Eat Me, California (Jamie Iredell, His New Book, and Food)
Before I wrote the first draft of Last Mass I did two years of research. I thought I was going to write a historical novel with the Franciscan Father Junípero Serra—the colonial founder of modern California—as my protagonist. So I read his journals, and his biography, written by his contemporary, Father Francisco Palou, and a whole bunch of other stuff about early California. Among the things that fascinated me were the many mentions of food—what the Spaniards and Native Californians ate, and how the ingredients of those respective cultures combined (along with a healthy dose of native Mexican influence, as the Spaniards had arrived from what was then called New Spain) to form a unique Californian cuisine. This was nothing like California Pizza Kitchen, or anything served at the French Laundry, nor anything made by Wolfgang Puck.
Pre-European contact California was the most densely populated part of North America in part due to the region being enclosed by the Pacific Ocean to the west, the Klamath mountains to the north, the Sierra Nevada to the east, and the desert in the south. But the indigenous population also flourished because of the rich natural bounty this region provided. Native Californians ate from sea and land—everything from kelp and beached whale, to yerba buena and tule elk. But the staple of their diet was the abundant acorns that grew from live oaks in the vast savannahs that stretched the length of the region, in the cooler coastal valleys, and the scorching and swampy central valley (which at that time had not been drained to become the farmland that it is now). Native Americans cultivated oak savannahs through controlled burns. They harvested the acorns, leached them of their tannins, pounded them into a pebbly consistency with which they made a gruel, and ground them into a fine flour that they baked into loaves.
But the truth is that the colonizing Spaniards weren’t all that into the Native Californians’ dietary offerings, and this was simply because the Spanish thought the natives uncivilized. It was California, and the weather was much like it is today—which is to say, excellent—so the natives mostly went around completely naked. I mean, who wouldn’t, right? But the Spaniards, no the Spaniards saw such practices as evidence only of the native Californians’ depravity, their heathenish and ungodly grip in Satan’s fist. They had to be taught European-style agriculture, and with the fruits of their labors be taught to buy cloth with which they would make clothing to cover their shameful nakedness. Often, when the colonizing parties met natives who came bearing gifts of food from the locality, the priests and soldiers refused said gifts as inedible. It was no surprise then when the first Missions and their accompanying escaltas and what few natives they’d managed to convert found themselves in the throes of famine within the first year of existence.
As a result, the Missions were forced to hunt for subsistence and thus inadvertently embarked upon a fusion of their own cuisine with that of native California. They hunted elk and deer and fished and gathered abalone, clams, oysters, mussels, crab, and shrimp. It was Junípero Serra himself who ordered the first bear hunt in 1771 in El Valle de Los Osos (the valley of bears), in which today lies the city of San Luis Obispo, and they netted 9,000 pounds of bear meat. They hunted the California grizzly to near extinction, and helped (along with the Russians) the near-extirpation of the California sea otter. But they also brought with them from Mexico (and had delivered on a semi regular basis from packet boats) cattle and pigs, chickens, beans, rice, flour, and the oh-so-important chocolate. In all my research there is perhaps no food mentioned with as much reverence by the Spanish colonizers as chocolate. They loved that shit (can you blame them?). And this was no Hershey’s. This was the real stuff: Mexican chocolate—the balance of a rich diversity of flavors, from bitter and earthy to sweet and tangy. I don’t know exactly what a specific dish might have been for Spaniards and their native charges in the early Mission period, but I hypothesize that simplicity ruled, and they ate what they could. But knowing the abundance afforded them, my modern imagination dreams up some spectacular dishes: slow-roasted elk in acorn meal tamales with a huckleberry-chocolate mole, Monterey pine nut-and-kelp-encrusted abalone on a salad of yerba buena with sea salt and Spanish rice, etcetera.
But the reality is that Spanish Colonial California existed for a very brief time, from 1769 to 1821, when Mexico gained its independence from Spain. The years between 1821 and 1849 mark the time that resonates with the romantic ideal of Californio history. It’s from this period that legends like that of Zorro are born. By the 19th century, with an overland route to California well established, teams drove in hordes of cattle to the missions, and their lands were later granted to the ranchos whose names sometimes still grace their contemporary localities. I grew up on land once incorporated in Rancho Bolsa Nuevo y Moro Cojo, which extended from the banks of the Salinas River in the south, to the foothills of Fremont Peak to the east, to Elkhorn Slough in the north, and ended at the Pacific Ocean to the west. In this area today sit the towns of Castroville, Prunedale, Elkhorn, Las Lomas, and Moss Landing.
