Pie-a-Day #5: Gustavo Arellano’s Boysenberry Pie of Bigotry

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This Pie-a-Day post comes to us from Gustavo Arellano of the OC Weekly and his wildly popular Ask a Mexican column.  Gustavo is a regular contributor to Good Food.

Like any good native son of Orange County, I enjoy my regular slices of boysenberry pie: its bold sweetness, the burgundy-purple tint the filling leaves on lips and fingers after a couple of forkfuls, the stray seeds that add unexpected body, and that delightful, lingering tartness of which I’ve finally been able to finger its origins: bigotry.

Can pies hate? This one does. Orange County historians love to retell the history of the boysenberry, named after its creator, Rudy Boysen. The story goes that Boysen created a monster berry from the pollen of raspberries, dewberries, Himalayan blackberries, and loganberries while a farmer in Napa during the 1920s. He brought some of the seedlings with him when he moved to Anaheim to be closer to his wife’s family, but gave up on trying to sell them to the public. Years later, in 1932, a farmer by the name of Walter Knott came to Boysen’s house looking for his creation after hearing rumors of a “Sensation Berry of the 20th Century.” A surprised Boysen told Knott to visit the former house of his in-laws, but warned he hadn’t bothered with growing them for years. Knott found some samples at the in-laws’ farm, and took them back to his own homestead, located just off Beach Boulevard in Buena Park. With the baking help of his wife, Cordelia, and that sensation berry, Walter opened a roadside stand offering berries, jam and fried chicken dinners. The lines became so long that Knott eventually transported an entire ghost town to his property to entertain guests—the first amusement park in the country, and the first part of what’s now Knott’s Berry Farm.

Knott became a multimillionaire off Boysen’s berry, while Rudy never received a penny, but Rudy didn’t mind. He spent the rest of his years as the head of Anaheim’s parks, creating a citywide system that remains a model for Southern California. Boysen remains a beloved figure in Anaheim civic life: a park is named after him where I spent many a summer day sliding down the Googie-esque rocket ship slide, and Pearson Park – a gorgeous slice of Art Deco theaters, baseball diamonds, fields, and tennis courts – features a cactus garden with dozens of succulents Boysen amassed over the decades.

Nice tale, right? But Orange County historians, long accustomed to viewing the past through the prism of the orange-crate labels of yore, usually don’t bother with the rest of the story. Walter Knott used his millions to espouse and support various wacky right-wing causes and was a founder of the Lincoln Club, the PAC most responsible for cursing the United States with Orange County’s unique brand of conservativism. Boysen’s idea of beautiful parks was reserved for white people only – Mexicans could only swim in Pearson’s Park pool the day before the dirty water was dumped, and even segregated them.

“They were putting us in a corner of [Pearson] Park, in a wire-enclosed corral,” remembered a Mexican-American activist, in a 1989 interview with a UC Irvine professor. “Like animals, like beasts . . . like cows to the corral.” When the activist and others organized a protest against the segregation, Boysen had them arrested on the spot. Mmmm…that’s some good Juan Crow there!

I guess I should boycott boysenberry pie, but I can’t – its flavor is too good. Besides, I relish the idea of Knott and Boysen looking aghast as a Mexican eats their prize fruit with a glass of horchata and telling the world of their dirty politics for decades to come.