A friend from the city and I drove out to Round Valley Saturday, to admire the scenery and check out the annual Blackberry Festival in Covelo. As always, the drive along the Eel River was beautiful, as were Round Valley’s majestic oaks and the lovely weeping willows that grow near the old farmhouse wells. The slushies sold by the Seventh Day Adventist Church booth at the festival were as delicious as I remembered — frozen blackberries, crushed up and enlivened with a splash of 7-Up. We ate tasty blackberry pie with whipped cream, too, bought some blackberry jam, and enjoyed the low-key but friendly festival. Too bad we were too late to hear Covelo’s hot washtub and fiddle band, the Round Valley Hogcallers. My friend, a hiker, wanted to drive into the Mendocino National Forest to check out the trailheads and campgrounds for future reference. We got almost as far as Howard Lake — pretty high up — and saw sugar pines and digger pines and incense cedar and other trees I don’t see every day in my backyard, where there’s mostly redwood, Douglas fir, and chinquapin. Although you could certainly see evidence of plenty of past logging, there were no fresh clearcuts in sight — at least not from the road. Neither did I notice any new commercial vineyards along the main roads through the valley.
Feeling hungry when we reached 101 on the way home, I suggested we turn north to Laytonville and check out the Chief Drive-In, which I’d read in Jim Shields’ column was now owned by former 3rd District supervisor and cattleman John Pinches. The burgers were good, Shields said, made from local beef. I’m not much of a red meat eater, generally — I’ve read too much about the conditions in America’s meat-packing plants to find hamburger very appetizing — but local beef is another story. Willits’ Mariposa Market started selling frozen hamburger meat and steaks from Potter Valley’s McFadden Ranch this summer, with a certified organic label. I’ve tried the hamburger, and found it delicious, and from all reports, the expensive steaks, too, are well worth the premium price.
There was quite the crowd at the Chief when we drove up, and in the middle of the activity was Johnny Pinches himself, wearing a white cowboy hat, looking relaxed and happy, and helping to set up a “stage” on the back of a truck in the drive-in parking lot. “We’re having karaoke tonight for the kids,” he said. “There’s prizes and everything.” Pinches confirmed that the beef at the Chief is Mendocino County-bred — “ground fresh every day,” he said. “I get it from my sister.”
We ordered burgers and cole slaw and curly fries — and the food was excellent and a very good deal. The burgers were thick and well-cooked and well-garnished and tasted like real meat, not that weird greyish stuff you find between a McDonald’s “bun.” The cole slaw was homemade with red cabbage, and the fries tasted like real potatoes, too, and were cooked to a crisp. “Is this as good as I think it is?” I asked my city friend, “or is it just that I haven’t had a drive-in burger for so long?” “No,” he said, “it’s delicious. I’m going to stop here every time I drive up 101 from now on.”
I’ve always thought that Mendocino’s ranchers would do well to market their beef more directly to consumers — but as both Pinches and the Farm Bureau’s Carre Brown have explained to me in the past, one big problem is the expense of getting a local meat-packing facility built and approved by the government. Evidently a group of county cattlemen tried to start up such a plant sometime in the 1970s, but it just cost too much to work. But now that the “foodie” phenomenon has become such big business in a San Francisco, so full of yupsters with money to spend and an eye for quality — now it might be a more practical investment. And how about selling some beef to the Berkeley school system? According to reports in last week’s Bay Area papers, the Berkeley Board of Education has voted to phase in “a full menu of organic food for its students,” including milk that comes from cows not injected with bovine growth hormones. Former assemblyman Tom Bates, who now heads up the Berkeley Foods Systems Project, which helped the school district develop the plan, was quoted as predicting that organic school lunches are the wave of the future: “Berkeley once again is leading the nation,” he said. “This will go all over the country.” Anybody listening at the Cattlemen’s Association?