In This Town, the Raisin Is 'Who We Are'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Oh, the indignities a raisin suffers.

Crammed behind the banana chips at the salad bar. Shoved beneath the dried cranberries in the supermarket. Plumped to a puffy mush and plopped in bread pudding as an afterthought.

And the humiliation!

Folks thinking raisins grow on trees. Or worse, dismissing them as mutant prunes. Even asking for cinnamon rolls without them.

But mourn not for the raisin. At least on this weekend, in this town, it's a star. This self-proclaimed Raisin Capital of the World is out to tout it, in all its shriveled glory, at the 18th annual Selma Raisin Festival.

"People here are proud of the raisin," said Councilman Michael Derr. "The raisin's what we do and who we are."

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It is not all that easy, holding a bash in honor of such a homely, puckered fruit. Though Selma residents rave about raisin sour cream pie and chilled raisin fruit soup--and though they claim raisins cure boils and boost intelligence--they know in their hearts that raisins are not the kind of gourmet glory crop that can really make a festival sizzle.

"It's not the Gilroy Garlic Festival or the Stockton Asparagus Festival," said Jim Brock, owner of the Selma Enterprise newspaper. "For some reason, I just don't think people can get that excited about raisins."

Then there's the rather sensitive issue of the raisin's image.

Much as folks here pump it up (just about everyone refers to it as "nature's candy"), the raisin seems to be less than inspirational. Just consider: The Raisin Theme category of the festival art contest features a photo of a worker harvesting grapes and a still life of a bunch of grapes and a jug of wine.

Hardly the stuff of raisin legend.

Still, this proud little town of 18,000 soldiers on.

Petaluma has its Butter and Egg Day Parade. Oxnard has its Strawberry Festival. There's a Pear Fair in Courtland, a Lambtown Cook-Off in Dixon and a Grape Stomp in Escondido.

So Selma feels duty-bound to have a raisin party.

"The crucial fact is this," City Manager Manuel Esquibel said. "Because we're identified as the raisin capital of the world, it would be sad on our part if we didn't have some kind of festival to celebrate the blossoming of the raisins."

Of course, Selma wasn't forced to adopt the motto "Raisin Capital of the World." Originally, in fact, the city's slogan was "Home of the Peach." But as the peach crop dwindled, civic leaders cast about for a replacement mascot. In 1963, they settled on the raisin.

At least the slogan fits. Unlike a certain rival in the fruit festival business (which reportedly imports out-of-town watermelon for its annual watermelon bash), Selma really does grow raisins. Lots of them.

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Depending on which statistic you believe, fields around Selma produce either 85% of California's raisins or 90% of the world supply. All those raisins come from the Thompson seedless grape, which is just now blooming in tight, bright clusters on curling vines strung across Fresno County.

The grapes will swell throughout the summer until the late August harvest. Those destined to become dark raisins will then be laid on paper trays to bake in the sun for up to three weeks. The rest will be dunked in hot water, treated with sulfur and withered in a special oven--a process that turns them into golden raisins.

To promote consumption of the fruit--and boost Selma's image in the process--the festival kicks off each year with the coronation of Raisin Royalty.

Candidates, who must be unmarried men or women age 16 to 23, vie to sell the most raffle tickets. The winner at raisin' money becomes the Raisin King or Queen. (So far, they have all been queens, which may be a good thing since the official Raisin Royalty outfit is a satin sash and sparkling tiara.)

The Raisin Monarch--this year it's Leslie Lopez--must represent Selma at parades, ribbon cuttings and business mixers around the region.

"It's very fun," said last year's queen, high school senior Mandy Balakian. The daughter of a raisin farmer, Balakian had just one complaint about her reign: The city did not provide her with any free raisins to toss to adoring fans.

"People were always asking me where my raisins were," Balakian said. "I wish they would have given me some to give out."

In Selma, at least, she would have found plenty of takers.

Raisins perch proudly atop green salads here. The Chamber of Commerce offers boxes of raisins at the front door. Perhaps most remarkable, parents claim that their kids like finding raisins in their trick-or-treat bags on Halloween (and we're not talking chocolate-covered, either).

Raisins have even worked their way into local folklore.

"My grandparents always used to tell us, 'Eat your raisins. They clear your blood,' " said raisin farmer Gilbert Garabedian, who swears that the dried-out grapes have awesome healing powers.

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In truth, the raisin doesn't have much to brag about in nutrition class. Raisins do provide some dietary fiber (about 8 grams per cup), but not as much as figs or prunes. They have some potassium too, but not as much as bananas. Still, they are versatile.

The Selma Chamber of Commerce staff members, who organize the annual festival on a $20,000 budget, try to promote the raisin at every opportunity.

They offer a $25 prize for the food booth decorated with the best raisin theme, though some groups have trouble meeting the challenge. ("If you're selling tacos, it's kind of hard to do the raisin theme," chief festival organizer Cindy Howell said. "They usually just drape plastic raisins on their booths.")

The chamber also encourages raisin dishes in the annual festival cook-off. And each year, Howell publishes a book of winning recipes, such as orange-raisin gingerbread, raisin sweet potato turnovers and raisin pecan pie.

The undisputed highlights of the festival, however, have nothing to do with raisins.

Most of the 8,000 festival visitors come for the carnival that runs through today and offers the same giddy rides and gaudy games that pop up at every county fair. Local nonprofit groups raise money at the carnival by selling generic fair food such as hamburgers, nachos and corn on the cob, along with the odd raisin pie. This year's festival also included a floriculture competition, a Saturday morning fun run and a pancake breakfast.

"It should be focused more on the raisins themselves, but what are you going to do? People come out for the fun things," said Dr. Richard S. Garabedian, a raisin farmer who doubles as a chiropractor.

Even Rick Murphy, general manager of International Raisin, concedes that his daughters (though raised on Raisin Street) think of the festival as a place to have fun, not fruit. "They like the rides," he said with a sigh, "even though we try to get them to like the raisins."

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