By Robert Price
Civic marketing gurus will tell you that the best way for an otherwise anonymous town to stand out is by anointing itself the capital of something.
Anything goes because nobody checks to see if the claim is justified. America does not have a Bureau of Civic Boasting Compliance (although the federal government could always use one more agency). We've got to take cities at their word on these statements of self-praise. That's how two different North American cities get away with calling themselves the Christmas Tree Capital. And two others are the Salmon Capital. They can snipe at each other all they want, as they've actually been known to do, but no one else cares. (The Strawberry Capital? Let's not even go there.)
Gilroy, allegedly the Garlic Capital of the World, has its annual Garlic Festival. Castroville is the Artichoke Capital of the World. Stockton boasts asparagus.
Bakersfield's options were wide open once upon a time, based on what this city has been known for. Let's see ... Parched Earth Capital? Check. Red Neck Capital? Check. Valley Fever Capital? Uh-huh.
The idea was to get people to visit, however, not take the long way around to avoid you, so those ideas didn't get far. Then a couple of smart local women tossed out nuts, as in almonds and pistachios. Hundreds of people stepped up and, after six or eight years of planning (and waiting for the economy to recover), the first Kern County Nut Festival was held seven weeks ago.
The numbers are finally in: the Kern County Museum pocketed a net of $165,000, much of which we'll see in overdue renovations to buildings and grounds and at least one new, really cool exhibit to be revealed at a later date. And Bakersfield-area charities brought in a combined $60,000. Not bad for a first-year event.
So successful was the first Nutfest, the organizers -- prompted by suddenly enthusiastic local growers -- have decided to expand the definition of nut: Pecans, which are technically drupes, not nuts, will be admitted henceforth. (There's no truth to the story that an effort to rename the event the Kern County Drupe Festival was defeated in a close vote.) If there aren't four kinds of pecan pie at next year's Nutfest, I'm moving to Castroville.
Now that Bakersfield has a Nutfest track record, let the marketing commence in earnest. In view of the fact that some U.S. towns have been the Capital of Something for a century, we have a lot of ground to make up.
Okeechobee, Fla., has long been the Speckled Perch Capital of the World, even though Florida state law says you can only catch, not eat, the endangered fish. (They serve catfish instead.)
Le Mars, Iowa, is the Ice Cream Capital of the World, owing to the presence of Wells Dairy Inc., the largest family-owned dairy in the U.S. Let's not tell them about Bakersfield's Nestle ice cream plant, the largest of its kind in the country. The Le Mars Ice Cream Days fest takes place each Fourth of July weekend. Attendees wear upside-down ice cream cone hats.
The Pickle Capital of the World is Atkins, Ga., and the Zinfandel Capital is Lodi, which also claims to be the Tokay Grape Capital. Petaluma is the Arm-Wrestling Capital as well as the Egg Basket of the World, or at least it made those claims when I lived there. And High Point, N.C., is the Furniture Capital, or it was when my father lived five towns over and no one had yet heard of Ikea.
The pervasive corporate presence of companies like Ikea is one reason why Speckled Perch Festivals are so popular and so necessary. Retail chains have so homogenized America that Division Street in Spokane is utterly indistinguishable from Peachtree Street in Atlanta. So, if a town can get together once a year and celebrate something quirky and unique and positive, folks need to do it. Even if they have to invite drupes to the party.
Email Editorial Page Editor Robert Price at firstname.lastname@example.org.