STACKS AND STACKS OF COOKBOOKS fill Dayton Titus’s dining room.
“Help yourself,” he said. “The kids have already taken the ones they want.”
Post-it notes stuck up from the bindings.
“Did you mark your favorite recipes?”
“Hell, no. Gayle did.”
Gayle Klingler Titus, who died in October 2011, was acclaimed in both the Mattole and Eel River Valleys for her cooking and baking. I wanted to load up the back of my car with the entire lot and spin out in the driveway before Dayton changed his mind.
I didn’t, of course. I chose “Favorite Raisin Recipes.”
I picked it out because of the cover line: From the Raisin Wives of California.
A raisin wife. That was a life possibility that had never occurred to me.
Before I baked anything, I went to the ‘net. The Raisin Wives of California, a fairly new organization, was founded in 1972, a year before the cookbook was published.
I called the president, Lladona Estermann, who lives in Kerman. (The parents of Lladona and her husband, David, immigrated as children with their families from Indiana and Iowa, respectively, arriving in the Central Valley in the early 1900s. Once in the valley, both families became raisin farmers.)
“We only have about 30 members now,” Lladona said, “we’re down from well over a hundred members fifteen years ago. We’re old. The young wives are too involved with their kids in sports.
Until that moment, everything I knew about raisins was centered on the vision of a dark-haired young woman in a red bonnet on a red box with a yellow sun.
“We Raisin Wives all belong to the Sun-Maid co-op,” Lladona said. (Sun-Maid, 94 years old, is owned by raisin growers who live within 100 miles of each other in California’s San Joaquin Valley.)
The dark-haired girl on the Sun-Maid box was Lorraine Collett Petersen. As Sun-Maid’s website says: “In May 1915, she was discovered drying her black hair curls in the sunny backyard of her parents’ home in Fresno…she was then asked to pose for a painting while holding a basket tray of fresh grapes. …the treasured original watercolor painting is today kept safely in a concrete vault at Sun-Maid’s headquarters in Kingsburg, California…sometimes we forget that in 1915 there were no electric hair dryers…”
(The last comment reveals that no cynical editor touched the Sun-Maid website copy. I would have deleted that line with margin notes: “Off-point!” “Spoils original image!”)
Tell me about making raisins, I said. I’d already consumed a bag via a Brandied Raisin Applesauce Cake (p. 9).
“We grow Thompson seedless grapes, same as green table grapes, except that our culture practices are different. We don’t want ours to be great big, with tough skin. Raisin grapes have to be smaller. If they weren’t, it would take forever and a year to dry. It takes four to five pounds of grapes to make a pound of raisins. We figure 2.5 tons per acre, if everything goes well. Lack of water, like now, you just never know. We just got our first water today — we can get water when the west side of the San Joaquin Valley can’t — we get water from March or April through September or October, from a reservoir of melted snow in the mountains. Irrigation water comes through ditches from the mountains to the valley. We belong to the Fresno Irrigation District.” (The FID, publicly held and controlled for nearly a century, serves 245,000 rural and urban acres in Fresno County.)
“This year, we’ve had 25% less than normal snow, and it’s dry on top of that. If we don’t get water that way, we have to pump ground water. Some farmers’ wells are going dry.
“Anyway, Thompson grapes are also used for commercial sweeteners — they’re very sweet — as a wine blend, and in one of the steak sauces. A1. They’re green until they’re really ripe, and then they’re kind of yellow. That’s when they’re really, really good, but people won’t buy them because they think the raisins have gone bad.
“We start picking the first of September. We put the bunches on paper trays, craft paper, like grocery bags, 2 feet by 3.5 feet. We put the trays between the rows. All hand work. The raisins dry there, in the sun. Then, we put them in big boxes and take them to the Sun-Maid processing plant in Kingsburg, where they’re cleaned and stemmed and fumigated for mites.”
What happens to the grapeless vines, I wondered.
“We shred the canes, stack them in the middle of the rows, and a machine cuts them up and works them into the ground. We’re trying not to burn anything. We have the worst air quality in the state. The prevailing summer winds from the north blows in the junk from the Bay Area, there’s a dust from farming, trucks on I-5 and the exhaust…”
I had a question for the expert. We have a grapevine at our place, tiny purple wine grapes that came from Italy as grew from a slip carried in Paolo Gabrielli’s coat lining. Years ago, I was told by Fulmina Borges that the time to prune the vine was after the first full moon in January.
I mentioned this tip in an effort to wow the president of the Raisin Wives of California with my knowledge of the lore of viticulture.
“Never heard of that one,” Lladona said. “We prune after a frost. Otherwise, the leaves are still hanging on the vine.
“You can’t see to prune if the leaves are on.”
There’s so much life wisdom in that comment, I have nothing to say.