Pismo Beach is living a lie. Did you see those commercials on late-night TV last Friday about their 60th annual Clam Festival? The one with a chowder taste-off? A parade celebrating the clam? A walking, talking clam mascot? Oh snap! My weekend is set.
Pismo Beach, you see, is an example of an interesting California phenomena I call the “gimmick city.” You know what I’m talking about: The small town that tries to get you to visit by claiming to be the uber-elite masters of a particular crop.
I love this concept. It’s one of the cool, OG things about California. Wisconsin specializes in cheese, Georgia specializes in peanuts and peaches, but us? Pick a region. You’ll get something different wherever you go. In fact, we have two different gimmick cities within a 15-mile radius: Carpinteria specializes in avocados, and our very own Goleta specializes in lemons. Seriously, how awesome is it when you’re on a road trip, you need to make a stop to eat, you wind up in some town that claims to be “The Artichoke Capital of America,” and you leave with an artichoke ice cream cone? It’s the type of kitsch-y, small town pride thing that I really dig.
I discovered when I drove into Pismo, however, that there haven’t been any clams in the area for years, thanks to over fishing. Most of the booths sold ice cream, funnel cake, “antiques” and other sorts of generic fair fare. So disheartened was I at the lack of all things clammy that I stormed across the street to Splash Cafe, which is supposed to have the best chowder on the Central Coast. It was a bowl of melted butter and potatoes. I wept.
Is the gimmick city becoming a symbol instead of a lifestyle? Such is the question I’m now pondering. The way we farm in this state has certainly changed a lot over the past century. Did you know that in the ’20s, Goleta produced 15 percent of America’s lemons? Practically everyone in town had a lemon orchard. Nowadays, the real farming goes on in towns up to a 100 miles away, on large plots of land I like to call “superfarms,” in Santa Paula in Ventura County, for instance, or a variety of spots up and down the Central Valley. In the case of Pismo Beach, they have clams imported in from New England, like any other city.
And yet… the lemon festival and clam festival every October. Why do they still exist? Why do we feel the need to cling on to these old standbys, as the crop in question grows increasingly irrelevant? As we speak, gimmick cities are transformed into bedroom communities for metropolitan areas 30 or 40 miles away – i.e. Gilroy. Farmland is replaced with houses $200,000 too much- i.e. Gilroy. The annual garlic festival uses garlic grown in China – i.e. muthafuckin’ Gilroy.
Does this depress anyone else? When I think “crop festival,” I don’t think, “Let’s find an excuse to provide entertainment for children that’s not the County Fair.” Is that really what these things are about? A way for rich white people to pretend to care about their city and their kids for two weekend afternoons, fill up on overpriced funnel cake, listen to an awful Beach Boys over band and then go home?
I think the festival planning committees figure we’ve grown too cynical to enjoy a festival that’s obsessed with artichokes or clams to the same unhealthy extent that motivates a Wisconsinite to don the foam cheese head. But hold up. At least a lemon head would be different, right? It provides something new, something you wouldn’t get if you lived in another city.
But that’s me talking as a detached 20 year-old. I remember that by the time I was nine or 10, I enjoyed county fairs only because I felt guilty for finding them lame and wanting to stay at home with Donkey Kong Country. God forbid my hometown of La Crescenta had a festival with foam lemon heads marching down Foothill Boulevard.
I’m really not sure what to think about the gimmick city crisis in the end, it’s a complicated issue. But hey, Pismo Beach: You owe me one bowl of decent clam chowder.
Daily Nexus columnist C.K. Hickey is also a fan of Buellton -the split pea soup capital of the world.