Travels & Traditions: Sacramento, California - #302

BURT WOLF: The Gold Rush of 1849 was the catalyst that opened up California. But California’s natural advantages, including its climate, resources, and its ideal location for international trade, had already been here for centuries. Gold just advanced everybody's awareness of California's blessings by about 75 years.

There's an opening in the mountains between the Pacific Ocean and Sacramento Valley that allows a gentle wind to come into the region. It's known as the Delta Breeze and it gives this area a Mediterranean climate that makes it an ideal place for farming.

By the time the gold was gone the Sacramento Valley had become an agricultural center producing the type of wheat that was hard enough to withstand a five-month voyage to Europe. Sacramento soon realized that in addition to mining gold out of the rivers and hills you could grow it in the soil and even pick it off trees.

In 1882, Sacramento opened its first successful fruit cannery. And after the Panama Canal opened in 1914 Sacramento canned fruits and vegetables were shipped not only to the East Coast of the US, but to Europe. 

One of the most important crops grown in the Mediterranean climate of the Sacramento Valley is the walnut, which makes sense since the walnut has an ancient history in the Mediterranean.

It's been cultivated for over 9,000 years which makes it our oldest tree food.

The Greeks noted the similarity between the look of the walnut and the human brain and decided that eating walnuts made you smarter and healthier. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: During the 15 and 1600s, there was something known as the doctrine of signatures. It said that if a food looked like a particular part of the body then that was the part of the body that it affected. Because walnut meat looked like a human brain it was used to cure headaches, smooth emotions, and improve intelligence. And now scientists are telling us that it is an intelligent idea to get more walnuts into our diet. 

BURT WOLF: They're a good source of protein, fiber, vitamins, minerals and Omega 3 oil, which appears to help protect against heart disease.

CRAIG McNAMARA ON CAMERA: You know, the ... the Chinese really believe in what you said about eating walnuts for intelligence. And the students will take handfuls of walnuts before exams in order to do well, have good thoughts and to make it through and have that extra power. So we love to see that

BURT WOLF: Craig McNamara is a walnut grower in the Sacramento Valley, and one of California's leading authorities on sustainable agriculture.

CRAIG McNAMARA ON CAMERA: Well, the cover crop really is the heart and soul of sustainable agriculture. And by that I mean agriculture that's, ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially just. And that way we can ensure the future of agriculture will be there forever. So let's look here a second at what we're talking about. We've got this wonderful cover crop. These are the plants that take this incredible amount of nitrogen, about 73 percent in the air, take it down into the ground, fix it and make it available for the walnut trees. The trees don't differentiate how they get nitrogen but they've got to have it. So we grow it naturally. And that fixes in the ground.

CRAIG McNAMARA ON CAMERA: The whole purpose of this cover crop is nitrogen, its benefit to the soil, and to create a good host environment for insects. This has lady beetles, green lace wings, all sorts of insects inhabiting the area. Insects are great for beneficial control of pests that we have in the orchard.

CRAIG McNAMARA ON CAMERA: We're here out in a young orchard and what we're going to be doing is grafting the walnut tree. And the reason it's so important is because we have a young seedling here that's a year old, that has established its root system. We selected this seedling because of its resistance to soil-borne diseases and its vigor. So it's growing really well. Now what we want to do is add the variety that I think you want to eat, which is that crispy, fresh flavor in the market place. So Javier has a piece of Howard wood which he has collected from a Howard tree, and he's gonna be demonstrating this age-old, technique. This has been around for thousands of years.

JAVIER JASSO ON CAMERA: We're gonna make a 45-degree angle cut on the tree.

Now, I'm gonna make the same cut on the sign.

Oh ... put them together.

And then we cut it so it'll bleed, so the sap won't go up straight to the sign. Now, we'll proceed with the tape.

CRAIG McNAMARA: So Leonardo has put on a white tape to hold the two pieces together to get a good bond there. He is putting on a bit of material now just to seal that up. Our hands are really in his hands and the future of the orchard is right here.

BURT WOLF: After an orchard is planted it takes between six and eight years until it starts to yield nuts. But once it starts to bear quality fruit it will continue doing so for almost 100 years.

But all the nuts don't grow on trees. United States has a long history of electing them to public office and honoring them as captains of industry. 

In the years after California first became a state, its legislatures wandered from one town to another. At one point they were meeting in the town of Benicia and getting a great price on their rooms. Sacramento also wanted to be the state capital but wasn't giving any discounts. Just before the session of 1854, three hundred people from Sacramento went to Benicia and booked every decent room in town. The legislators had no place to stay. Suddenly, Sacramento with its new hotels, excellent, restaurants, and flashy saloons looked great, with or without a discount. The law makers decided that Sacramento was just the right spot for their permanent capital. The newly renovated Capitol Building is open to the public and you can stop in and see democracy in action, or inaction, as the case may be.

