
Canary Islands. Recent soaring temperatures, preceded by one of the driest Spanish winters in seven decades, have sparked raging fires on the islands of Tenerife and La Gomera, of the Canary Islands. Four thousand residents have been evacuated and British tourists have been asked to report to the Foreign Office as firefighters struggle to control the flames. Eight fires were recently burning on Tenerife and ten on La Gomera, where the inferno has threatened Garajonay National Park, a Unesco World Heritage site containing prehistoric woodland dating back 11 million years. Authorities report that the La Gomera blazes may be the result of arson.
The Arctic. If it looks freezing, and it feels freezing, it still might be warmer than ever—and in the high Arctic this summer, the sea ice has shrunk to historic lows. Though July’s ice cap cover was up slightly from last year, it was the second lowest recorded by NASA’s satellite monitoring program for polar ice extent. But the ice has been melting in the past 30 days, and now the square mileage of sea ice—2.52 million—is the lowest ever recorded for the month of August.
Lassen Volcanic National Park. A fire that broke out on July 29 in the California park has since scorched 24,000 acres of forest. A recent article predicted that the fire might be contained by the final days of August. The main highway through the park and over the mountain—a living volcano and no stranger to heat and fire—has been closed, and numerous homes around the park are threatened. Elsewhere throughout California, Idaho, Oregon and Washington, fires have burned half a million acres of countryside, all of it parched by summer heat. In Redding, California, for instance, at the north end of the Sacramento Valley, summer started early, with the temperature reaching 102 on the last day of May. Twelve days in July were hotter than 100 degrees, and only four days in August so far have been less than triple digits. On August 12, the temperature reached 112.
In Related News:
Bearing the Heat. Across the United States, hungry black bears, facing a heat-induced food shortage, have resorted to breaking and entering to meet their daily caloric demands. With berries and other food forage shriveled by high temperatures, the animals have been raiding trash bins, cars and cabins with unprecedented frequency. In New York State, one black bear reportedly broke into a minivan stashed with goodies. When the door closed behind it, the bear became trapped and, in its efforts to escape, shredded the interior of the vehicle. And in June in Aspen, where searing heat has dried up the chokecherry and serviceberry crops, a female black bear with three cubs broke into at least a dozen cars in a guerrilla quest for calories.
Climate Change a Boon to English Tourism. While the subtropics burn, the higher latitudes are starting to feel just right for summer travelers. English officials expect the heat of continental Europe to be a great boon to tourism at U.K. beach towns. A document (PDF) produced by the University of Wales Swansea reports that erratic heat waves are expected to occur with frequency in the future in Europe—and whereas summers under the Greek, Spanish, Majorcan, Corsican and Tuscan suns have historically been regaled as idyllic icons of high-season tourism, replete with vineyards and wine tasting and so many pleasures Mediterranean, experts believe that, increasingly, Britons will stay home during the high season as southern Europe bakes under hotter and increasingly unpleasant summers.
Global Warming at Work? Maybe. Because federal government data like this is darn hard to argue with: “June 2012 also marks the 36th consecutive June and 328th consecutive month with a global temperature above the 20th century average.”
British Winemakers Say “Cheers” to Climate Change. The unfurling story of Southern England’s new and growing wine industry also seems to leave little doubt that global warming is real. More than 400 wineries are now producing good whites and reds in what scientists assure is a steadily warming region—one which they say warmed by 3 degrees Fahrenheit from 1961 to 2006. Don’t believe them? Then just look at the vines, which are thriving where 30 years ago winemakers say they couldn’t produce decent fruit. Sure: Data can get goofed—but grapes don’t lie.
August 10, 2012
Where does a traveler go to best taste the foods and flavors of a region? Local restaurants? Not me. Because when a dish arrives at the table in a fine restaurant, it is more often the artful work of a chef, not the pure product of the land, and I don’t know about you, but I travel to experience a place, not its chefs. When I visit the East Coast of America, I want a steamed lobster, plain and simple—not shredded and rendered into a bisque, or folded into a delicate soufflé. And when I visit Southern California, I want to see the avocados, whole and complete, one variety beside the next, not whipped into some unidentifiable frothy salad dressing or blended into ice cream. And when I travel to Turkey, I want to eat Turkish figs, fresh off the branch as the tree offered them—not wrapped in bacon, doused with oil, stuffed with cheese and grilled. And in Alaska, there may be no better summertime dinner than a steak of salmon, grilled over open flames and drizzled with lemon—no fancy kitchen tricks required.
No, it doesn’t take a culinary college graduate to make good food. The land does it for us—and here are a few walk-around festivals this summer and fall, each starring some of the world’s greatest ingredients.
Tomatoes. The 16th Annual Sonoma County Heirloom Tomato Festival arrives on September 14 for a two-day gala at Kendall-Jackson Winery in Fulton, California, where visitors will meet 175 varieties of tomatoes that have almost slipped to the wayside in the shadow of Romas and other dominating commercial varieties. Tasting opportunities will abound for those interested in discerning the subtle and dramatic differences between varieties, while local star chefs will also get their hands on a few tomatoes for a competitive cook-off. In Valencia, Spain, meanwhile, the annual giant tomato fight arrives again on August 29 as thousands of revelers engage in La Tomatina. There is less food at this event than there is tomato smashing, stomping and squashing, plus half-naked wrestling in freshly pulped tomato sauce.
