Think of the word ‘oasis’ and it likely congers up images of small lakes amid vast hot and dry deserts – places where man and beast congregate around a source of fresh water in order to survive. There are many such places in the world – the Nile River Delta in the Sahara, Al Hasa in Saudi Arabia, Lake Manyara in Tanzania, just to name a few. There are even some natural oases remaining in the US in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts in the southwestern States, but most natural American oases have long since been commercialized – picture Las Vegas, Nevada or Palm Springs, California. In these towns, they have long since crossed the point at which they went from water supplier to water guzzler.
Recently, though, while driving south towards San Francisco and Sacramento on interstate 5, it occurred to me that much of California’s central valley was once and still is a bit of an oasis. Prior to the Gold Rush of 1849, this area was comprised of over 4 million acres of wetlands that supported over 20 million water fowl. Today less than 5% of those natural wetlands remain but, rather than being pillaged for strip malls, casinos and golf courses, a lot of that land is now rice-farmed.
The annual process for a rice farm is to create fields enclosed by small mounds of dirt, flood the fields to a depth of five inches, plant the seed, grow the rice, drain the field, harvest the grain, mill the rice and repeat. In essence, it creates and harvests a managed wetland. The whole process makes highly efficient use of the available water supply to feed mankind and, in the process, creates habitat and a food supply for all those water birds that use the Pacific flyway year after year.
Two quick statistics speak volumes about just how much of an oasis these rice-planted wetlands create in the area of the central valley about 60 miles north of San Francisco and Sacramento:
- For the benefit of North Americans, this area supplies virtually every grain of sushi rice consumed in the United States each year and is second only to Arkansas in overall US rice production.
- For the benefit of North America’s waterfowl, this area supports the highest concentration of water birds on earth with up to 10 million birds using the region each year.
It seems a win-win for everyone.
As a passer through the valley on the interstate, all that rice and all those birds do not a meal make so we found ourselves in need of an oasis of a different sort – one that served lunch and a cold beverage! To be honest, unless you want franchised fast food, there isn’t much…until you come to the exit for Williams, California. Now, I’m not saying Williams itself is any great oasis. It’s not! It is an agricultural community of roughly 5000 people who describes itself on its own website as a gateway to other places. But, in downtown Williams, if you go to the 400 block of 6th Street, there are a collection of structures on two sides of the street that are well worth the stop.
Granzella’s has been a Williams establishment since 1976 and is an amazing oasis of all things Italian and more. They have a shop, a restaurant, a delicatessen, a sports bar, a pizza parlor, an ice cream parlor, a bakery, a banquet hall, a catering service and even a 42-room motel! You can taste samples of the many varieties of jams, olives, marinated garlic and other specialties they make or pack locally.
We picked up a muffuletta sandwich made before our eyes with imported Italian meats and cheeses and homemade muffuletta topping. After heading down the highway to a community park for an impromptu picnic of sorts, we bit into that sandwich. I wish I had taken a photo but, believe me, it was gone before you could say muffuletta. It was fantastic!
And the muffuletta topping….well, suffice it to say, we are now looking for an excuse to head north to the rice-farmed oasis they call the Sacramento valley so we can stop in the local oasis they call Granzella’s where we can get our own one-gallon jar (or two)!