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Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A Little Bit Nutty

The town of Ripon, California is known for being home to the annual Ripon Almond Blossom Festival and less known as the spawning ground for the family that gave us classic California wines such as Franzia and Two Buck Chuck. Despite the attempt of some politicians to proclaim Zinfandel as the "official wine" of California, you can't deny the impact a box or two of Franzia has had at family events, weddings, and all-night parties.

While you won't find too many wine snobs in the town of Ripon or bottles of Two Buck Chuck (since there are no Trader Joe's there), you will find plenty of nuts, uh, I mean almonds, or as some say "am-mund". Around this time each year, flowering almond orchards surround the town in a blanket of white that stretches for miles, giving the illusion that you are somewhere it snows. But it doesn't snow in Ripon. I doubt it rarely freezes.

A civic parade and festival has been an annual event in Ripon at least since its incorporation in 1945. However, it wasn't until 1963 when the Ripon Chamber of Commerce took over the event and moved it to the last weekend in February that it became the Almond Blossom Festival, mostly to promote the town's almond barons.

Unlike the Gilroy Garlic Festival, the Stockton Asparagus Festival, and the Castroville Artichoke Festival, Ripon's Almond Blossom Festival has absolutely zippo to do with almonds.

There are no almond tastings, no almond recipe contests, no almond cook-offs; not even free almond samples. There is an Almond Festival Queen, but exactly what she rules over is dubious. There's a baking contest - whether it has anything to do with almonds is unknown or perhaps only known to a few. Had Bruce not made Almond Biscotti to take to the potluck, I could've gone the whole weekend without ever tasting an almond.

Which brings us to the real reason we attend the Almond Blossom Festival each and every year: Aunt Paula's potluck shindig. In fact, the whole parade/festival is just an excuse for all of us to gather at Paula's, eat pretty much the same thing each year, have a few drinks, and then venture on over to the parade, craft booths, food vendors, and carnival rides. Often, the Almond Blossom Festival is the only time the whole family, or most of the family, gets to see each other. Mark and Rodger often will fly down from Portland and Uncle Mike will fly in from Texas. Chet and Cheryl will drive down from the Delta, and of course, we'll drive down from the City.

While the food usually consists of pasta and potato salads, deviled eggs, ham and cheese sandwiches, baked beans, and chips and dip, sometimes there are a few new surprises like Jennifer's cheddar and parmesan cheese pennies, Cheryl's nopalito salad, and Bruce's muhammara.

Often there is so much food I can barely even think about the food booths down at the festival grounds, but this year I made an exception and held back.

Before the parade even began, I snuck over to the community hall where the Ripon Christian school was serving tri-tip sandwiches. Without knowing who was serving them, I was lured in by a large sign that said Tri-Tip Sandwiches ($4.00 for half a sandwich). I'm still not sure if the whole sandwich thing was a big proselytizing effort or if it was to raise funds, but either way they didn't gain a convert and I probably won't even claim the sandwich as a deduction on my 1040 form.

I realize tri-tip is big in the Central Valley. In fact, you could call the area a Red State and just be talking about the excessive beef consumption. But as tri-tip goes, there are few winners and many losers. For example, the tri-tip sandwich I ordered tasted like cold roasted beef that was thinly sliced and put between a doughy, sweet, white bread bun. There was no barbecue flavor. Not a hint of dry rub, and it was overcooked.

In fact, what the tri-tip from the Ripon Christian school needed was a little more Jesus.

It needed to be cooked slow and low until it was smoking with the Holy Spirit. Instead, it was as bland and uninteresting as Lucifer in a Leisure Suit. Or worse, a Christian biker.

I don't know, perhaps these Christians were Bruderhof (a strict religious sect that foregoes spices on food), but if so, shouldn't they have warned me? Maybe I should've asked the Dunkards (the "Amish" of the Central Valley) running the dried fruits and nuts stand.

Good tri-tip should be rubbed like Buddha's belly with a mixture of spices and sauces and then allowed to sit before being hot smoked for hours. It should be flavorful, fresh from the smoker, succulent, and damn tasty...and that is MY final answer!

I had no time to ponder the nature of tri-tip when I realized the parade was starting. I did realize, however, the total lack of mullets on the men and women in the crowd. If the infamous mullet were ever to show its face, it would've been in this crowd. Yet despite the abundance of Nascar fans, Mexicans, and softball-playing lesbians in the crowd, it seems the mullet as a species has vanished from the Central Valley Corridor. Of course with all extinct or soon-to-be extinct species, I blame Dirty Dick Pombo - that weasely little twerp and cheap date for Big Ag.

Yet, I digress far too easily.

The parade this year was noticeable for it's lack of beauty queens and overabundance of horses. No comment.

Also noticeable was the absence of the PT Cruiser contingent and the sudden appearance (after my 9 years of watching the parade) of the Catholic Church/Our Lady of Guadalupe contingent, which in this predominantly Protestant town either was lost or out there saying "Just bring it? Oh, it's been brought!"