Figs. In Fresno, California, heart of America’s fig-growing industry, the 11th Annual Fig Fest comes this Saturday, August 11, on the front lawn of Fresno State University. The gathering will feature farmers, each at their own stalls and each showcasing the fruits of their mid-summer labors for guests to see and taste—like the Calimyrna, black mission, Kadota, brown Turkey, panache and other varieties of fig grown in local orchards. Wine and fig-based hors d’oeuvres can also be sampled, while a “Fig Feast” later in the evening at the Vineyard Restaurant will present the sweet and squishy fig in a fine-dining context. I’ll sate myself with unadulterated figs on the university lawn, thank you—though I’ll venture to guess (and correct me if I’m wrong) that those who buy the $75 meal ticket will find figs wrapped in salted swine and grilled.
Oysters. Any seafood fan knows that the best oyster is a raw one, slurped down minutes after being shucked from its shell—and oyster lovers at the annual International Oyster & Seafood Festival in Galway, Ireland, held the last three days of September, will find no short supply of their favorite cold and clammy mollusk. Events at the the festival include an oyster- shucking contest (watch that knife!) and Irish dancing. And don’t mark my words, but I would bet that somewhere in that three-day spell you could find yourself a pint of oyster stout. We just missed another oyster fest in June in New Orleans, as well as in Arcata, on the wild, black bear-trodden North Coast of California. Pencil them in for next year.
Wild Salmon. In British Columbia more than anywhere else, perhaps, a sharp line separates farmed salmon from wild. The former is abundant, cheap and likely a direct cause of the decline of some wild salmon populations—and proceeds from the annual Wild Salmon Festival of Lumby, British Columbia, held each July, go toward restoring local salmon-spawning habitat. As the event’s website poignantly states, “This festival honors the Wild Salmon who still come here to spawn and die.”
Mangoes. A festival each July in Coral Gables, Florida, features all things mango in one of the only American states where this tropical rock star of fruits can thrive. Florida farmers grow unique local varieties that festival visitors may taste nowhere else. In Guam, a celebration each June in the village of Agat showcases the island’s summer mango harvest with tastings, music, two- and five-kilometer runs and plant sales.
Watermelons. Festivals for America’s favorite and clumsiest fruit abound each summer. In Hope, Arkansas, watermelons take the stage this weekend at the 36th annual Watermelon Festival. Other similar festivals occur in Fair Bluff, North Carolina, in Carytown, Virginia, and in Mize, Mississippi. Throughout the Old World, too, summertime festivities honor the big juicy fruit, native to Eurasia. Upcoming is the annual watermelon festival in Salamanovo, Bulgaria, while the one in Beijing, China, came and went in late May.
Avocados. The Hass is the king of commercial avocado varieties, but hundreds of others can be found in Central American forests, in smaller orchards in California and Florida, and in government tree collections—like the experimental orchard at U.C. Irvine, where we just missed the annual walk-around-and-taste tour of the 80-variety avocado grove. But yet to come this year and early in 2013 are the avocado festival in Carpinteria, California, from October 5 to 7, next February’s avocado festival on the Big Island of Hawaii, where 200 varieties of avocados grow on local farms, and still another festival next April in Fallbrook, California. At each event there is sure to be mountains of guacamole—and even avocado ice cream.
Maine Lobster. We missed this one by a week—but pencil the Maine Lobster Festival into your 2013 calendar. Here, at Harbor Park in Rockland, the East Coast’s favorite crustacean will be served up in almost every manner. Consider getting to know the lobster first with a whole steamed two-pounder before moving on to more complicated dishes, which will be served by competing chefs in the lobster cook-off.
Mushrooms. They rise unpredictably from the mossy forest floor, in dark, damp places, and in a vast array of colors, shapes and sizes—and the fact that some wild mushrooms are gourmet-grade edibles stirs fascination in millions of human admirers, who wait for them aboveground, frying pans greased to go. And so it’s hardly a surprise that countless fungus festivals celebrate wild mushrooms. In California’s Mendocino County in November, the annual Wine and Mushroom Festival spotlights one of the world’s most productive mushroom hotspots. Visitors will see and taste such culinary stars as the porcini, chanterelle, morel, lobster and black trumpet. Other annual mushroom festivals occur in Madisonville, Texas, Boyne City, Michigan, and Telluride, Colorado. And the world’s favorite underground mushroom, the white truffle, stars at the 82nd Annual International White Truffle Fair, which runs October 6 through November 18 in Alba, Italy.
Zinfandel. The largest single-variety wine tasting in the world, held each January in San Francisco, is a celebration of the Zinfandel grape, but just as much, it is a celebration of California itself, producer of virtually all the Zinfandel wine in the world. This Croatian-native grape variety makes a distinctively sharp and peppery red wine, which may owe its unique qualities in part to the chemistry of California soil. Scientists have found compounds of marine origin in the skins and juice of Zinfandel grapes—delivered, so the theory goes, from ocean to inland valley via migrating Chinook salmon, which die after spawning and whose carcasses were historically hauled from the rivers by bears and eaten in the state’s future vineyards. Taste a Zinfandel today, and you’re tasting California of yesteryear.
Yogurt, garlic, apples, wild game, olives, durians, cheese, jackfruit—foods of almost every sort are celebrated by the people who love them in the lands that produce them. So tell us: Which great or off-the-beaten-path food festivals did we leave out?