From the Desk of Aaron Gilbreath: Literary Outtakes

Aaron Gilbreath is an essayist, a journalist, and  previously a contributing editor at Longreads. He has written essays and articles for Harper’s, the New York Times, the Paris Review, and the Dublin Review and his work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and Best American Travel Writing. Gilbreath is the author of two essay collections, Everything We Don’t Know: Essays and This Is: Essays on Jazz along with the recently published, The Heart of California (Bison Books, 2020).

Literary Outtakes

The scenes, moments, and material that don’t make it into finished books

When I asked someone I respected to read my book manuscript for The Heart of California, I mistakenly sent them the long version instead of my scaled down working draft.

“As a reader, I’ve been enthralled with a lot of this,” they wrote me, “but have also at times felt like I was getting kidnapped by your every inclination. You have to be considerate of the reader along with your own enthusiasms.” They were right. The version I’d sent was 400 pages long and 132k words. That was down from 541 pages and 168K words! Of course no one was supposed to read either of these versions but me. I felt embarrassed for my error. After trying to write this book for twenty years, I was so excited to share my work, but I’d failed to put my best foot forward, and I’d wasted their time. Granted, I had a two-year-old, too many jobs, too many documents and emails and deadlines. I was overwhelmed. I apologized and, thankfully, they stuck with me and read the corrected manuscript. It was an enlightening experience. Hearing their feedback helped me see how I worked. Besides getting sloppy with the emails, my approach was to intentionally overwrite then scale back my drafts to something detailed and layered but lean and clean.

In my old working draft of The Heart of California, I had done what the reader called “emptying the notebook,” where, as they put it, a writer lets their reporting lead them rather than the other way around. The idea was: Just because you spent time and energy reporting on something, and just because something interesting happened to you out in the world, that doesn’t mean it belongs in the story. “You don’t want all the good stuff to be buried too much,” they said. I agreed, which was why it didn’t have the section about San Joaquin Valley literature, or the profile of the small town poet, and it didn’t include my reporting about the then-booming almond milk industry and the ethics of almond farming during California’s historic drought. I’d cut all that. Hearing this readers’ observations let me clearly see the dangers of how I worked on my stories: I packed too much in, then distilled, condensed, and chiseled with the readers’ experience in mind. I write long. Then I simmer my watery drafts over a low heat for a long time during revision, in order to produce a potent, nutrient dense final version packed with info, flavor, and personality, and that justifies its length without drowning its best parts. But I walk a line—as I did in that previous sentence. Was that too long? Maybe it could’ve been two sentences. I’m always asking this of myself as I write, because in many cases, to get to the material that serves the final story, I have to excessively research, write way too many notes, report more than readers see, and polish text I’ll never use. All those transcribed interviews? Those polished pages? It can be sad to see them go. The natural urge is to put them to use. Why waste good material? But they aren’t wasted just because they don’t appear in a story’s final pages. That material, and those efforts, get writers like me to the stuff that matters most, so they are essential. To borrow a musical term, I call them outtakes. Outtakes are recordings, be they guitar solos or full songs, that never make the final album and that, instead, remain as castoffs on the studio floor. In literary terms, the process of over-writing The Heart of California reminded me of writing a story’s introductory paragraphs. To find the place where the story truly starts, you have to start much earlier while drafting, then cut off that narrative scaffold to reveal the final, polished, big entryway when you discover it. Ah, you think while revising, this doesn’t start there, it starts here. That’s how my book went.

But even after cutting, certain outtakes remain in my mind. Like random people I briefly meet on trips, I think about that unused text—certain quotations, certain moments—knowing I’ll never see them again.

On the 2-week reporting trip that became this book, I remember the  day I spent with a small family of almond farmers near Modesto, talking agriculture and the future of water. The hour I spent standing beside a big wooden barrel full of bulk almonds in a Modesto Sprout’s grocery store, interviewing shoppers about the efficacy of almond farming and almond-eating during a drought. (The Sprout’s manager eventually kicked me out.) Almond milk had become both the en vogue dairy replacer and a symbol of destructive corporate agriculture—the Great Creamy Satan of 2014—so I was interviewing a 64-year-old almond farmer and processor to write about almond’s impacts here in the Valley, where most of the world’s almonds were grown. The New Yorker web editors had accepted my reported piece on spec—and later declined to publish it—and I planned to use that and related reporting on the subject as a chapter tentatively called “Milking a Nut.” I hoped it would say something important about water use, water waste, and the roles we consumers play, even as we consider ourselves enlightened, thoughtful shoppers. But the material disrupted the larger flow of the book, so I cut it. Now here it is, unfinished, for you to read. Maybe this is my way of refusing to let certain outtakes wallow on a dying laptop. I can’t clearly decide without outside readers’ perspectives. I’ll leave that to you.

