Ever since I moved to San Francisco, I've been looking for a certain resource -- a history of the food of the region, from the Native American times to more or less the present. And it wasn't until I received food historian Erica J. Peters' new book, San Francisco: A Food Biography, that I realized I hadn't been able to find it before because it hadn't been written yet.
It's a dense historical volume, more suited to dipping into as a resource than sitting and reading from cover to cover, but it's packed with fascinating information about the formations of the Bay Area's rich food culture. Whether you want to learn about the origins of Rice-a-Roni (originally a Lebanese treat), the rise of tamales in the Mission, or the actual history of some of S.F.'s oldest restaurants, it's in the book -- as well as an outline of the diverse immigrant groups that came to the city and influenced its cuisine.
Peters is a historian by training and fell into culinary history sort of by accident, when she started researching her thesis on French Colonialism in Vietnam while getting her Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. That thesis eventually morphed into her first book, Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Nineteenth Century.
"I lover food as a window into people's lives," she says.
She's also the founder of the Culinary Historians of Northern California, a society made up of historians, recipe testers, academics, writers, and others who just want to nerd out on all aspects of food history. As founder, she'd occasionally get calls from journalists looking for the history of such-and-such in S.F., and often lamented the fact that there wasn't a book about it. When her publisher, Rowman & Littlefield, asked her to put out a call for an author for the San Francisco food history book, Peters put her name in the ring.
She wrote the book in 18 months from start-to-finish, using sources such as old cookbooks, Google Scholar, and the Chronicle archives. "If I'd had another year, I could have written a book twice as long," she says, adding that she could have delved much deeper into the stories of immigrants. (Maybe for the next book.)
Peters will be discussing her book at a few spots in the next month:
Where: Omnivore Books
When: Thursday, Nov. 14, 6:30-7:30 p.m.
The rundown: Peters will discuss her book and sign copies at S.F.'s culinary bookstore. The party will also feature food and and pisco drinks from Pisco Trail's Nico Vera.
Where: California Historical Society
When: Wednesday, Dec. 11, 6 p.m.
Cost: $5 for non-members, free to members. RSVP on Eventbrite.
The rundown: Peters will discuss the book and sign copies. CHS archivists will also be sharing "select items from the CHS Collection focusing on California food history," which sounds cool.