Monterey, California was the setting for Steinbeck's novels

SALINAS, CA.—The first sign this region is still all about agriculture is the life-size mural of Marilyn Monroe just a few steps into the National Steinbeck Centre — she holds up artichokes as provocatively as if she were offering up herself.

Marilyn Monroe was crowned Miss California Artichoke Queen in 1947. But despite her outsized personality, this region has never been known as Marilyn Monroe land. This is Steinbeck Country.

The Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck was born in Salinas where two mountain ranges, Gabilan (which he described as jolly) and Santa Lucia (described as dark and moody) created the Salinas Valley, filled with green crops that were as good as gold for those who lived there.

For more than a century, the valley has been known as the Salad Bowl of the World. To this day, eight out of every ten lettuces is grown here. In recent years, strawberries have become the number one crop. Grapes have also been growing in terms of production. And so the salad bowl that once sustained this region has expanded to a full-course meal with dessert and wine.

Steinbeck wanted his hometown to be known as the Valley of the World by describing the hopes, disappointments and lives of the fruit pickers, the hobos, the migrant workers and union organizers who lived there.

Today, the buildings along Salinas’ well-maintained downtown of 10 blocks, about a two-hour drive from San Francisco, are lined with antique street lamps and neatly-maintained planter boxes.

The history of the century is etched on its buildings: The booms are evident in the elaborate movie theatre on Main St. and so are the busts with the plainly written “Closed” sign out front.

The most active building on Main St. is the National Steinbeck Centre, an homage and, in some ways, an apology to this town’s most famous resident. Steinbeck was born Feb. 27, 1902. Celebrations, including readings of his work, were held in the region last week to commemorate his 110th birthday.

The Grapes of Wrath, which ranks along with Of Mice and Men as his most famous works, portrayed the power brokers in Salinas and the exploitation of migrant workers so unflinchingly that the novel was banned and burned in his hometown.

Also nearby is Steinbeck House, the Victorian-style home where he was born and grew up. The front parlour where he practiced the piano is now a popular restaurant serving lunch, tea and dinner.

The drink specialty is Steinbeck tea, a mix of pink lemonade and iced tea. Steinbeck’s son, Thom, once remarked that, if it was really his father’s tea, it would have been spiked with vodka.

There’s also a library, an elementary school and even a block of apartments bearing Steinbeck’s name.

Clearly, despite the animosity he generated among residents long ago, there is now recognition that Steinbeck’s version of what he saw around him, the people he knew and the injustices he saw for the working class, has made this area world famous.

“When John Steinbeck finished Grapes of Wrath, he was vilified by the farmers of being a bad man, doing bad reporting and writing about things that shouldn’t have been written,” says Herb Behrens, an archivist at the Steinbeck Centre where letters, manuscripts and even a chair used by the author are stored.

“What Steinbeck wrote were universal stories, the struggles of workers in Grapes of Wrath, greed and family in East of Eden. He wrote about imaginary people but many were based on people he knew, stories he had heard.”

Salinas may have provided the early inspiration for Steinbeck’s observations, but it was in Monterey, about 30 kilometres west, where he felt most connected to both the setting and the people.

The pretty coastal town of Monterey has evolved over the years. It was initially a getaway for rich San Francisco residents in the late 1800s. But the rise of canneries in the early part of the 20th century changed the face of the town and inspired Steinbeck’s portrayal of the hardscrabble workers there in his novels Cannery Row and Tortilla Flat.

Today, Monterey still sits on the slope of a hill with a bright blue bay on one side and tall dark pines on the other. The dominant smells are ocean and pine — but from 1902 to the 1940s, the stench of sardines invaded the waterfront as fishing boats hauled in their catch where thousands of waiting workers canned or mashed the bony fish into fishmeal.

The past is not forgotten, even if the smell is gone. Old canneries remain on the beach, shells of former factories. These skeletal remains provide a backdrop that reminds us of the past to the thoroughly modern, a well-groomed pier and waterfront trail untainted in parts by any sign of industry.

Once, thousands of workers lived here from all around the globe, including the Chinese, Italians, Mexicans and Japanese.

Long-time resident Diane Mandeville, born and raised in Monterey, remembers her Italian grandmother telling her about visiting the koi pond of her Japanese neighbour.

“Cannery Row had layers and layers of people interacting with each other and that has made Monterey this place where it’s been an absolutely deliberate decision, a pride of the local residents who are second or third generation Montereyans, that the past will not be forgotten,” she says.

This place which Steinbeck once called “a poem, a stink” has no trace of stink left, but plenty of poetry where the sky, the ocean, the forest and the past all merge beyond the pages of a novel.


ARRIVING San Francisco is two hours away and the closest international airport to Salinas and Monterey.

SLEEPING Monterey Plaza Hotel and Spa, perched on the water’s edge, is an elegant, Meditteranean-style resort within easy walking distance to the attractions along Cannery Row. Rooms are listed starting at $189 a night.

DINING John Steinbeck House at 132 Central Ave. Salinas has a hearty lunch menu of quiche and sandwiches and tea on special occasions with scones and assorted desserts. There are tons of seafood places at Cannery Row. The Fish Hopper is a great spot to try sardines and abalone, two dishes that made this town famous.



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