Salinas Valley has long been called the nation's lettuce bowl. These days, another main crop drawing attention to the area is literature.
It's all thanks to a hometown boy, John Steinbeck, who was born in Salinas in 1902 and now is a focal point for tourism in Monterey County.
The annual Steinbeck Festival draws the author's devotees from around the world, but you don't have to wait until this year's event in the summer to visit.
You're welcome for lunch any weekday in the turn-of-the-century Victorian home where Steinbeck was born and lived in his youth. You can view mementos of his literary life in the Salinas public library that was renamed in his honor.
At the Salinas Chamber of Commerce, visitors also can pick up a Steinbeck Country booklet. It directs you on four one-day self-guided tours to the places that served as settings for his prize-winning novels.
Local Folks Upset
Steinbeck wasn't always a beloved character to the local folks, especially in 1935 when his first big novel, "Tortilla Flat," brought unwanted notoriety to nearby Monterey.
Four years later they were upset again when "The Grapes of Wrath" was published. Many of the California ranchers who had exploited migrant workers during the Great Depression were shamed. The novel became Steinbeck's best-known work and won him a Pulitzer Prize.
The award didn't change feelings toward the author in neighboring Monterey when he wrote "Cannery Row," or in Salinas Valley, an area he made prominent in a popular saga, "East of Eden." But over the years, Steinbeck's novels began bringing tourists to his literary locations and local scorn turned to praise. In 1962 Salinas happily claimed her native son when he became the first California author to be awarded a Nobel Prize.
John Steinbeck also lived on the East Coast and died in New York City in 1968. But his ashes are buried in his hometown, where the author's memory has been kept alive.
You can make a pilgrimage to his birthplace by driving north from Los Angeles on U.S. 101 to Salinas and exiting south on Main Street. In the center of town, turn right (west) on Central Avenue to No. 132.
House in 'East of Eden'
You'll easily find the restored 1897 Victorian that Steinbeck described in "East of Eden" as ". . . an immaculate and friendly house, grand enough but not pretentious . . . inside its white fence surrounded by its clipped lawn and roses. . . ."
The novelist's boyhood home is owned by the Valley Guild, a nonprofit group of women who enjoy gourmet cooking and serve lunch to visitors Monday through Friday. Income from the meals keeps the Steinbeck house in good repair and supports local charities.
Tables with linen and fine china fill five of the downstairs rooms and accommodate 54 diners. You'll need reservations for either of the two luncheon sittings at 11:45 a.m. and 1:15 p.m. Arrive 15 minutes early to listen to one of the volunteer waitresses describe the original uses of the rooms.
Off the entrance hall to the left is a reception room that was the master bedroom where John Ernest Steinbeck Jr. was born 85 years ago. Pictures of his parents hang in the room to the right, once the parlor.
Lunch also is served in the former family room where the fireplace was the only source of heat. A marble-top washbasin is still evident in the adjoining room where Steinbeck lived after two of his sisters moved upstairs to newly added bedrooms.
More tables and a modern kitchen occupy the remainder of the main floor that included the original dining room, kitchen and a guest bedroom. Few of the furnishings belonged to the Steinbecks, but the interior has been redecorated in period style.
Food and Gifts
The set luncheon menus are changed daily; ours featured a green salad of three Salinas Valley lettuces and a quiche of spinach, ham and Swiss cheese called tourte Milanaise. The tab is $5.50, with delicious homemade desserts $2 extra. Wine and beer are available. (Smoking is not permitted in the house.) For reservations, call (408) 424-2735 weekdays.
In the big basement is a gift shop, appropriately named Best Cellar, where you can buy Steinbeck's numerous novels in paperback. Also for sale are recipe cards and the "John Steinbeck House Cookbook" with recipes of the dishes served upstairs as well as country-style knickknacks. Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
To see early editions of Steinbeck's books and other memorabilia of the author, drive a few blocks to the Salinas public library. Go back on Central Avenue to Church Street and turn right (south) to San Luis Street.
Now named the John Steinbeck Library, the entrance is marked by a life-size bronze statue of the author. A special room inside to the right has the Steinbeck Collection with photos, news clippings and original manuscripts.
Library hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Sunday.
Steinbeck researched some of his books in that library, notably "East of Eden," and the staff organizes an annual festival in honor of the author. This is the eighth year that tours, films, lectures and panel discussions by leading authorities on the novelist will be featured.
Make Reservations Now
The festival is set for July 30-Aug. 4, with free admission to many events and a minimal charge for films. Book in advance for the Salinas walking tour and Salinas Valley and Monterey bus tours. Call (408) 758-7311 for a registration form or write to Steinbeck Center, John Steinbeck Library, 110 W. San Luis St., Salinas 93901.
Another place to visit is the Salinas Area Chamber of Commerce, 119 E. Alisal St., to pick up a Steinbeck County tour guide ($1). Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. The phone is (408) 424-7611. Also ask about lodging information.
Return to Los Angeles by rejoining U.S. 101 south.
Round trip from Los Angeles to Steinbeck's Salinas is 660 miles.