Sunday, July 5, 2009

A Very Veggie Fourth of July

Chico in summer is like a blast furnace. By the time we finish breakfast, the mercury is in the nineties and climbing. Without air conditioning, we couldn't have enjoyed Margo's vegan flax-and-berry pancakes. Margo is the proprietor of The Goodman House, a veg-friendly bed-and-breakfast on Chico's Esplanade, a stately boulevard of homes in this farming and university-centered town located at the top of California's Central Valley.

Although it's the Fourth of July, we are the inn's only guests. Margo tells us that the inn hops in September when school starts, then again in June for graduation. But today, the students are gone and we share the city's glorious summer market with the townies hardy enough to withstand the midyear heat.

We came to Chico for The Farm Sanctuary's annual Fourth of July "pignic," which by chance happens this year on market day. I'm a sucker for a small-town farmer's market, so with sun visors pointed and water bottles filled, we're off.

It's not a large market, barely filling a small downtown parking lot. But unlike some of our suburban markets which are filled out with oranges from Mexico and flea-market style bric-a-brac, Chico's market is the real deal.

We sneak in between an olive dealer and an artisan bakery, wishing we were hungrier and didn't have a generous picnic planned for later. Today is mostly a viewing, not a buying, day.

You might be familiar with Chico; it enjoys the distinction of having been crowned America's top party school by Playboy magazine a few years back. Today, however, it is a wholesome slice of Americana.

We taste oversized blackberries bursting with burgundy juice and wave wistfully at the plums and peaches and cut flowers that we have to pass by.

On our way out of town, we stop at a liquor store for water, maneuvering through the jam-packed parking lot filled with twenty-somethings. They're using the place as a staging area for an inner-tube expedition down the Sacramento river.

Traveling west on highway 32, we marvel at how much of California there is beyond our little Bay Area. The landscape is golden with parched grass and punctuated by the deep green of live oak trees. Ten or so miles past Interstate 5 is The Farm Sanctuary, a haven for some 400 farm animals rescued from abuse and neglect, our guide, Sophia, tells us.

She leads our group of a dozen or so kids and adults into a corral occupied by Lester, a honey-colored steer who in a previous life had been a stud at a large factory farm. Stroking his flank and looking into his knowing eyes, it's hard to imagine what horrors he has seen. But now he happily greets his new admirers and enjoys the 102 degree sunshine.

Nearby is an eager, young flock of goats. They're led by Rufus, the somewhat insecure alpha with an every-man-for himself attitude. He assertively pursues the pail of fresh vegetables, playfully butting one woman who doesn't hand over the grub quickly enough.

Aaron and I leave the group shortly before the tour ends so I can get out of the heat. Back at the visitors' center (which they call the People's Barn), we're treated to a 'pignic' of Field Roast veggie sausages and Lightlife tofu dogs, chips, and oversized vegan cookies from Alternative Baking Company.

The folks at The Farm were welcoming and informative without being evangelical about farm-animal welfare. Their small store is filled with books, cookbooks, and other materials about factory farming and vegetarianism and it's definitely worth a detour should you find yourself in Chico or Orland. It was a very fitting place to spend the Fourth of July, contemplating freedom in all its many forms.

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