SALINAS -- This is a story of John and of John's town and of John's book. It is a story of how these three became one thing.

John Steinbeck published "The Grapes of Wrath" 75 years ago, and the museum here dedicated to his writings is planning a three-day anniversary bash -- a smart combination of lectures, parties and field trips throughout Steinbeck Country, plus summer-long events.

But there's more to the celebration than that. The hometown that once spurned the Pulitzer and Nobel prizewinner is rebuilding its old downtown, and the new restaurants and shops cropping up around Main Street are embracing local cooking and the vegetables and fruits once picked by the author's beloved, marginalized paisanos and Okies. Steinbeck would approve.

With a population of about 154,000, Salinas is an easy drive down Highway 101 for most Bay Area residents. You can do the whole Steinbeck thing in a day. Just stroll around Main Street for a look at and taste of an original "Old Town" rising up again before your eyes. Salinas did a good job of not destroying its old buildings, including some Steinbeck put in his stories. The jackhammers of renewal are busy these days, but for now there isn't a single chain restaurant or corporate fast-food joint in Old Town Salinas. Food and lodging are a bargain compared with those in pricier Carmel and Monterey.

I recommend getting to Salinas in time for breakfast or lunch, going to the National Steinbeck Center, then staying for dinner.

On a recent visit I started with breakfast at Sang's Cafe because that's where Steinbeck ate. It was called something else in his day, but Sang's is the kind of hole-in-the-wall he favored.

"My mother lived across the street from him," co-owner James Sang said. "The first time they met, she was tending her flowers in the front yard when Steinbeck said hello. The problem was my mother didn't speak English and he didn't speak Chinese."

Volunteer Leslie Earnest folds napkins during lunch time at the John Steinbeck House in Salinas, Calif. on Tuesday, April 1, 2014.
Volunteer Leslie Earnest folds napkins during lunch time at the John Steinbeck House in Salinas, Calif. on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

I ordered the unique "Kip's Special," a menu item for 40 years made of eggs, diced ham and green onions on a bed of steamed white rice, covered with lots of brown gravy.

My tank full, I walked over to the nonprofit National Steinbeck Center.

—‰'Grapes of Wrath' is still relevant today," executive director Colleen Bailey told me. "Look at the issues we are still dealing with. Immigration. Equal treatment for farmworkers. The environment. The drought. The Dust Bowl conditions. It's all there in 'Grapes of Wrath.' "

Bailey was born and raised in Salinas. So were curator Elizabeth Welden-Smith and center spokesman Marcos Cabrera. For the "Grapes" anniversary, they assembled a film crew last year and retraced the fictional Joad family's fateful drive from Oklahoma to California. Their documentary film of the road trip will debut at the festival, which runs May 2-4.

Festival highlights

Festival highlights include three bus tours of Steinbeck Country -- he based 23 of his books in the Salinas Valley. Steinbeck scholar Susan Shillinglaw will lead a literary discussion and tour of the farm in "East of Eden." Another bus will visit local farms and the Spreckels sugar plant Steinbeck used as a setting in "Tortilla Flat." A third tour will visit local wineries simply for the love of wine, which the writer certainly had. He drank anything and everything.

If you can't make it on festival weekend, the permanent Steinbeck exhibit is a gem any time, any day. It feels like a stage or movie set and nothing like a library. That's because Hollywood's best directors and actors vied to turn Steinbeck's books into movies and left behind a trove of posters, set designs, props and film clips. The center has blended these expertly with print and visual interpretations on his work.

This museum actually encourages visitors to snap photos and tweet them on the spot. Popular photo ops include the real "Rocinante," the GMC camper truck that Steinbeck drove across America to write "Travels with Charley." A hit with kids is the life-size statue of the pony from "The Red Pony." You can read old newspaper quotes calling Steinbeck a communist and see Hollywood posters featuring Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy, Tallulah Bankhead -- just three of the stars who jumped at the chance to make Steinbeckian movies.

"Grapes" was as controversial as any book in American literature. Steinbeck's New Deal politics, criticism of capitalism and his sympathy for the Okie farmers generated a firestorm of debate at the depths of the Great Depression.

The John Steinbeck House in Salinas, Calif. on Tuesday, April 1, 2014.  The house was built with a Queen Anne Architectural design.
The John Steinbeck House in Salinas, Calif. on Tuesday, April 1, 2014. The house was built with a Queen Anne Architectural design. (LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group)

Book for all times

"He wrote it for that time, but it's a book for all times," said Shillinglaw, a Steinbeck scholar at San Jose State, which is home to the Center for Steinbeck Studies, a research archive. "He reminds all of us to think about poverty, what it looks like, what it feels like. Empathy is Steinbeck's strength, and it's so palpable in 'Grapes of Wrath.' "

Even so, Kern County, southeast of here, banned the book from public schools and libraries. The powers that be in Salinas didn't go that far, but it's generally acknowledged that they disowned Steinbeck for decades.

