Home Adventures Travel Secret History Hooey History Biography Gallery Contact




The Beer Milkshake: Examining the Monterey Bay Region's "Great Incongruity"

In Steinbeck's classic, Cannery Row, the character named Doc (based on the real-life Ed Ricketts) ruminates about the possibility of a beer milkshake: "The idea gagged him but he couldn't let it alone." He was haunted by the idea, until finally, in a diner in Ventura, he decides to order one.

Sunday evening, March 10, 2013 – 7:00 PM
Room 450 (Forum), Cabrillo College, Aptos
Free – No tickets necessary
First-come, first served.
Seating is limited.
Doors will open at 6:00.
Parking is free on Sunday evenings.

From the time I first read Cannery Row as a teenager, I too was haunted by the idea. No two ingredients could have been more at odds with each other, I thought. Then, in 1988, I received the third annual Doc Ricketts Memorial Award. Sponsored by the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the award carried with it an opportunity to give a special lecture on any topic I wished. So, one afternoon, to a room filled with hundreds of marine science types – see the roster of recipients over the years montereybay.noaa.gov – at the Monterey Conference Center, I decided to confront the Beer Milkshake Conundrum. Just like Doc in that diner in Ventura when he decided to order one, "Well here it was and what the hell. Might just as well get it over with now as some time later."

There it was and what the hell; might as well get it over with.

Just like Doc, I had no clue about the recipe or how it would taste. Yet there, in front of all those scientists, I set out the ingredients as I imagined them and in front of God and the whole wide world, I made a beer milkshake for the first time. No rehearsal. No beta testing. Just did it.

Edward Ricketts, the model for "Doc" in Steinbeck's novel, Cannery Row, and the namesake of the award given the History Dude back in 1988

Edward Ricketts' ashes are in this columbarium at the San Carlos cemetery, opposite Dennis the Menace playground, Monterey. There are always fresh flowers, placed by an unknown person or persons.
It was and is great theater. The audience was riveted to this "science" experiment being conducted for the first time—maybe in the world ever?—before their very eyes. That was 25 years ago, and people who were there still sometimes bring it up. Of course, sadly, they can't remember the REASON that I used the juxtaposition of milk and beer, or what my message was that afternoon. That's always the sizzle-steak danger when messing with theater.

The Point of it All - the Unnatural Historian - 1988
For many years I had been working the "human" side of the divide, researching and writing about the communities and people who had come to the shores of Monterey Bay to utilize the remarkable diversity of resources. But, early on, I came to realize that the scientists working and living in those laboratories that ringed the bay had very little interest in the human stories. They were interested in the natural history, the plants and critters. And, I realized that, by default that made what I was working on "unnatural." So, I became the "Unnatural Historian."

The whole point of the 1988 beer milkshake lecture was to elaborate what I believed to be an unnecessary, unhealthy, and even dangerous divide between cultural and natural history.
Nobody represented the integrated, holistic vision of things better than Ed Ricketts, the namesake of the award I had received. He saw it all of a piece – interconnected in how we got to where we are, and interconnected as we proceed into the future.

His mantra became mine: None of it is important or all of it is. All of it. Human as well as critters, whalers as well as whales; fishermen as well as fish.

How are we doing 25 years later?
And so, when approached by the Santa Cruz Reads project to say a little something relating to Steinbeck, Ricketts, et al, I thought it would be a perfect time to take measure and to see how we're doing. I'm going to drag out the blender and the ingredients (the secret recipe will be shared that evening) and reprise the beer milkshake and see if anything's changed over the past 25 years.

When Doc orders the milkshake, the blonde waitress (with just a hint of a goiter) asked, "Are you kidding?"

Nope. He wasn't, nor am I.