California 22 - An Evening with a Candidate; Andrew Janz Makes Dinner
In February, Nicie and I drove from Los Angeles to the Central Valley in California, a stunning arrival as we descended out of the mountains to the vast dinner plate of America. Or, actually, the Central Valley is more like America’s backyard garden. Twenty-five percent of this country’s food is grown here. Many of this country’s problems live here, too. Immigration and water are the biggest. Natural aquifers are getting exhausted, but the large industrial farms demand they still get the greatest share. Indeed, they are growing this nation’s food; that makes sense, but in some places people cannot drink their household water. There is more lead, we’re told, in Fresno, California’s water than in Flint, Michigan’s.
The Central Valley sits in the heart of California like the pit of a great elongated avocado. It’s 350 miles long, farther than Boston to Philadelphia, and sometimes sixty miles wide. Imagine Denmark; that’s how big The Central Valley is.
Boasting some of the most fertile and productive agricultural land in the world, the Central Valley produces 40% of this country’s fruits, nuts and vegetables.
The San Joaquin Valley is the part of the Central Valley that lies south of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta. California’s 22nd Congressional district is a chunk of this valley where farming - and all the issues therein - labor, immigration, and water - is the only headline. The 22nd District starts in Corcoran, California, and arcs north through towns like Farmersville, Ivanhoe, Sultana, and Orange Grove, capped in the north by Fresno. To drive from the south of the valley north to Fresno is to become an instant expert in almonds and citrus groves, because besides the occasional commercial billboard or sign saying “ask about irrigation,” you see almost nothing but rows of perfectly pruned groves - first the exactly spaced fluffy almond trees and later the verdant shadows of citrus groves dotted with glowing fruit. It’s hypnotic to pass precisely the same trees in uniform rows for mile after mile. You can’t help but start doing the Math: How many grocery stores are there in this country, and how many acres of San Joaquin Valley oranges will it take to fill them? And you can’t help but worry there won’t be enough. And after reading about the district, you can’t help but worry there won’t be enough water, or enough labor for the harvest.
The California Democratic Party has endorsed Andrew Janz for U.S. Representative here. Janz will be running against the now infamous incumbent Congressman Devin Nunes. Now a deputy district attorney, Janz grew up in this valley. His wife, Heather, did, too. Janz and his younger brother grew up speaking both Thai, their mother’s native language, and English, their father’s. His parents met in Southeast Asia when his father volunteered for the Peace Corps.
When Nicie and I were emailing with Janz’ campaign manager to set up an interview, we casually mentioned that we always ask candidates if they might share a favorite recipe. This is the one question candidates love to answer, even the ones who don’t cook. Janz’s campaign manager, Heather Greven, answered, “Are you kidding? Andrew loves to cook!”
Nicie and I pulled up to Janz’s Fresno neighborhood home one evening on this trip; neighboring yards were pinned with “Janz for Congress” lawn signs. Janz, still in a dress shirt from work, greeted us at the door with a kitchen towel over his shoulder. Two bouncing dogs danced around our feet in the foyer. We could hear things sizzling on the stove around the corner. Assorted small dishes of chopped fresh ingredients, a Thai mise en place, were organized on the counter. After taking our coats, Janz returned to shaking and stirring the sizzling contents of many pans.
“We’re just going to wait for my wife, Heather, to get home…” Janz explained, stirring the red curry. His campaign staff, Heather Greven- yes, there were three Heathers that night - and Kate Worth were already there. Greven was at her laptop. She and Nicie started talking politics right away. Worth was helping with kitchen tasks. Janz’s brother-in-law and sometimes campaign staff, was seated at the kitchen counter, ready to receive random orders, like “could you take the dogs out for a sec?”
Our interview with Janz happened after this dinner, punctuating a beautiful Thai feast. We all sat around Janz and Heather’s long dining room table, and shared the candidate’s finely balanced assortment of dishes. Each was a different flavor profile - pork belly, basil, red curry. Ginger, chicken and cashews. - and each had that classic Thai combination of vibrant fresh flavors and earthy sauces. And there was a masterful range of textures, from the silky red curry soup to the delicate crispness of deep fried whole tilapia, fried in an electric wok on Janz’ back patio.
Nicie and I always say that sitting down and sharing a meal with people is something that borders on spiritual. We have learned this as we cross the country and dine with total strangers. Connections are made that simply don’t when you are just in a room talking, interviewing, asking questions. When someone asks about water storage in the valley, and someone else interrupts the answer to say, “could you pass the fried pork belly; that is SO good!” - something else happens that is not just about questions and answers. And when someone has taken the time, the expense, and the fundamental care to cook a meal for friends - and strangers! - that generosity spills into the room and into hearts. We learned that night, in that meal, that Andrew Janz is smart, warm, funny, honest, compassionate, and generous.