"That's because he wrote the truth," said Carol Robles, a Steinbeck historian from Salinas. "He wrote about people who got their hands dirty, the paisanos and farmworkers."

I met Robles for lunch just two blocks from the center, at The Steinbeck House, the restored Queen Anne-style Victorian where Steinbeck grew up. This is where you go for the story of Steinbeck's youth and his family, including the scandals. Steinbeck married three times, and his heirs fought a nasty public battle over his estate. The servers are volunteers familiar with every room in the house, who did what to whom -- and they're happy to talk about it.

After ordering a plate of bundles -- a crispy, thick crepe filled with creamed chicken and served with local broccoli and carrots -- I listened to Robles. She was talking with Sharon Bacon, the stepdaughter of Steinbeck's first wife, and the jealousies that erupted when he started courting his young second wife, Gwyn.

"The gossip over the family was amazing," Bacon said, "and it's still going on!"

If you have extra time to walk around, the municipal John Steinbeck Library offers booklets of literary landmarks and markers. For example, you can follow the steps of Kate, the prostitute in "East of Eden," on her way to the bank and candy store. Those businesses are gone, but the buildings remain.

For dinner, the buzz is over the new Patria Restaurant in Old Town. Co-owner Paolo Kautz, a German chef formerly from Carmel, offers a menu featuring "working class" recipes -- tender beef cheek, rabbit and lamb served with local produce, wines and handmade pastas. The asparagus was the greenest and prettiest I have ever tasted, as if it were picked at its peak moment. Kautz is also quite a good painter. Several of his impressionist canvases adorn the walls.

Stellar strawberries

For a conservative Salinas take on dinner, the Growers Pub is a he-man place offering steaks and chops and local produce to hungry folks seated in husky leather booths. Popular bartender Tom Rodriguez serves a smooth bourbon mixer called the "Gunslinger."

Before I left town, I found The Bakery Station by dumb luck. Co-owners Erika Olivarez and Ana Melissa Garcia, friends since third grade here, have turned an old Texaco gas station into the funkiest pastry and sandwich shop in town. That morning a strawberry picker brought fresh ripe fruit for the day's shortcakes.

"The farmworkers do that for a lot of restaurants in town," Olivarez said. "You can't get better strawberries anywhere."

Contact Joe Rodriguez at 408-920-5767. Follow him at Twitter.com/joerodmercury.

IF YOU GO TO SALINAS

STEINBECK SITES:
National Steinbeck Center, 1 Main St.; 831-775-4721; www.steinbeck.org. 34th annual Steinbeck Festival, May 2-4. Center open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Admission: $14.95 adults; $8.95 students, seniors, military, teachers; youths, $5.95-$7.95.
Steinbeck House, 132 Central Ave.; 831-424-2735; www.steinbeckhouse.com. Tours may be requested at the time reservations are made. The house serves only one meal, lunch, from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, plus tea on Saturdays. Reservations suggested.
Steinbeck's grave site, Garden of Memories Cemetery, 850 Abbott St.
John Steinbeck Library, 350 Lincoln Ave., www.salinaspubliclibrary.org
Center for Steinbeck Studies, San Jose State, Room 590 of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library. 408-808-2067; http://as.sjsu.edu/steinbeck. The world's only university research archive dedicated to the author's works is open to the public Monday-Saturday.
WHAT TO READ:
"A Journey into Steinbeck's California" (ArtPlace series), by Susan Shillinglaw and Nancy Burnett
WHERE TO EAT:
Patria, 228 Main St., 831-424-5555; lunch and dinner Tuesday-Sunday
Growers Pub, 227 Monterey St., 831-754-1488; lunch and dinner Monday-Friday
Bakery Station, 202 Monterey St., 831-783-1140; breakfast and lunch Monday-Saturday
Sang's Cafe, 131 Main St., 831-424-6012; breakfast and lunch Wednesday-Sunday
More options: If fancier breakfasts suit you, try First Awakenings or the very steady Dudley's. For authentic Mexican, try the nopales and eggs or machaca breakfast plates at Mi Tierra. For just coffee, there are the Cherry Bean and Rollick's. All of these places are on Main Street.
WHERE TO STAY:
Chain hotels and small motels abound in Salinas. These two were clean, reasonably priced and near Old Town.
Courtyard Salinas Monterey, 17225 El Rancho Way. 87 rooms; free Wi-Fi and parking; business center; on-site Bistro and Starbucks coffee. Rates start at $149 a night. 831-775-0491; www.marriott.com/hotels.
Laurel Inn Motel, 801 W. Laurel Drive. 145 rooms; free Wi-Fi, parking and breakfast; business center; on-site Black Bear Diner. Rates start at $72. 831-449-2474.
TOURISM DETAILS:
The biggest annual events in Salinas are the California Rodeo Salinas (July 17-20 this year; www.carodeo.com) and the California International Air Show Salinas (Sept. 27-28 this year; http://salinasairshow.com).
For details on other events, local wineries and other tourism info, go to www.salinas411.org.

-- Joe Rodriguez, Staff