To Cannery Row

There is only so much of any city I can take before it comes time to get out, and get some context. True, a lot of people call the urban environment home. For a time, I did too. However, one of the great human ironies is our want for the other side of the fence. Urbanites run to the countryside to take in the vineyards and hillsides and terrior. Country folk marvel at the oddities of the city life, the cost of a coffee, the window shopping. Suburbanites are caught in the middle, lost among the Stonehenge of ranches and split-levels, looking north to the city and south to the country. In San Francisco, locals flock to Napa, or southward to the rugged coastlines, to Monterey and onward still to Big Sur. Monterey is just far enough afield of San Fran–2 hours or 120 miles depending on your measure–that you can take in a fair amount of the region, and see a bit more of Cali than the oddities and predilections of the City by the Bay.

Garlic Fries

Getting to Monterey requires a brief sprint down through Garlic Country, of which Gilroy is the capital. Most of the nation’s garlic comes from this corner of fertile California, just south of Silicon Valley. Not even the most powerful air filter will keep the bouquet of that favorite foodie flower from your nose. Garlic fries, a regional staple, bring together the great snack food of America with the regional favorite. Garlic fries proper will include a healthy dusting of flat-leaf parsley. This is one San Fran to Monterey predilection I could not pass up. As a courtesy, you ought to share some with your friends, especially if they are driving you on a two hour jaunt to Monterey.

I may have neglected to do so, causing for a few subtle offerings of Mentos and Altoids in my general direction.

Monterey, of course, is also a city by a bay, a very large bay that used to be full of sardines. Changing sea currents obliterated the sardine industry there by 1940. John Steinbeck wrote an homage to the gritty fishmonger’s life in his Cannery Row novella. Of Cannery Row, he said:

“Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitant are, as the man once said, “whores, pimps, gambler and sons of bitches,” by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peephole he might have said, “Saints and angels and martyrs and holymen” and he would have meant the same thing.”–John Steinbeck, Cannery Row.

2011-08-20 Monterey County 102 Monterey, Cannery Row

Cannery Row nowadays is embalmed, the old grit made glossy, the stone pavers a bit too clean, the air crisp. The whore houses, those Maison Derrieres, are now B&B’s. The old canneries are monuments, with their old owners names repainted on the clapboards.

Steinbeck didn’t have much love for his homeland, often critical of the region. The creative lot never do settle for provincialism. Small towns, with their clannish and gossipy citizens, chase out those sons and daughters, those oddballs that try to make something new. I always find it an bit cannibalistic when a small town shuns a freethinker, then tries to cash in when the weird boy made good. In my corner of the map, you see those towns…Salem, Indiana preserved the birthplace of Lincoln’s aide and former Secretary of State John Hay (though Hay never returned there, preferring the Society folks in and around Lafayette Park and the White House). Lincoln’s boyhood home in Indiana, his Springfield, Illinois manse, and his Kentucky birthplace are memorialized even though he too never looked back. Same for Hannibal, Missouri (Twain) or Gary, Indiana (Michael Jackson). Mother irony had the last laugh on the native Steinbeck too, as a Monterey museum in his honor smacks of revision and hagiography; the wax figures of the man kept as a roadside oddity.

DSC26366, Cannery Row, Monterey, California, USA

Do the locals know they lost the character of the place? Does anyone morn the loss the old Cannery Row? The preservation of the look, the ruins of the industry, allow for local color to remain in the background of a revived destination, its survival based on the sole source of tourism. Some say this resurrection of the waterfront saved Old Monterey from becoming a sterile, glass waterfront of condos, the bay closed off from public viewing. Cannery Row as a concept, as a destination, thrives with its new symbiont dwelling inside the old host. Sardines out, Sales in.

Cannery Row could not survive as a singular draw to the region. Not even the modest legion of Steinbeck fans, who perhaps first read The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, or Travels with Charley in high school could not support the local economy, especially in pricey California.  Monterey Bay is an Avalon, raining, if ever, in the morning; 65 degrees year ’round and sunny. Pebble Beach Golf Course is over the hill, and Carmel By the Sea provides the yuppies their share of boutiques. Seafood is fresh and plentiful. Cannery Row then survives on the back of other regional tourism, unlike other small towns who have tried to build an attraction around a famous son, like Buffalo Bill’s Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado, or the James Dean Gallery in Fairmount, Indiana.

Sea lion yoga, among the redder ones anyway.... IMG_0047_2

Despite this assessment, it is hard not to like Monterey Bay, the vistas azure, the hills rolling into the sea. I have yet to meet a Californian from this part of the country in a bad mood, and how could you carry on when a breezy, sunny day awaits you. Coastal life is right in town, the sea otters, sea lions and harbor seals basking on the break walls and the leviathan grey whales making their sojourn through the off-shore sanctuary. My focus and joy in this Disneyfied re-creation was learning about, and eating some of, the marine life of the region.

Attack of the Jellyfish

The Monterey Aquarium is worth the trek around the Bay. Ocean lovers should know that this aquarium is among the very best in the nation, with enormous tanks that give the impression of standing before, and under, an endless sea. Indoor and outdoor exhibits help visitors to better understand the region’s diverse ecology. In addition, the Aquarium puts out a dining guide, Seafood Watch, for which marine life to indulge, which are over-fished, and which are full of mercury. Taking my little guide, I met up with my travel companions at the Fish Hopper, perhaps the only restaurant on the Cannery Row strip that was not a chain (Bubba Gump) or a chain in disguise (the Chart House). (There is alas, another location in Hawaii) Every last seafood house, regardless of how large or small, proudly supports the neighboring aquarium’s recommended eating list.



Marching up the gangway of the kitschy foyer, I announce “I’ve been waiting all day for this!”

“Except for that garlic fries binge.” reminded my driving co-worker.


“I thought you were vegetarian?”

I wasn’t going to allow that interrogation to stand.

“Sort of, my wife is okay with my seafood eating.”

“How’s that work?”

“Dunno. Perhaps it is because they had a fair fight, and lived in the wild rather than in a feed lot.”

There sat before me in the menu the Dungeness Crab, market rate. And, the crab made the Seafood Watch list of being a “best choice.” Being more of an East Coast pescatarian at the time, I never really had a chance for fresh caught Dungeness as I did Maryland Blue Crab. There is of course, no comparison–Maryland Blue Crabs are runts compared to the armored tank Dungeness. Those spikes along the legs make for a meal that fights back. As the plate arrived, the setting sun over the Monterey Bay, igniting the harbor below, all cantankerous thoughts about the mummification of the old Row faded away. I imagine for Steinbeck, he’d be okay with this transfiguration. After all, he called cosmopolitan New York City, not provincial orange groves, his home. Aside from his countenance modeled in wax for the tourist crowd, the nearby National Steinbeck Center provides those devotees a more sophisticated shrine. Perhaps the new Cannery Row may have suited him well.

Steinbeck Wax Photo credit: jimg944 / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Cannery Row Today Photo credit: Allie_Caulfield / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Old Cannery Row

Garlic Fries Photo credit: youngrocky / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Monterey Aquarium Photo credit: Schill / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Fish Hopper Photo credit: davidandbevtravel / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Monterey Sea Lions Photo credit: wbaiv / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)








3 thoughts on “To Cannery Row

    • It is a great book, and even with the disneyfication of Cannery Row, I can still transport back to its heyday thanks to Steinbeck. In fact, his word painting is such that you shouldn’t have to ever go to Cannery Row to see it. It lives in his book now.

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