Farmers are hot. Hot the way that Native Americans used to be a few decades back, when everyone and their dog wanted a buckskin jacket. The small time farmers is the new "other:" that cool and mysterious kid in the back of the class, the repository of some secret earthy knowledge...perhaps a glowing dirt clod passed down from generation to generation.
It's not surprising to find more and more farm literature of the large and illuminated variety. Food and where it comes from has become a coffee-table book concern. Like penguins. Or giant Olmec heads.
But Edges of Bounty transcends easy classification as coffee table food porn. For all that Emery's writing can be a bit flowery and over-the-top ("The flavor was a cathedral of liquor") it offers surprising insights ("What is a skunk but a tiny bear with a chemical warhead strapped to its ass?") and useful historical detail (Folsom Prison used to raise its own cattle, until prisoners stabbing each other with shivs made out of cow bone got to be too much of a problem.)
California's Central Valley is one of the most productive landscapes in the world (Emery describes it as "the factory floor"), and Emery and Squire are determined to leave an impression of its less industrial qualities. There's Ramon Cardera, who grows gorgeous organic produce in fields mixed with weeds, rusted tools, and discarded soda cans. There's the woman who went into beekeeping only after her family balked at her stated life plan of squatting in state parks and living off of roots, berries, and the occasional wild boar. There are Hmong and Mien farmers growing seeds given to them by Sikh immigrants from Yuba City, and tales of a burgeoning strawberry industry in Thailand because of migrant farm workers retiring to their homeland with pockets filled with seeds from the Central Valley. Also included are ranchers, fruit stand operators, artisan popsicle makers, and so on, and so forth, to the point where a larger sense of place does begin to emerge out of the flurry of impressionistic essays.
More perplexing is the decision, in a coffee-table book, to not picture most of the aforementioned people. Emery describes this choice as the desire to not drug the reader with "the ecstascy of the human face." Hm. One soft-focus picture of a melon is pretty much like another soft-focus picture of a melon, and the cumulative effect becomes ultimately more Martha Stewart Living than documentary. Maybe there's no getting around the appeal of the human face: the best photos are indeed not piles of peaches, but of people fishing in the Sacramento Delta, (which, but for the captions, could easily pass for the Mississippi Delta. Interesting, that.)
It's only appropriate that Edges of Bounty ends with Emery pounding acorns at the Sierra Mono museum, effectively bringing cultural obsessions with farmers and Native Americans full circle. It's easy, he reports, once you find the right rock to bash the acorns with and the right hollow to put them in while doing it. Less easy is waiting around to eat the results -- Emery is gone before it is even finished cooking.