Corning, Calif., owes its spot on the map to the humble olive.
To a motorist rolling along Interstate 5 in Northern California, exit 631 looks like an ordinary freeway turnoff. Actually, it's a pit stop of a different kind. The road curls through downtown Corning, the "Olive City," a friendly, rural place where travelers can fill up on a certain small, firm, brine-bathed fruit. Corning packages more than half the olives sold in the United States. The engine behind all that activity is the Bell-Carter Olive Co., the largest olive processor in the country and second largest in the world. On average, its jackhammer-loud pitting machines process up to 57,000 olives per minute.
The best place for connoisseurs to relish the town's bounty is at the Olive Pit, where a tasting bar and shelves are packed with olives in almost every imaginable permutation—sliced, ground into bread mix, rendered into soap. "We've got literally hundreds of olive options," says Ron Craig, whose parents founded the store in 1966 nearly 200 years after Spanish missionaries brought the first olive trees to California.
Naturally, Craig stocks standard California ripe black olives, but visitors delight in sampling adventurous flavors like beer soaked, Texas hot chile, and jalapeño stuffed. Those varieties—and others—turn up at Corning's annual Olive Festival, this year on August 27 and 28. Featuring an olive parade, a missing olive contest, and bed races, it's a spirited event whose main focus is having fun.
Corning, of course, is more than just olives. The Corning Museum is crammed with documents and photos dating to the city's founding in the late 1800s. Hungry travelers can drop by D Squared, (530) 824-4170, or Leona's Italian Kitchen, (530) 824-5144, for home-style cooking. For information on the area, call the Corning Chamber of Commerce at (530) 824-5550.
Photography by Mitch Tobias
This article was first published in July 2004. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.