And this is an agricultural region. This portion of Monterey County provides nearly the entirety of domestically-grown artichokes and strawberries. Likely, if you eat either of those, it came from my childhood backyard. I’m not even kidding. My parents’ property adjoins acres of strawberry fields through which as a boy I romped. Often when we knew we’d entertain company, my mother sent my brother, sister and I off into the strawberry fields with a bowl so that we might pick some strawberries that mom used in making daiquiries. Here’s how you make them: take some fresh strawberries (to make four daiquiries you’ll want about a pound strawberries) and rinse them then cut off their tops. Throw them in a blender. Add to the blender a cup of rum (for four daiquiries, ¼ cup equals 1 and ⅓ shots, so it’s not that strong a drink, but you can up the dosage should you feel the need), and a tablespoon of powdered sugar, and add ice (you’ll want to add enough ice to give your daiquiries a smoothie-like consistency). If you want to tart this up you can squeeze some lime juice into it, but I don’t think it’s necessary. Pour that into margarita glasses and you’re fancy drinking.
A regular occurrence in the agricultural regions of California is a celebration of the region’s primary crop. Every year while I was growing up came the Castroville Artichoke Festival. Nearby Watsonville hosts the Strawberry Festival, and Gilroy the Garlic Festival. At such events one finds an abundance of dishes concocted with said festival’s namesake ingredient. The Artichoke Festival came filled with booths offering artichoke salsa, artichoke pasta, artichoke ice cream, artichoke salad, a variety of marinated artichokes, and of course fried artichokes. Fried artichokes was the thing—still is. Artichoke hearts are battered and fried and served with a variety of sauces, including lemon-garlic aioli. But, to be honest, artichoke hearts are best with ketchup. They’re like a vegetable French fry.
Then, there’s all those cows the Spaniards and Mexicans brought in and that the Americans continued to herd in making cattle culture a mainstay. The California Rodeo (pronounced Roh-day-oh) Salinas has run continuously since 1911, and cowboy culture proliferates where I’m from. In high school I had classmates—boys and girls both—who attended classes in horseshit-smeared boots, and tight jeans, and cowboy hats. Always, at the Artichoke Festival, or whenever there was a fundraiser for whatever kids’ sports league or charitable cause, what you did was you bought yourself a tri-tip plate. This is the thing, perhaps, that Californian cuisine—actual Californian cuisine—is most known for. Go to a grocery store on the east coast and ask for a tri tip and they’ll likely ask you to repeat what kind of steak you’re looking for because they hardly are ever asked about tri tips, and, in my experience, some butchers here in Atlanta have never even heard of it. But in California, they’re ubiquitous. Cut from the bottom tip of the lower sirloin cut, the tri tip is lean, but contains enough fat that it’s tender, and it slices nicely for sandwiches. I like me a filet mignon, sure, but if there’s tri tip I’m all up on it.
This is the central meat in California-style barbecue—made famous in and traditionally attributed to the Santa Maria Valley—and it’s cooked simply: sprinkled with salt, pepper, and garlic powder or (preferably) fresh garlic, the cut’s roasted over coals (traditionally, red oak, and by this I mean coast live oak, or quercus agrifolia) to medium rare. After the steak has cooked and rested for five minutes, it’s sliced and served with salad (preferably with Italian dressing, or oil and vinegar), beans (traditionally pinquito beans, but we usually ate this with Texas Ranch Style beans), and garlic bread. Get yourself a glass of cabernet, or a good IPA, and you’re set. It sounds simple, unaffected, and it is. It is the essence of good food: plentiful, quality ingredients, no frills, and good cooking. I always threaten my wife that if I ever win the lottery, I’m gonna open a California style barbecue restaurant in Atlanta.
Of course today, like many places in the United States, California’s cuisine has been influenced by the many immigrant populations that have made the region home, and the cuisine is rich and varied. In San Francisco you’d be remiss to not indulge in Chinese in Chinatown, or Italian in North Beach, or a burrito in the Mission. On a trip to LA you should check out Koreatown, or get some Chinese-Mexican fusion in the Imperial Valley. And should you find yourself in the Napa Valley, and if you can afford it, I hear good things about the French Laundry.
Jamie Iredell’s new book, Last Mass, comes out on Tuesday from Civil Coping Mechanisms.