The California legislature is divided into two houses, the Senate and the Assembly, and both chambers have been restored to the original look and feel that they had in 1869, and so have some of the legislators. When they were renovating the building they photographed the original marble mosaic floor of 1906 and then removed each of the 600,000 teeny blocks, cleaned and polished each one, and then reinstalled them according to a photograph they had taken. The people who worked on the job were chosen in part based on their prior success with jigsaw puzzles. The rotunda is 120 feet high and when you stand in the center it feels like being inside a decorated Easter egg. It’s a beautiful building.

Surrounding the Capitol Building is the Capital Park. Sacramento thinks of itself as the city of trees and maintains that it has more trees per capita than any other city in the world except Paris. And since I can't imagine anyone in their right mind going out to count every tree in every major city I think their claim is safe.

The park next to the capital is filled with hundreds of trees and plants that were brought here from almost every climate in the world. The capital and the park were put together during the 1850s, a time when people had just become interested in collecting trees and plants. The idea was to fill every available inch of space with plants and trees from different parts of the world. It was very much a part of the Victorian style of decoration. More is always better. You can stop by the visitor’s desk on the first floor of the capital and pick up a booklet that will give you a self-guided tour of the park, or you can take a guided tour with Dody Wheaton.

DODY WHEATON ON CAMERA: This is sort of a throwback to the Victorian period when everywhere you looked there should be something beautiful and lovely to see.

BURT WOLF: The park originally had dozens of beds with flowers that were changed with the seasons. But as the years went on the costs became too much. In the 1800’s seeds would come with a book that told gardeners how to put up huge floral fountains, some were 20 to 30 feet high.

DODY WHEATON: The beautiful Deodar Cedars are native to the Himalayas. They're called the, uh, Tree of God in many places. Like many of the other specimens here these go back to January of 1872, including delivery, planting, buying, each tree cost $2.

BURT WOLF: Two dollars, amazing, today it costs $2 to develop a photo of the tree.

A few blocks from the Capital building is the Crocker Art Museum, which is the oldest art museum west of the Mississippi. Edward Crocker was the lawyer for the Big Four, four guys who had made huge fortunes from the Gold Rush and then started the Transcontinental Railroad. In 1868, Edward and his wife, Margaret, added a gallery wing to their home, and then went off to Europe to buy the art to fill it. They purchased over nine hundred paintings and thirteen hundred master drawings. When they got home they started adding works that related to Northern California.

In 1885, Margaret donated the art gallery building and the collection to the City of Sacramento. Today the Crocker Art Museum holds over 9,000 works, including one of the largest collection of California art.

Besides the Crocker there are a number of other buildings in Sacramento that are worth a visit. Top on my list is the B.F. Hastings Building. This single structure was the western terminus of the Pony Express, the first permanent home of the California Supreme Court, the original Sacramento office of Wells Fargo, the office of Theodore Judah, who planned the route for the western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad, and the site of the office that sent the first transcontinental telegram.

BURT WOLF ON CMAERA: Today it is the home of a very convenient ATM machine, proving that all human progress is the result of the innate and universal desire of every organism to live beyond its income. Samuel Butler said that in 1873.

BURT WOLF: Having refreshed my wallet, I can pay a visit to the Huntington Hopkins Hardware Store, also known as the Big Four Building. The Big Four were Huntington, Hopkins, Stanford and Crocker, all merchants from Upper New York State, who made big bucks selling stuff to the miners. And this was one of their stores. There's an interesting display of things that were big sellers in 1849, stuff considered absolutely essential for prospecting.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Uh, this one was very popular. Uh, gold miners loved it. I don't know anybody actually who went up into the fields in '49 or '50 that didn't have one of these. Was not big with the silver guys, but gold guys did ... they just loved it.

You see them all over Sutter's Fort.

Yeah, there wasn't much to do up there in the gold fields at night, so a lot of those were sold. Very very popular. Uh, kept people occupied for weeks at a time. And this was probably their biggest seller. Why do I always get a defective one?

BURT WOLF: And as long as you're in town you might as well take a look at the historic governor's mansion. It was originally built in 1877 by Albert Gallatin for $75,000, which doesn't sound very impressive until you find out that the average Sacramento home at the time was being built for $700. Gallatin filled the house with ornamental bronze from the Huntington-Hopkins Hardware Store, which was easy for him because he was the president of the company. The real question is did he declare these materials as part of his income. Now the first 13 governors who lived here were not concerned with issues like that. But when Ronald and Nancy Reagan arrived every aspect of the building came under scrutiny. Nancy described the place as a funeral parlor and a fire trap and she moved out. Today, it has been restored to its original look and both tourists and funeral directors are welcome.

Since the mid-1800s when John Sutter built his fort to attract farmers to the area, Sacramento has been a place where visitors and settlers have always been welcomed.

The idea of accepting newcomers is very much a part of the gold field culture. You never knew who your neighbors were going to be, and when you would need help from them. And besides, everybody had a gun so it was important to play nice.

The idea of being hospitable is still very much a part of present day Sacramento, and one of the most interesting places to experience that old-style hospitality is The Delta King Hotel. The Delta King and her sister, the Delta Queen, started out in the 1920s as river boats that ran up and back between Sacramento and San Francisco. Today the boat is permanently moored on the Old Sacramento waterfront. Stephanie Gularte is the boat's theater director.

