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6:00 am
Mon April 14, 2014

Looking back on The Grapes of Wrath and Mrs. Steinbeck’s Chicken Piccata

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath turns 75 on Monday, April 14th. The book recounts the trials of the Joad family, who lost their Oklahoma farm and traveled to California at the height of the Depression. It was banned and burned in some cities when it was first published in 1939. But it also won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, selling nearly half a million copies within a year.

In Steinbeck’s hometown of Salinas, tour guide Nancy Montana guides visitors through the author’s boyhood home. “John’s grandparents lived in this house, and John was born in this room,” she says, standing in a wall-papered parlor.

In the 1970s, she explains, the two-story Victorian only narrowly avoided becoming a parking lot. Today, it  has been restored as a volunteer-run restaurant whose menu features dishes Steinbeck’s mother might have served 100 years ago.

“Beef Stroganoff, chicken piccata, chicken spinach crepes,” Montana says, flipping through a cookbook. “She did a lot with chicken.”

Over the years, the Steinbeck House Restaurant has collected furniture, keepsakes, and photographs from the author’s family and friends. In the old guest room, a glass case holds Steinbeck’s high school ring and early printings of his books.

Montana peers through the glass at items on the top shelf. “We have a  set of their tableware,. John Steinbeck’s whiskey, don’t ask me how we got that. 1947! You’d think he’d drink it.”

Exhibit at the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas
Credit Rowan Moore Gerety
John Steinbeck's boyhood home in Salinas.
Credit Rowan Moore Gerety

Three blocks away, at one end of old Salinas’ Main Street, the National Steinbeck Center is crowded with dioramas inspired by East of Eden and Of Mice and Men. One installation features Gary Sinise in the 1990 Broadway adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath.

“Maybe it’s like Casy says,” a young Gary Sinise intones solemnly on screen. “A fella ain’t got a soul of his own...only a piece of a big one.”

Eleven-year-old Jonathan Nerenberg is the youngest fan here, all the way from South Bend, Indiana. “It’s all about the characters if you ask me.” Steinbeck’s writing, he says, “really describes the characters in a way that you really get to know them.”

He loved Cannery Row and The Pearl, but he only made it halfway through Grapes of Wrath before he had to return it to the library. His takeaway? “Well I can see that I’m just very lucky that I’m not, like, I’m not facing any hardships”

To Nerenberg, the exhibit iss a look back at the Dust Bowl. But curator Marcos Cabrera says his job at the Steinbeck Center is to connect the author’s work with stories of modern-day Joads.

“Farm laborers here are still among the most underserved, the most downtrodden, you know, and perform back-breaking labor that’s still not fully recognized and appreciated,” Cabrera says.

In May, the 34th annual Steinbeck Festival will include a documentary based on oral histories collected on the Joads’ path from Oklahoma to Bakersfield. And those interviews, Cabreras says, prove that the Joad family story is still happening.