The City of Santa Maria lies in the Central Coast Region of California. It’s where I was born and where I returned to live after living more than 40 years elsewhere. The population sign says there’s more than 90,000 residents here, but you’d never guess it. The atmosphere here is characteristically rural as we have very few high-rise buildings. In fact, there are only a couple I know of that are more than three stories tall. One is an ugly mid-century modern building that is a retirement facility looking totally out place in it’s surroundings, and the other is the modern state government offices (also ignoring local vernacular) that are fairly recent additions to the local landscape. Interspersed among the housing tracts and strip malls are fields of strawberries. There is A movie theatre and A mall… Oh, and a new big beautiful ($35,000,000) library. The city sits within the Santa Maria Valley that stretches from the Pacific to the Santa Lucia Mountains along Highway 101 just a half-hour drive south of San Luis Obispo and an hour north of Santa Barbara. Our town is not a tourist destination by any means. It is the home to a predominantly Hispanic population and is a bedroom community to the nearby tourist, wine, farm and ranch industries and beach communities. There’s more taquarillas, tienditas and panaderias than I can count –so if you want ‘authentic’ Mexican food, this is where it’s at on the Central Coast. (Our favorite is El Toro on the corner of Blosser and Main.) Just a half-hour’s drive southwest on Highway 135 (which is called Broadway in town) is the City of Lompoc, Vandenberg Village and Vandenberg Air Force Base. We’re also near the Diablo Canyon nuclear power facility that emits infrequent tests of its warning sirens. (Blessing? More like a ‘kiss-your-ass-goodbye warning ‘cuz we’re that close!) The south end of town is actually the old Town of Orcutt that was once a sea port. The entrance to the bay was filled in by the dunes more than a century ago.
We have a regional airport that sends “puddle jumpers” to international airports. Allen Hancock Air Field (not to be confused with Hancock Field in Syracuse) is a part of Santa Maria’s historic legacy. The local community college is named after Captain Hancock. My dad purchased an airplane from him in the 1940’s. He says he was one of the nicest gentlemen you’d ever want to meet.
In 1927 Captain G. Allan Hancock founded the Allan Hancock Air Field. For years it was a peaceful setting, but with a few events of aviation historical interest. One of these was the sponsorship by Captain Hancock of the first trans-Pacific flight by Charles Kingsford-Smith and three other men in a Fokker Tri-motor, the “Southern Cross,” shown here on display in Santa Maria. This trip started on May 31, 1928, just one year and eleven days after Charles Lindbergh’s history making 33.5 hour non-stop flight across the Atlantic. ~Santa Maria Museum of Flight
The ocean is about 12 miles to the west. On the way is the very old little town of Guadalupe which is set in the middle of the rich Santa Maria Valley where most of the strawberries that Santa Maria is famous for are grown. The valley is flat between the desolate dunes of the 18 square mile stretch of the Guadalupe Nipomo Dunes Reserve (which is why we get the ‘benefit’ of coastal weather –marine layer, fog, wind and all- without an ocean view). The beach has been the site of many movie sets. In the 1930’s the Charlton Heston movie “The Ten Commandments” was filmed there. The sets were just left there and people are still trying to dig up artifacts from them that have long since been covered by sand dunes. Most recently, parts of Johnny Depp’s movie “Pirates of the Caribbean: At Worlds End” were filmed there also.
The little Oso Flaco lake is nearby. The first inhabitants of the Guadalupe-Nipomo Dunes were Native Americans of the Chumash tribe, whose settlements were noticed by early Spanish maritime explorers. However, Europeans did not travel through the Dunes themselves until 1769. These explorers were members of Don Gaspar de Portola’s overland expedition. While staying in the Dunes, the explorers shot a skinny bear by the shores of what is now called Oso Flaco Lake. After eating the bear, two of the explorers died. The skinny bear had been poisoned by the Chumash who, as a means of protection, often incapacitated dangerous wildlife by feeding them tainted meat. This incident resulted in the lake’s name: Oso Flaco or "Skinny Bear." ~Wikipedia
Before the wine industry boom hit the Central Coast, the nearby rolling hills were dotted with cattle. So Santa Maria was known for two things: Barbeque and strawberries:
Strawberry Industry Facts (from http://santamariavisitor.com/cm/welcome/Home.html)
- Americans consume an average of 4.85 pounds of strawberries per capita each year, and many of those strawberries are grown in the fertile soils of the Santa Maria Valley.
- Most of Santa Maria’s strawberry fields are replanted every year. It’s a practice that may be more costly, but produces a better quality fruit and higher yields.
- Santa Maria Strawberries are always hand-picked at the peak of ripeness, rushed to coolers and shipped immediately by means of refrigerated trucks or by air freight. The entire process means that, wherever you live, you will be buying the freshest, most flavorful strawberry possible.
- In the spring and summertime, the sweet fragrance of strawberries perfume the air all around Santa Maria. You won’t have to look far to sample these succulent berries. Fruit stands line many a street around the city, offering strawberries for sale, fresh from the fields.
- Another sure bet for finding fresh strawberries is at one of the area’s Farmer’s Markets. Contact the Santa Maria Valley Chamber of Commerce and Visitor & Convention Bureau for times and locations.
- If it’s the ultimate strawberry experience you are seeking, then make plans to attend the Annual Santa Maria Valley Strawberry Festival, which takes place each April at the Santa Maria Fairpark. You’ll have the chance to sample different strawberry varieties, sink your teeth into scrumptious strawberry desserts prepared by local non-profit organizations, learn about the strawberry industry, and enjoy the food, rides and fun of an old-fashioned carnival.