Having the New Yorker’s name attached to a story legitimized my request to interview this one almond farmer, and added enough gravity that it alarmed the Almond Board of California enough that they sent a representative to sit in on the interview, monitoring the exchange. It didn’t phase me. I wasn’t there to cause trouble or undermine their business. I was there to find the truth. If growers had nothing to hide, then no story should worry them.

The New Yorker ultimately declined to publish it. The material ended up abandoned in an old draft on a dying laptop, and I moved on. But it was hard. I wanted that big time magazine’s name on my bio. I wanted to feel like I’d made it to the top of the literary food chain—me, a solitary dirtbag from the American West, sleeping in his car. I wanted to stand as proof that you can make a punk rock life of literary journalism and still succeed doing it your way. And I wanted so, so badly for that big time magazine’s name to get potential employers’ attention so I could one day get the kind of job that paid enough to let me sleep in motel rooms—wanted it more than anything else at that time of my life. I got over it. I had better things: this whole Valley story was a better thing, and I was determined to make it into a book I would always be proud of and that locals could be proud of, too. I decided to change my own narrative. After all, writers choose to shape the story of their own lives, too.

“Milking a Nut”

On Thursday November 6, Dave Phippen’s almond processing facility in Manteca, California shelled the last almond of its growers’ 2014 harvest. The shelling machines had been working continuously night and day, every day, since August 14, separating an average of 10,000 pounds of almond shells, hulls and kernels per hour. During harvest, Phippen worked ten- to fifteen-hour days to keep pace. “I had my first day off in ninety days one weekend ago,” he told me when I visited his facility that November. “My wife and I took off and went to Carmel.” He was sixty-four years old and had no plans to retire. “I’ll die out there under an almond tree,” he said.

Over eighty per cent of the world’s almonds come from California’s Central Valley. According to the Almond Board of Californian, California’s 2012/13 almond harvest was the state’s second largest, with 790,000 bearing acres of trees producing 1.88 billion pounds of nuts. The United States Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) valued the harvest at 4.3 billion dollars. The NASS initially forecasted that 2014 harvest would total 2.1 billion pounds. Thanks to California almond growers’ savvy expensive marketing, almonds had positioned themselves as the ultimate healthy snack food, driving consumption in North America, Japan, China and South Korea. In America’s lucrative health food market, almonds had become the plant of the moment, and almond milk the virtuous alternative to the old virtuous alternative of soy.

In 2014, nothing seemed beyond almonds’ reach. Millions of Americans were nibbling the nuts at their desks. They were using almond flour for baking and asking for almond milk at the coffee shop. Almonds had successfully become that most desired property: the talked about superfood with word-of-mouth buzz and possible staying power. California growers were banking on continued popularity both domestically and overseas. Then the most severe drought in California history interfered with their plans.

With surface irrigation scarce and water tables plummeting, the taps in some San Joaquin Valley towns went dry, forcing agencies to drive in bottled water. This dire situation drew public attention to the Valley and left many socially conscious consumers worrying about America’s food supply. Many turned on almonds.

Because of the drought, subsequent assessments reduced California’s total projected 2014 harvest from 2.1 billion pounds to between 1.8 and 1.9 billion, and the increasingly popular nuts got a bad rap as a water-wasting indulgence. The almond debate appeared all over the news. The summer before my visit, Mother Jones‘ ran a viral article entitled “Lay Off the Almond Milk, You Ignorant Hipsters” and a more devastating, feature-length exposé entitled “Your Almond Habit Is Sucking California Dry.” The Almond Board of California’s 2015 almanac assessed the PR damage, noting that “research conducted in 2015 shows almonds as the food Californians most associated with the drought”. Between reduced yields and bad press, growers were not happy.

