America: Rediscovering a true taste for our diversity

Talk about stuff they never taught you in school! Once again, our 9,000-mile journey around the U.S. taught us an unexpected lesson involving food, American values and diversity. Turns out, despite the record high levels of anxiety about our financial future, a refreshing lesson in California history proves that Americans’ pursuit of good food is a reliable gateway toward community.

As a journalist for 34 years and an occasional restaurant reviewer as well, I was startled to discover that California earned its reputation as America’s fresh-produce stand 100 years ago as a direct result of the tossed salad of races, cultures and religious diversity that crowded into the West Coast.

As a  father and son touring the Oakland Museum of California, we picked up a series of fascinating facts that we bet you never learned, either, in your high school history classes. Without further commentary, here are some facts you may want to share with friends:

Hungarian immigrants moving into what is now known as California’s Sonoma wine country introduced more than 300 varieties of European grapes to California in the 1800s. Meanwhile, Armenian immigrants are credited with bringing yellow watermelon and the casaba melon around 1895.

By that time, California was booming with Navel oranges, brought from Brazil to the U.S. where the first U.S. cultivation happened in Riverside, California, by Luther and Eliza Tibbets. Among other remarkable distinctions, the Tibbets were religious nonconformists who were nationally known for supporting a blossoming movement in Spiritualism, sort of a forerunner of what later was called the News Age. Their religious eccentricity didn’t dim their public reputation one bit as they now are celebrated as founders of California’s citrus industry.

By 1900, 1 in 4 oranges consumed in the U.S. came from California. Americans developed a huge sweet tooth for oranges and California orange production grew 400 percent between 1900 and 1920. By that time, southern California was producing more than two thirds of U.S. oranges and more than 90 percent of U.S. lemons.

In the early 1900s, Korean immigrants developed the popular Sun Grand Nectarine. At the same time, Japanese immigrants introduced Napa cabbage and radishes to California. In 1910, Japanese-Americans grew more than 70 percent of California’s strawberries.

Tillie Ehrlich Lewis, a Jewish immigrant from New York, introduced the Italian pomodoro type of tomato to Stockton, California. Shortly prior to World War I, Croatian immigrants introduced new methods of packing, drying and shipping apples.

Luther Burbank, a botanist from Santa Rosa, developed more than 800 kinds of plants, including 113 kinds of plums. Although Burbank grew up in a rather ordinary New England family, later in life he played a very influential role in the spread of Hinduism in the U.S. by befriending Guru Yogananda, author of the 1946 bestseller “Autobiography of a Yogi.” Once again, Burbank’s public support for this unusual Indian teacher didn’t dim Burbank’s own public star one bit.

Little more needs to be said about this American history lesson except: Next time you’re in the produce section, selecting your favorite fresh fruits and vegetables, remember that we have more than a century of American immigration and diversity to thank for those wonderful tastes!

(Today’s photo, from public domain source, and story by Editor David Crumm and his son Benjamin who are devoting 40 days and 9,000 miles to circling the United States and talking with Americans about what divides and what could unite us.)

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