STEPHANIE GULARTE ON CAMERA: The Delta King was in initial operation in the 1920s. It was during the prohibition era. And people would come onto the boat and have some drinks and some gambling, spend the night out on the decks for 50 cents a night.

BURT WOLF: That was a deal.

STEPHANIE GULARTE: Yeah, quite a deal. Quite a deal for a great 12-hour party. That's how long it took to get to the Bay area. This is the greatest place to be in Sacramento. It's got the best view. And aside from the beautiful hotel, which is now 44 rooms, they kind of doubled the sizes. Modern-day customers don't want the little-bitty rooms so we've got 44 elegant rooms, the captain's quarters, beautiful Pilot House Restaurant that serves excellent seafood and pastas and overlooks the river. It has a live theater, and we do dinner and theater packages, which is a newer part of what we're doing here and it's been going great.

WOMAN/ACTRESS: She will not work again if I have anything to say about it.

STEPHANIE GULARTE: The theater is a 115-seat, proscenium theater, and we present comedies and dramas, classics and contemporary plays. We use mostly local talents, some local playwright's works as well as the greats in the American theater. You come here to Old Sacramento and you come onto the boat, you don't need to leave 'cause there's so much to do.

WOMAN/ACTRESS: I almost fell down!

BURT WOLF: The thing about Sacramento is that if you know where to look you can always see the lingering influence of the Gold Rush. Now real Gold Rush men didn't cook. If you hadn't struck it rich you were too busy digging to do much fancy cooking. And if you had already found wealth beyond your wildest dreams you could afford to pay someone else to do the fancy cooking. As a result, Sacramento has a solid restaurant history. And one of the best places to experience that tradition is Biba. The biba in Biba is Biba Caggiano. She's the chef and owner of a restaurant that has become one of Sacramento's most popular spots. Biba is also the host of an internationally syndicated cooking show and the author of six cookbooks, including "The Taste of Italy."

The restaurant opened in 1986 and has been voted Sacramento's best restaurant for eight years in a row. Dinner began with an appetizer of prosciutto, shaved Parmesan, and caramelized black mission figs. The pasta course, we had a light ricotta gnocchi tossed with fresh diced tomato, sun-dried tomato and extra virgin olive oil. The main course was osso buco primavera, veal shanks braised with panchetta, and fresh spring peas, and served with roasted polenta. And for dessert, traditional Venetian tiramisu, layers of mascarpone, lady fingers, brandy, espresso and cocoa powder. I thought with the taramisu we were finished. But Biba said I had to taste her flourless walnut and raisin cake with Bailey's whipped cream. I love that woman.

Many of the original immigrants to Northern California were from Italy, but an even larger contingent came from China. During the Gold Rush, tens of thousands of Chinese showed up to seek their fortune, and like their fellow prospectors cooking was out, but eating was in. And the restaurants they wanted to eat in served the dishes of their native land.

Today you can get an excellent meal composed of Asian dishes at Bamboo. Bamboo opened in 1998 and is filled with antiques from all over Asia. batiks from Vietnam, masks from Thailand, and carvings from the rural villages of China.

Chef David Soohoo was born to immigrant parents in San Francisco and grew up in Sacramento where everyone at home spoke Chinese. He then followed his father into the restaurant business. He's owned and worked in Western-style restaurants but he's particularly happy at Bamboo because it represents a return to his roots. For lunch, David prepared a Vietnamese spicy noodle soup with red-roasted chicken, shrimp and vegetables. Followed by Thai red-curry chicken, stir fried with mushrooms, Chinese broccoli over pea shoots, and finally steamed salmon with black bean sauce.

Sacramento is not only a good place for eating, but as you might expect of California, an excellent spot for outdoor recreation. The American River bike trail is a paved road that runs for 32 miles, starting downtown next to Old Sacramento, and ending at Beal's Point in the Folsom Lake State recreation area. It's in constant use by residents of the city, who use it to commute to work as well as for exercise. The flat floor of the Sacramento Valley and the generally fine weather has made the area an ideal environment for bikers.

And if you're into spectator sports and you plan your trip to Sacramento 10 or 15 years ahead of time you might consider trying to get a few tickets to a King's game.

The King's are Sacramento's gift to professional basketball and always interesting to watch.

But no such elaborate game plan is necessary for the Sacramento Jazz Fest.

Every year on Memorial Day the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society presents the world's largest traditional jazz festivals.

More than 100 bands from all over the world give more than 1,000 performances on over 40 stages.

Its primary objective is to cover the sounds of jazz from 1895 to 1945.

WOMAN SINGER: “We’re all alone, no chaperone….let’s misbehave…”

BURT WOLF: But in recent years it has begun to include blues, gospel, ragtime and zydeco. 

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: From Sacramento, California, that's TRAVELS & TRADITIONS. I'm Burt Wolf.

WOMEN PRODUCERS: And stay out!!!

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Tough crowd in there and those are my producers too.