I can list here Janz’ impressive roster of issues to which he is committed: He supports comprehensive immigration reform, and hopes to develop a work visa program that brings people out of the shadows, allowing them to work legitimately, and pay taxes. At the same time Janz believes ICE must be kept out of schools, hospitals and courthouses, where vulnerable populations are simply trying to be healthy, honest residents.
Clean drinking water and water storage are critical issues in this region. Janz will challenge the EPA to do more on behalf of clean water here, but he is equally committed to making sure there is enough water for crops. Janz promises to protect the best of the Affordable Care Act. Education, Medicaid expansion, women’s health - you can read more about Janz’s positions in depth on his website.
I’d rather list the dishes he prepared that night: Thai Red Curry Soup. Stir Fried Crispy Pork Belly and Fresh Basil. Ginger and Cashew Chicken (recipe below). Deep Fried Tilapia with Thai Dipping Sauce. Thai Beef Salad.
Watch our short video recording a few cooking moments with Janz. You will catch a glimpse of our feast, but more importantly you will catch a glimpse of the candidate - kind, sharp, clear, dedicated, with a gentle sense of humor.
Of course, this is the land where great food stories are born. In our podcast, you will hear about Manuel Jimenez and the Woodlake Botanical Gardens. We visited the garden early in the morning; we shivered as we helped Jimenez pick a gift crate of citrus for us. Here are a few images from our visit
We also visited the beautiful Vineyard Farmers’ Market, designed in the 1980’s by architect Christopher Alexander. Vines cover the arch to shade the market in the summer.
For our Fresno potluck Nicie and I worried about what to bring. What could we purchase in the half-hour between arriving in Fresno and when the lunch would start? The night before I called “Allah’s,” an Armenian restaurant in Fresno. Over the phone, I told the cook and owner, Allah, my dilemma, and she said, “what would you want me to make for you?” We agreed to some mezze and traditional hummus and pita, but someone on her yelp page said she made the best Soubarek. I asked Allah what that was, and she said, “you want Soubarek?” Suddenly she sounded nervous. Her son took the phone from his mother, and said, “we will bring you Soubarek.” Here are images from Allah’s meal, classic Lebanese fare, but each dish was bright and tasted uniquely delicious, the way cooks in a community will make the same dish be uniquely their own. And here is Allah’s Soubarek.
Here are two Janz family recipes; the chicken and cashew dish is the one he is stirring in the first video clip. These are quick dishes with complex flavors, ideal dinners for working candidates and activists. Video: Cooking with Andrew Janz
Janz Family Recipes
Pork Basil Dish
3 tablespoons vegetable oil (or more depending on size of pan)
2 cloves minced garlic
1/2 pound ground pork or more depending on taste
3 tablespoons fish sauce (or to taste)
1/4 cup fresh basil leaves
2 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)
1 tablespoon oyster sauce
1/4 cup onions, sliced in arcs
1/4 cup carrots sliced in 1” lengths
2 chili peppers, sliced in halves
Preheat to medium high large skillet or wok. Pour in vegetable oil to coat the pan.
Add garlic to center of pan, and “satay,” meaning to flip with spatula so everything gets cooked evenly.
Add pork to the pan and stir as you did the garlic.
Pour fish sauce into pan, and stir into pork. (fish sauce amount is to taste; less is better. You can always add more.)
As the pork is browning, add basil and sugar. (Sugar should be a small amount and more added to taste.)
Add oyster sauce.
Add in carrots, onions, and peppers. Stir for about 2 minutes and make sure vegetables are distributed evenly throughout the pork.
Serve with white jasmine rice. Shrimp or ground chicken can be substituted for pork.
Ginger & Cashew Chicken
3 tablespoons (or more depending on size of pan) vegetable oil
1 small piece of fresh ginger root, sliced into thin 4” lengths
2 cloves garlic, diced
1 1/2 or 2 boneless chicken breasts chopped into thin slices
1/2 cup (or to taste) cashews
3 tablespoons (or to taste) soy sauce
3 tablespoons (or to taste) oyster sauce
2 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)
2 tablespoons (or to taste) fish sauce
1/4 cup white onion sliced into thin arcs
1 bell pepper sliced into thin arcs
Preheat a large skillet or wok to medium high
Add vegetable oil and let heat.
Add ginger into pan, and “satay,” meaning stirring and flipping with a spatula so everything gets cooked evenly, and allow to brown.
Once ginger is brown, add garlic. Continue to stir and allow garlic to brown.
Once garlic is brown, add chicken.
Stir entire dish, making sure chicken is allowed to be heated on all sides.
Add cashews. Stir entire dish completely.
Continue to stir until chicken is cooked all the way through.
Add soy sauce, stirring throughout. Add oyster sauce, distributing evenly.
Add sugar, and stir.
Add fish sauce. Start with less and add more as needed.
Add onions, and stir entire dish completely.
Add bell peppers. Stir entire dish completely so that all the ingredients are distributed evenly throughout.
Serve alone or with jasmine rice.
Video: Cooking with Andrew Janz