The early days of California cuisine, from an insider

You hear a lot about “California cuisine,” but 40 years after it started to creep into our consciousness, no one has yet been able to define it. I suppose, to paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we just know it when we eat it.

That’s probably as it should be, argues Joyce Goldstein, one of the pioneers of the movement, in her new book “Inside the California Food Revolution” -- because just as there is no single Californian, there is no single California cuisine.

Instead, in her telling, it’s more defined by an open-mindedness and a willingness to try new things, and that can mean something very different depending on the region, the city and even the chef.

Goldstein was the chef and owner at San Francisco landmark Square One from 1984 to 1996, and before that she cooked at Chez Panisse, so she was on the scene for many of the changes she records.

Combine that with exhaustive interviews of seemingly every chef, winemaker, farmer and journalist who might have anything to say on the matter and you wind up with a lot of interesting anecdotes (obligatory disclosure: I am quoted in the book, as are my colleagues S. Irene Virbila and Jonathan Gold).

Indeed, for anyone who wonders what those wild early days were all about, “Inside the California Food Revolution” will be a valuable resource.

Goldstein examines the north-south stylistic split (think Chez Panisse versus Spago); the rise of the self-taught chefs; how women made their way into the kitchen; the primacy of ingredients and the importance of the state’s wide range of ethnic influences, among other things.

Especially interesting are the many menus that are included. Some are very much of their period -- a 1980 menu from West Beach Cafe has grilled John Dory in a champagne butter sauce on puff pastry with sun-dried tomatoes.

On the other hand, there’s a 1979 menu from Chez Panisse that sounds so good I want to go out and eat it tonight, including beef marrow served with warm toasts; fresh Dungeness crab sauteed with scallions; and poached chicken with bacon dumplings and wild mushrooms.

Can you think of a menu more Californian?

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