Local culinary history nerds rejoice: Author Mark Thompson has compiled a set of 300 recipes from the state's first cookbooks for his new cookbook, Vintage California Cuisine.
It's a fascinating peek into the early stages of so-called California cuisine, and many of the recipes he's dug up -- asparagus pudding, strawberry omelets, pickled peaches -- wouldn't seem out of place on the menus of au courant S.F. restaurants like State Bird Provisions or Central Kitchen.
Thompson got the idea for the tome when he was researching his earlier biography of nineteenth century L.A. journalist and booster Charles Lummis, and came across the Landmarks Club Cookbook that Lummis had put together in 1903 to raise funds the state's crumbling missions. (Recipes from it that made it into Vintage California Cuisine include carrot fritters, nasturtium sauce, Mexican almond paste, and a few Peruvian recipes from Lummis' sojourns to South America.)
From there, Thompson went to the archives of the L.A. Public Library, which has extensive collection of vintage cookbooks thanks to a former librarian's interest in culinary history. "I started looking into those cookbooks; they all have interesting stories behind them. Over the years I started collecting these recipes, and spent days down in the library looking through old cookbooks," he says. After a decade of on-and-off research, he'd compiled a collection of recipes from 20 old cookbooks -- 13 of which made it into the book.
Interestingly enough, the earliest recipes are heavy on dried fruit instead of the state's fresh produce, which Thompson speculates is because of "rudimentary transportation systems and little in the way of refrigeration. It took a long time for California to recognize the bounty of fresh produce at hand." He also notes that "you can clearly see the lack of open-mindedness towards ethnic cuisines -- people stuck to what they knew and were familiar with."
Two famous San Francisco hotel chefs, for example -- Jules Harder in the 1880s and Victor Hirtzler in 1910 -- focused their sights and menus on Europe, and named dishes after European place names rather than relying on dishes and influences closer to home. "[They] seemed loath to put the California name into recipes [and] gave little recognition that California had something to offer," says Thompson.
Not all chefs looked down on local traditions. "One cookbook author who did seem to be interested in staking a claim for California's own place in the culinary world was [1880's S.F. caterer] H.J. Clayton," Thompson says, whose recipes give great insight into what San Franciscans were eating at the time: lots of oysters, crabs, and shellfish (one recipe for oyster soup calls for 80 oysters alone); sautéed squash and corn "Spanish-style," and something he called "Clayton's Celebrated California Salad Dressing," which was basically a mustard vinaigrette.
Reading through the recipes is an education in itself, but if you want to make them, you might run into some roadblocks. Early recipes provide more guidance than precise measurements, assuming more knowledge on the part of the home cook, and, Thompson points out, it's hard to regulate a fire source. He hasn't tested all the recipes in the book -- some call for things like bringing a kettle of lard to boil on a fire, which is hard to duplicate in a modern kitchen. But he has experimented with several, especially from the 1898 El Cocinero Espagnol translated from Spanish, and praised that cookbook's Chicken in Almond Sauce and Indian Sauce for Rockfish, as well as Lummis' recipe for Peruvian meatballs (which Thompson makes with beef instead of mutton).
Plus, some are just great conversation starters at dinner parties, like a prune souflee in Hotel St. Francis chef Hirtzler's L'Arte Culinaire, which Hirtzler described as "a nice pudding that everyone invariably likes." Thompson agreed. "It got a thumps up from the people I served it to when I made it," he said.