Although Phippen agreed to my visit, he didn’t seem pleased with me poking around. He probably perceived me as a threat to his family’s livelihood, and with good reason. I loved almonds. I ate them most months. But I loved the truth more, and I had come to find it.

Before Phippen and I met, I emailed with someone from the public relations firm who represented the Almond Board of California. She was helpful. She sent statistics and background information and repeatedly asked if she could help with anything else, including information off the record. But she was clearly gauging my angle and the direction my story might take.

 The answer was simple: I wanted a direct, unfiltered source of information, not vetted, polished publicist answers, and I wanted to set my story on the ground with scenes and characters. Who were the people growing nuts in a drought? I wanted to see their faces, to look into their eyes and hear their side of the story, not just the statistics about water and nuts and environmental responsibility, but their perspective. And what I would “like to hear from a grower” is the truth.

She set me up with Phippen and asked to speak on the phone. “I just want to talk through some things to make sure we are on the same page,” she said. We talked. She asked for two or three sample questions to send Phippen, “just so he feels comfortable.” I sent them, but I would not, as she requested on the phone, send her or Phippen a copy of my story to read before publishing it. That’s not how my journalism works, I said. The publicist understood, but I doubt she or her grower liked my answer.

When I arrived at the company headquarters, Phippen welcomed me into a clean bright boardroom. A large bowl of raw brown-skin almonds sat on the table, and a representative from the Almond Board of California sat in the seat beside me to supervise. No one had mentioned any representative.

Here, Phippen said, scooting the bowl in front of me, have some almonds. I did. They were new crop. They were delicious, sweet and creamy, some of the best I had ever tasted.

Phippen was charming. Friendly and welcoming, full of numbers, dates and occasional jokes, I could’ve seen myself going fishing with him, if I knew how to fish. He had strong, boney features and hard eyes that locked on you like a predatory bird. He often leaned back in his large office chair, folding his hands in front of him as he chose the right words in whatever sentence he was carefully formulating in front of my audio recorder. He was a farmer, but also a businessman. In this era farmers had to be. I told him I respected farmers. We needed farmers, not just hungry Americans but civilization itself. Food drove the American economy, but in some cruel slight of hand, the economy somehow didn’t favor farmers. Overworked, underpaid, constantly in debt to banks, paying off new machines or living in fear that one bad season would wipe them out, these rural men and women kept us alive. To keep themselves alive, they had to figure out clever and efficient means to stay in business by maximizing yields and minimizing expenses. It made sense that they’d try to make money off the trendiest crop in America.

When I climbed into Phippen’s truck, he turned off the radio. “You won’t like what I listen to,” he said with a grin. What was it, heavy metal? Country? “No, old stuff,” he said, withholding details. “Most growers spend their time in the car listening to talk radio. I listen to music. I don’t want my head filled with talk radio. I’ll make my own mind up about how the world is and where it’s going.”

Every morning during California’s summer almond harvest, Pippen woke up at 4am, read the newspaper, and arrived at the facility at 5 o’clock. Between mid-morning and mid-afternoon, another employee relieved him from the shelling machines. After that, he might work in his office, or drive a truck to collect almonds. “So,” Phippen said, “I work ten, fourteen, fifteen hours during harvest time. And I like it. It’s what I love to do.”

“I would hate it if it went year-round,” Phippen said, “but it’s ninety days. Anybody can do that.” Many, but not anyone.

* * *

Milking plants is big business. In 2013, retail sales in the category known as plant-based beverages reached approximately $1.4 billion in the U.S.; they are projected to reach $1.7 billion by 2016. This was up from $1.33 billion in 2011. Made from such things as rice, coconut, cashew and soybean, alternative milks offer consumers rich, dairy-like drinks so they can avoid commercial cow milk’s health and environmental issues yet don’t, as The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Vegan Living put it, “have to give up creaminess and satisfaction.” In our era of Soyrizo™ and Fakin’ Bacon, visits to alternative grocers like Whole Foods can resemble culinary ethnography, where shoppers wander the aisles stumbling upon new, purportedly healthy inventions like lentil chips and pudding made from dates, all the while wondering, “What are companies milking now?”

Our current market made anything seem possible, with corporations like WhiteWave Foods betting on which blockbuster plant would capture the health food zeitgeist and end up in every home, Starbucks and cool coffee shop in America—until the next trend cycled through. Of our current plant-based options, almond milk was experiencing the strongest growth, and it was growing largely at the expense of soy milk.

