A Few Notes From California

California has never seemed especially secretive about its accomplishments, but it is always startling for one who visits that state at long intervals to find how much it has, justifiably, to talk about. One tends to take for granted the charms of its climate, only to be surprised anew by them at almost any season. The impression of open space and the fierce local determination to fill it or remodel it or improve it give pause to even the hardiest booster from other parts: one gapes, duly, at the new “retirement community,” a town in full working order where no town existed a year or two ago; one accepts offhand the probability that another town will occupy those parts of the desert where now a few street signs — “48th Street,” or a few miles farther on, “46th Street” — are the only evidence of human activity. The vine-ripened tomatoes, picked and served at the peak of their lifespan, are better than the visitor had remembered them to be.

All the more mystifying, then, during a few weeks in California this spring, was what seemed to me a total failure to exploit and advertise two of the state’s great achievements: the artichoke and California sourdough bread.

The sourdough bread is doubtless old stuff to Californians, but I had missed it on my few previous sojourns there, and its virtues are certainly not being made known along the Atlantic seaboard. It is far and away, for my taste, the best bread I have eaten and makes better toast than any other commercially produced bread I have had in this country. It may have varied slightly locally — perhaps in freshness as much as ingredients or production methods — but it was all wonderfully good: much like a hearty homemade white bread in the shape of a French loaf, with a thin, crisp crust and an indescribably tangy flavor. The best of it came in unsliced loaves, and one cut it thin for sandwiches and thicker for toast.

If California were to invade the East with the best of its sourdough bread, and withstand the inevitable attempts of the big commercial bakeries to doctor it and “preserve” it and cheapen it with various chemical shortcuts, I would expect a huge market to open up for this great delicacy. In a world of foodstuffs based on the proposition that taste doesn’t count and that the public wouldn’t know the difference anyhow, it was a profound satisfaction to come upon so distinctive a proof to the contrary.

The artichoke, alas, was something else again.

The artichoke, plain boiled and served hot or cold, has considerable standing as a vegetable. It is offered at many of the best eating places in the Eastern part of this country; it is esteemed in Paris; Rome thinks highly of it. Along with the fresh local asparagus, whose season is all too short, I put the artichoke at the top of the list. California is the great artichoke-producing state, and we looked forward eagerly to evidence of this during our time there. We were traveling by car, and our route was roughly from Palm Springs, though Santa Barbara and Carmel, to San Francisco.

In none of the restaurants — perhaps thirty in all — did we find a menu listing the artichoke. Inquiries in many of these places were received blankly, as if we were asking about something outlandish, while the others simply replied that they did not serve artichokes, as if somehow they had tried out the vegetable and found it sadly wanting. The only strike I made on the whole trip was in a supposedly good San Francisco restaurant, which produced for me an aggressively cold, quite tasteless artichoke which must have spent the previous week in a refrigerator.

We had really revived hopes as we passed, along the road from Monterey to San Francisco, many miles of vast artichoke farms, some with large roadside stands and signs “We Ship” or “We Mail” and handsome displays of outsize artichokes. But we gave up the search altogether the next night, when my wife elected to try “Artichoke Hearts Sauté” in what was cracked up to us as the best or next best of the San Francisco restaurants. I wondered whether she might be getting what the Europeans call “the heart,” the more tender inner cone of leaves, and not “bottoms,” but what she was served was something neither of us could have expected: a saucer containing eight or a dozen small lumpy objects, lightly browned in butter, which proved to be Jerusalem artichokes and which the waiter insisted were indeed artichoke hearts. The same restaurant, incidentally, served my wife a sweetbread so rubbery as to be quite inedible.

I should welcome any explanation from a Californian on the unavailability of artichokes in restaurants. There must be one, for our friends in San Francisco spoke fondly of the local artichoke and especially of its price, which at times is as low as 25 cents a dozen. Are they simply too cheap to be eaten in public?