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EARLY CALIFORNIA COOKERY

CALIFORNIA’S CULTURAL DIVERSITY has given it a rich variety of cuisines. Helen Walker Linsenmeyer’s From Fingers to Finger Bowls offers tidbits of this from the earliest days to 1900.

From Fingers to Finder Bowls, by Helen Walker Linsenmeyer, with editorial assistance of Doris Loewnau, EZ Nature, 1990.

Linsenmeyer observed, “Each of the groups which has formed the state’s populations—Indians, Spaniards, Mexicans, South Americans, Russians, Frenchmen, Germans, Englishmen, Italians, Irishmen, Scandinavians, Hawaiians, Armenians, Chinese, Japanese as well as American pioneers and others—has added a special flavor and texture to the heady and unique potpourri that today makes up California’s cuisine.” 

This and following images, From Fingers to Finger Bowls.

California’s Acorn Culture. Native Americans gathered acorns in the fall, spread them in the sun to dry, then stored them in baskets or cribs. Those from the white oak were regarded as most palatable. 

Acorn Mush. Linsenmeyer described, “As acorns were needed, they were shelled and pounded into meal in hollowed-out holes in rocks with a large round stone serving as a pestle. To remove the tannic acid, the meal was leached with water and sand before cooking.” 

The meal was then cooked in baskets of water heated successively with hot stones. Linsenmeyer noted, “Steatite (soapstone) stones were favored because they held heat longer than others.” 

Broiled Dried Fish. “Fish were abundant and easily available,” Linsenmeyer said. “They were often cooked fresh but also dried for later use. Here is a tasty way to prepare dried fish for a meal.”

“Coat dried fish with acorn mush. Fasten firmly to forked green sticks and broil over fire. Cook until the coating is well browned.” 

Life at the Ranchos. “When mission holdings fell into the hand of the rancheros in the 1830’s,” Linsenmeyer wrote, “some of the descendants of early Spanish colonists became wealthy land owners…. Nothing delighted a ranchero more than having his sons and daughters, their wives, husbands and offspring, drop in for a visit for a week, or even a month.”

By Carreta to a Fiesta, painting by W.H.D. Koerner (1878–1938). 

Tamales. Linsenmeyer said, “The name for this dish comes from the Aztec word tamalli. It has been made in Mexico for centuries and of course arrived in California via the Spanish explorers and Mexican colonists. The basic ingredient is masa with a variety of meat or cheese filling steamed in corn husk wrappers. This old recipe gives instructions for making the masa….”

“Masa: 5 pounds corn, 2 quarts water, 2 tablespoons lime, 2 tablespoons lard, 1 teaspoon salt. Boil corn in lime water until tender. Wash thoroughly. Mash to mushy consistency and add lard and salt.” 

We have been blessed with a dear family friend who each Christmas Eve offers a feast of homemade tamales, pozole (pork hominy stew), rice and beans, and Mexican chocolate. These days, she can make use of packaged masa, though tamales are still labor-intensive.

The Forty-Niners. “California,” Linsenmeyer said, “might have developed gradually as an agricultural state if James Marshall had not discovered all that gold when he did. Marshall, who had drifted westward, sharpening his skill as a carpenter as he went, was employed by Captain Sutter in 1847 in the building of a sawmill near the present site of Coloma on the South Ford of the American River.” 

Linsenmeyer wrote, “During the span of less than a decade, the Tortilla Culture had waned and the Wheat Culture was in ascendancy…. The almost bewildering variety of fancy and exotic foods demanded by the polyglot mixture of world citizens with ample means to indulge their tastes accelerated the sophistication of California’s cuisine at a dizzying pace.” 

Mountain Men in Old California, another painting by W.H.D. Koerner. Despite its title, do I spy one of the fair sex?

Hangtown Fry—Oyster Omelette. Linsenmeyer described, “Considerable legend has grown around this recipe as to its origin. One story has it that a hairy, unkempt miner from Shirttail Bend blew into Hangtown, now Placerville, tossed a handful of gold nuggets on a table at the Cary House and demanded the most expensive meal the cook knew how to prepare. The cook, without batting an eye, allowed as how eggs and oysters best met these specifications, and set about putting together a masterpiece.” 

This reminds me of an extravagant fin-de-siècle recipe for grilled steak: Wrap a filet mignon in inferior cuts of beef, grill until the lesser cuts are thoroughly blackened, then discard them and serve the filet mignon. 

Days of Steam-Halt for a Leisurely Lunch, by Currier and Ives, 1884.

Helen Walker Linsenmeyer’s fine book does not cite this recipe. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2022   

One comment on “EARLY CALIFORNIA COOKERY

  1. sabresoftware
    February 1, 2022

    A simple way to make a perfect roast. Take a four rib standing rib roast, place in oven for 1 hour at 500F, then turn off the oven and let the roast sit in the oven for 2 hours. NO PEEKING.

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