Sacramento’s breadbasket

It’s not often that one sees a beautiful, richly colorful and evocative book about food in the Central Valley. Even though all that “local” produce that feeds the hungry epicures of the Bay Area comes from here, the restaurants and outlets that use it tend to get more (and certainly glossier) press than the farmers around these flat, dry, not-so-glossy parts. But that’s not the case with Edges of Bounty, an idiosyncratic book of photos and essays that seems to consciously have been undertaken in the spirit of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men; it has an epigraph by James Agee. The book is sleekly and beautifully produced by Heyday Books, a Berkeley-based nonprofit that specializes in books that explore California and Western life and culture.

To make the book, writer William Emery and photographer Scott Squire traveled California’s two big valleys, the Sacramento and the San Joaquin, from Chico and points north all the way down to Fresno and beyond, sometimes with a destination, sometimes just trawling the back roads for odd farm stands or an intriguing-looking barn. The two are very much present in the book: hot and sticky in their un-air-conditioned vehicle, or hungry as they eye a ripe melon, or grateful and reflective as they consider their reception: “We are received with enormous and reflexive generosity throughout the Valley, as if the openness of the landscape grafts itself onto its inhabitants. … This generosity pleasantly bewilders Scott but haunts me.”

Their mission is to explore the idea of “edibilism,” their word for what they call “the common human desire to personally participate in the production of some or all of one’s food or drink.” This coining of a concept suggests that the prose might tend a bit toward sententiousness, and some purple passages bear out the suspicion (“Here, three onions had fallen. No casserole would keep them, no quiche caress them, in no butter would they be sautéed”). The photographs are sparer and leaner than such passages in the text; there’s one of those very onions that shows them withered and blackened beneath pale blue sky, rather proving that old adage about the thousand words.

But such moments of slippage are balanced by simpler, more telling ones: “Paul slid just the tip of his pocketknife into the top of the melon. A moment later, we heard a loud pop. … The heavy ripeness of the watermelon had actually ripped it apart.” More balance is offered by vivid, affecting written and photographic portraits of the farmers, cooks and other personalities Emery and Squire encounter on the road; these portraits are the true heart of the book.

At once elegiac and hopeful; it’s no accident that the book was written by a Kansan, as the Central Valley is like the Midwest of California: unglamorous, ag-oriented, a red-state island rimmed with blue and often overlooked by the coast.

Edges of Bounty certainly offers the thrill of recognition for otherwise-obscure nearby places; I mean, when was the last time you saw East Nicholas, that bleak little crossroads on Highway 70, described in print? The byways Emery and Squire travel take them from Delta fishing boats to Hmong strawberry stands, from Davis’ Tucos Wine Market and Cafe to a Portuguese festival in Buhach, from gutting pheasants at a hunt to learning about “nonviolent” farming outside Fresno. For its subject matter, its range, its stories and its photographs, this unusual volume is well worth seeking out.