- Santa Maria boasts the perfect sunny, coastal climate for growing strawberries, and its mild winters and moderate summers produce a long growing season. All in all, Santa Maria produces 10 million boxes of strawberries annually, which are transported to supermarkets all across the United States
- Each year California harvests enough strawberries, if laid berry to berry, to wrap around the world nearly 15 times.
- Besides being versatile and delicious, strawberries also pack a nutritional punch. They are an excellent source of Vitamin C, fiber, folic acid and potassium. All that, and they’re low in calories and fat-free too! So go ahead, add them to your cereal, load them onto desserts, throw a handful into your salad, or just pop them into your mouth for a sweet and healthy treat.
- Did you know there are approximately 200 seeds in the average strawberry?
- When selecting strawberries, make sure they have a bright red color, a natural shine and fresh-looking green caps. Santa Maria strawberries are fully ripe at the time they are picked and do not continue to ripen afterward.
- Always refrigerate strawberries immediately in a dry container covered loosely with plastic wrap, and they will keep for several days. Do not wash them until just before they are served, and do not remove their green caps until after they are washed.
- For best flavor, allow strawberries to reach room temperature before serving
- Did you know that eight medium strawberries contain 140% of the U.S. RDA for Vitamin C. That’s more than oranges!
- As part of the 5-a-day fruit and vegetable program suggested by the American Cancer Society, strawberries can play a part in helping reduce your risk of cancer and heart attacks.
- According to a recent national survey, strawberry lovers were labeled as "health conscious, fun loving, intelligent and happy."
- In France, strawberries are believed to be a potent aphrodisiac! Newlyweds were served strawberry soup made from thinned sour cream, strawberries, an herb called borage (tastes of cucumber) and powdered sugar. Yum!
- If you happen upon a double strawberry, break it in half and share it with a member of the opposite sex. Watch for Cupid, because legend has it you’ll soon fall in love with each other. Believe it or not…
- During medieval times, strawberries were served at important functions to bring peace and prosperity!
The Story of the Santa Maria Style Barbecue
There are places in this country where barbecue means more than just a way to cook a piece of meat over coals. It is Tradition with a capital "T."
Such is the case in the city of Santa Maria on California’s central coast. The history of Santa Maria Barbecue dates back to the early 1800s, when the mainstay of the Early California economy was cattle and America’s first cowboys, the colorful vaqueros, held large beef barbecues at the rancho following every cattle roundup.
Throughout the years, the tradition has been kept alive by groups and organizations in the Santa Maria Valley who have made the barbecue a specialty of all major events. Traditionalists will tell you that it cannot be done for fewer than 100 people, but that’s not true. You can do it in your back yard.
The only secret of the Santa Maria Barbecue is its simplicity — no special sauces or magic ingredients. It consists of thick cuts of beef, seasoned with nothing but salt, pepper, and garlic salt, and cooked over Santa Maria Valley red oak coals. It’s all served with toasted sweet French bread to sop up the natural juices from the serving pan.
The cut of meat called for in an authentic Santa Maria Barbecue is a 3-inch thick cut of boneless top sirloin weighing 3 to 4 pounds. If that is a bit more meat than you need, there is another cut of sirloin that works well, the tri-tip. The tri-tip has become the most popular cut for family barbecues in the region. It weighs only about 1 1/2 to 2 pounds, a far better size for a small family. See also: History of the tri-tip.
The traditional combination of side dishes consists of pinquito beans, macaroni and cheese, tossed green salad, toasted sweet French bread, salsa, coffee, and a simple dessert. The pinquito bean, a small pink bean that retains its firm texture even after long slow cooking, is unique to the Santa Maria Valley, as is the red oak.
~Merle Ellis (This is excerpted from an article in the April 22, 1988 Los Angeles Times.)
If you Twitter, you’ll want to look up @SusieQseasoning or look them up on the web at http://www.susieqbrand.com/cart.php?m=product_list&c=8. “Susie Q’s Brand is the original maker of artisan foods capturing the flavors of Santa Maria Style Barbeque, a regional culinary tradition rooted in the Santa Maria Valley.
Founded by Susan Righetti amongst the rolling vineyards of California’s Central Coast, Susie Q’s Brand products were created from old family recipes, perfected over generations and popularized at her parents’ restaurant, the Far Western Tavern. Each of these recipes is inspired by the local ingredients and legendary methods that define Santa Maria Style Barbeque.
From signature seasonings to delectable sauces, varietal beans to delicious desserts, Susie Q’s Brand invites you to savor the world-renowned flavors of the Santa Maria Valley.”
So if you are driving up (or down) the 101 on the way to one of the many tourist destinations of the California Central Coast or perhaps meandering through the vineyards and tasting our fabulous wines, you just might want to stop along the way for a meal of Santa Maria Barbeque (we recommend Jocko’s Steak House which is actually 9 miles north in Nipomo or The Far West Tavern- 9 miles west in Guadalupe) or stop by El Toro and pick up some freshly made tortillas and salsa. For a little bit of local history, stay at the Santa Maria Inn http://www.santamariainn.com/html/boutique-hotels-california.asp. They have a great Sunday brunch and an enclosed dining patio with a fountain that you can enjoy almost every day of the year.