If you are fortunate enough one of these days to drive along the central coast of California between Santa Cruz and Monterey, you will pass by field upon field of tall, thick-stalked, prickly leaved, some say prehistoric-looking spiny plants supporting a fist-sized vegetable that is poetically known as the vegetable of passion, the food of nobility, the thistle of love — the California artichoke. Artichokes are one of the oldest foods known to humankind. They are said to be an aphrodisiac. They were first cultivated for food in the Mediterranean thousands of years ago. Early plantings were first made in North America by French settlers in Louisiana, and then brought to California by Italians in the late 1800s.
Castroville lies at midpoint along the central California coast between Santa Cruz and Monterey. This small town, population 6,700 or so, claims to be the “artichoke capital of the world.” In 1949, in Castroville, Marilyn Monroe was crowned the first official “California Artichoke Queen.” Settled by the Spanish, and planted by Italian immigrants, Castroville is now largely populated by Mexican-Americans and Mexican farm workers who cultivate and harvest nearly four million artichokes from the Monterey region every year.
A mile or so south of town, Pezzini’s 100-acre farm straddles the coastal highway. A nine-foot-high green plywood “artichoke” gives direction to Pezzini Farm’s roadside grocery stand — take exit 414A. It’s not remarkable. Just an old, gray clapboard barn. Yet, it’s entirely unique.
In the back, wooden crates four feet on a side and four feet deep overflow with artichokes. Out front where I poke around, artichokes are heaped into bins, sorted and priced by size — I’m sure there is some official agricultural formula by weight or girth or something like that. To me it looks like: xs, s, m, l, xl, xxl, xxxl.
If you can’t wait to get home, you can buy an xxl freshly steamed artichoke right there (or if you prefer, some deep-fried artichoke hearts), along with as much dipping sauce as you like — homemade lemon-dill or garlic-mayo, or both. It’s a whole meal. There are a couple of picnic tables just out front, too.
So, on one of my visits, as I was finishing up the last bite of my artichoke heart, a 60-something couple drove up to the front of the stand, parked, got out. The couple poked around the stand for a few minutes, the husband following in the footsteps of his wife.
She closely examined the bins of different sized and priced artichokes — starting with the “xs” priced at $0.79 each, and moving down the line to the “xxxl” at $1.99. Perhaps no more that five minutes into their visit, she paused, turned to her husband, and insisted, “Let’s leave, they’re only a buck fifty at Safeway.” They got back in their car and drove off.
That one sentence unleashed in me a whole stream-of-consciousness. Part of me felt sorry for the woman. Another part of me felt fearful. My stream of consciousness went something like this:
Lady, get a grip.
These are right out of the field.
There’s no way you’re going to find this at Safeway, even if an artichoke there is only a buck and a half.
In that one sentence, I felt jolted by the rude and very real reminder that an important and meaningful part of my world is endangered. I dearly love my community. More accurately, I dearly love the unique character of my community — local mom-and-pop entrepreneurs whose businesses are personal expressions of creativity and courage, and whose survival is almost entirely dependent on our support: on us, the members of the community. In that one sentence, “Let’s leave, they’re only a buck fifty at Safeway,” I was reminded that character survives only in direct proportion to the sum of our actions to safeguard it. Is our world so caught up in commoditization that we are blind to character?
Metaphorically, I believe Pezzini’s is each of the local entrepreneurs whose small businesses form part of the soul of my community. Their grocery store and farm stand represents each of the local entrepreneurs whose businesses offer an oasis of uniqueness and personality in a world mounded with food and furniture and clothing and coffee that all seems to come out of the same limited variety of molds. These entrepreneurs offer a taste of natural, no-artificial-flavor in a world dominated by corporate formula and chemical-infusion. They offer an encounter with robust authenticity — albeit one sometimes rough around the edges. And yes, at Pezzini Farms, chances are that an artichoke will cost more than it does at a strip-mall Safeway.
Chances are, the smaller guys will never be able to compete on price with the bigger guys. Such is the law in an economies-of-scale world.
Chances are, indeed, that my community (well, our communities) will increasingly include the cookie-cutter coffee shop, the big-box building supply hangar, the fast-food franchise, the monolithic bank branch, the identical-looking chain store, the gigantic supermarket, the mega-mart and the big bookstore whose name begins with a “B.” Stocked, supported, subsidized and sometimes supersized by suppliers and shippers originating from places unknown, these better-financed, lower-priced, reliable, predictable, formula-driven purveyors provide (and always will provide) products that we need and want, at prices that most of us can afford.
And for that let us be thankful.
But, chances are the bigger guys might not buy and stock the proudly crafted, local cottage-industry products that you’ll find at the small-guys’ stores. Such is the larger guys’ limitations in an economies-of-scale world.
I liken my community to a patchwork quilt with each store, each shop, each street vendor; each merchant, each market, each mom-and-pop shop; each Safeway, each Shaw’s, and each Shop-and-Save; each minimart and each mega-mart; each small guy and each big guy; each — a colorful, exciting, lively and vibrant patch contributing to the texture and warmth and uniqueness of my community. There is a need for them all.
The local entrepreneurs are part of our fabric. I value the texture that the proud, local proprietors contribute to my community. I’m mindful of my role as a member of the community today, and as a co-creator of the world I want to live in as I grow older. I’m mindful of the character of the community I want to inhabit. And I’m mindful, too, that that character will survive only in direct proportion to the sum of my actions, and those of like-minded individuals, to safeguard and support it.
So, I choose to channel my purchasing power in their direction. Not all, but some. Not all of the time, but some of the time — routinely, regularly. Not because I have to, not because I am told to, but because I want to, and because I care.
I take personal responsibility to support our local entrepreneurs. I choose to freely, frequently and gratefully pay a small premium to our local entrepreneurs as a purposeful, intentional investment in their survival. I have decided not to assess the price of uniqueness as a cost, not to have it weigh on me as an expense. Instead, I have chosen to treat the premiums I pay to the small business owners as investments — investments in supporting the character I long to enjoy well into the future.
I’m thinking that the premiums I pay are minimal investments in another day. I’m thinking that on another day, five months or even ten years from now, as I pass by exit 414A on the coastal highway, I will still see that nine-foot-high green plywood artichoke pointing the way to Pezzini’s small 100-acre artichoke patch and grocery. I’m thinking that I’m investing now, so that on another day, I and many more like me will still stop and sit down at those picnic benches, and that I and many more like me will still eat and celebrate and even give thanks for a freshly steamed artichoke right out of the field — even if someone else still insists, “Let’s leave, they’re only a buck fifty at Safeway.”
— from The Engaging Leader