Soy used to be America’s favorite non-dairy milk, but between 2013 and 2014, almond milk saw $738 million in sales, two-thirds of the American plant-based milk market, compared with soy’s $341.1 million. Smaller producers like Los Angeles’ Mylkman and the southern California-based Califia Farms compete with national brands like Pacific, So Delicious, Blue Diamond’s brand Almond Breeze, and WhiteWave Food’s brand, Silk, which was responsible for approximately half of U.S. almond-milk sales. The shift to almonds from soy came about in part because the same health-conscious consumers who avoided dairy had developed concerns about the increasing pervasiveness of genetic modifications to soy. This shift had given almond milk two-thirds of the American plant-based milk market, leaving soy milk with thirty percent and the others with the rest. Dairy still outsells everything, maintaining ninety percent of the total American milk market. But, to milk a bad pun, America had gone nuts for nut milk, especially ones made from California almonds.

Besides almond milk’s nutritional profile, the drink’s light, creamy flavor continued to convert consumers and venders. Not everyone was buying it. “Milk does not come from plants,” wrote one commenter on a 2014 Los Angeles Times article. “The FDA should not allow the term milk to be used on any packaging unless it comes from a mammal!” Obviously, you didn’t milk a nut in the same way. There was no almond udder, but the beverage that ground and strained plants produces was rich and creamy enough to warrant the designation.

America’s natural foods industry was once a small, renegade marketplace that subverted the dominant, profit-driven food paradigm and its slick advertising to cater to consumers who wanted purer food. Committed visionaries built companies like Erewhon Natural Foods (founded in 1966), Cascadian Farm (1972) and Bob’s Red Mill (1978), people who might have described their original business model as “people not profit” and described themselves the way WhiteWave Foods founder Steve Demos described his younger self in Joe Dobrow’s book Natural Prophets: as an “idealistic hippie out to change the world.” Over the past forty-plus years, the organic and natural foods industry has grown into an $88 billion dollar business that often resembles the corporate culture that it professes to subvert.

Where so much of vegetarians’ diet once depended on yogurt and cheese, more and more people started to give up dairy, and consumers needed a replacement. The natural foods industry built a great deal of its empire by providing alternatives: alternatives to dairy yogurt, alternatives to ice cream, alternatives to eggnog, M&Ms and Thanksgiving turkey. By empowering consumers with options and information, it also provides alternatives to feeling like a sucker. The modern industry doesn’t force consumers to rethink the way they conceptualize food—cookies, cold cuts, sandwiches, creamer—only the ingredients in the foods they’re familiar with. If you miss bologna, there’s faux bologna made from wheat gluten. If you like Chex but not General Mills, you can find a smaller company’s version of that trademarked cereal. America’s commercial soy milk grew from this demand for replacements.

Equipped with all of the essential amino acids, soy was hyped as a wonder bean that contained as much protein as meat, yet was cholesterol-free and low in saturated fat. Soy was also high in fiber, iron, calcium and compounds called is oflavones, which are phytoestrogens then thought to help reduce cholesterol and the risk of certain cancers. In 1990s parlance, soy was the shit. For environmentally conscious shoppers, the bean offered a form of stewardship. As Cornell University ecology professor David Pimentel pointed out in 1997, plant protein required approximately eight times less fossil-fuel energy to produce than animal protein, where milk production required fourteen parts of energy to produce one part of milk protein. This bean-milk was filled with wonders just as nature had made them. The thing was, nature made fewer and fewer of them.

According to the 2010 National Agricultural Statistics Board annual report, an estimated eight percent of US soybeans grown for human consumption were genetically modified in 1997. By 2010, the number reached ninety-three percent. By then, the grip biotechnology corporations had on our food supply was eroding people’s faith in commercial agriculture, as well as the healthfulness of isoflavones. That lack of trust influenced spending habits.

Boxes of once popular Westsoy and Edensoy now sat on the second to lowest shelf at my local natural foods store, with the other vogue milks occupying the eye-level real estate. Where many dry foods once listed “rich in soy isoflavones,” some packages now advertised themselves as soy-free. Here on the West Coast, it was nearly as fashionable to ditch soy as it was to ditch gluten. Now people had grown skeptical about almonds, too.   

            CONTINUED…

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