Despite these disappointments, the Shriner's always put a smile on my face.

You gotta love these guys. I mean, I have no idea what they do, but come on! Dude! The hats! The go-carts! What's not to love?

Among the other contingents: the ROTC, the Jr. ROTC, friends of the ROTC, and former ROTC, women on horseback dressed as 19th century prostitutes, women on horseback dressed in Country-Western gear, women dressed in jene se qua on horseback, cops on horseback, kids on horseback, Mariachi singers on horseback, horse-lovers on horseback, 2006 cars from the local dealership, antique cars, clown cars, fire trucks, the Sheriff's mobile jail bus ("paid for by San Joaquin county drug dealers"), a bulldozer, a well driller, and the Friends of the Library.

After the street cleaner came by and swept away the horse poo and the last marching band played it's sad, but earnest, rendition of Eye of The Tiger, the parade was over. I have to give the organizers serious credit for keeping it well-balanced and timed perfectly. There were no noticeable gaps and corporate sponsorship, while present, wasn't overbearing.

After the parade, we headed back to Aunt Paula's for a bite to eat and good conversation. This is the time we officially are ready to eat, though I had to pace myself. And while I paced myself pretty well, those damn deviled eggs get me every time! It must be the mayonnaise.

Plus, I'm a sucker for a ham sandwich. Call me complicated.

Still, I managed to save room and, after an hour or so, Bruce, Aunt Carol, and I decided to head back to the festival grounds for funnel cakes and BBQ. Of course, we had to check out the "craft" booths, which include everything from Native American flute music, gourmet dog snacks, sunglasses, Hawaiian themed seat covers, and Make A Cast Of Your Own Hand, which of course someone had to do the bird. Mixed in with the crowd was this guy collecting petitions, for what cause I shudder to think, almost as much as I shudder to imagine the last time that outfit saw the insides of a washing machine.

In the end, everything worked out as Carol, despite protestations from others, got her strawberry funnel cake (which was delicious).

I went over and bought two tacos at Smokin Willy's BBQ; one with pulled pork and the other with beef brisket. Unfortunately, the barbecue sauce covered up the full flavor of the meat (of which there could've been more of), but from what I could tell, the pulled pork was the clear winner. Had I gotten the $10 pulled pork plate, I think I would've been better off, at least as far as being able to taste the pork on its own.

Then again, by this time I was stuffed and it was time to go gawk at the folks riding the rides.

If I had an eating disorder, I would've chosen to immediately board the Tilt-A-Whirl for instant vomiting satisfaction. But with so many lunch-hurling masterpieces of design aka The Ranger and The Zipper, what's a poor eating disorder guy to do?

Screw this. I decided to watch and soak in the atmosphere that is The Midway.

If I could fit all of this stuff, rides and all, into my living room, I would - minus the carnies, which incidentally I trust more knowing they are pre-screened for drug use.

After delighting in watching teens scream while being suspended upside down on the Ranger (which is perhaps the only time teenagers don't annoy me) and little kids go limp with terror on really, really scary rides, we decided to head back and then call it a day. Back at Karen's, we snacked on her famous cheeseball while challenging Jen and Aron in an action-packed game of Outburst.

Can you believe Karen and Bruce could only name two Elton John songs out of a possible ten? Feel free to mention this to them next time you see them.

Anyway, I wasn't ready to head back to the bay area without one last go at the food booths back in Ripon. In particular, the Lockeford Sausage booth. After a minute of deliberating, Bruce and I decided to head back to Ripon the next morning and grab a Lockeford Sausage before we got on the road back to San Francisco.

Lockeford Sausage seems to be at every festival and event in Northern California, so if you missed them at the Almond Blossom Festival, chances are you can catch them at the Lodi Street Faire, the Mountainview Art and Wine Festival, the Oakdale Chocolate Festival, the Pleasanton Antiques and Collectibles Street Faire, the Gilroy Garlic Festival, the Delta Pair Fair, and so on and so on.

I didn't ask what kind of sausages they were, but I'm going to guess that they were beef (or a mixture of) since that's what my tastebuds told me, and I usually trust them. The sausages, at $5 each, are the definitely the best deal of the food court and I would venture to say the best food among those gathered. They are huge, hot, and with a great grilled flavor. Each bite was crisp and juicy and I think it would be fair to say I wolfed it down in a matter of seconds. It would've been good plain, but was delicious with sauerkraut (excuse me, "Liberty cabbage") and mustard.

The people running the booth have a store in Lockeford which I'll have to stop by next time I'm in the Sierra Nevada foothills. And perhaps I'll stock up while I'm there.

And with that thought, we leave Ripon, happy, full and content; reinvigorated until next year.


PS For more of my pictures from the 2006 Ripon Almond Blossom Festival, go here.


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