The Tradition of the New


“What kind of food do they serve here?” asks a guest, walking into the best movie restaurant scene of the year. “California Cuisine!” the other guests respond in chorus. The movie: “L.A. Story.” The implication: California Cuisine is the hottest new thing around.

California Cuisine, you may have noticed, has been the hottest new thing for a couple of years now. Nobody can tell you exactly what it is, but everybody is excited about it. “California Cuisine” is what Wolfgang Puck scrawled across the first menu at Spago. It’s what Alice Waters has traditionally been called the mother of.

California Cuisine is fresh, simple food, often cooked on a grill. California Cuisine is dishes such as the following:

Grilled Trout Smoked With Bay Leaves

After cleaning the fish, wipe it dry and spread with a mixture of salt, pepper, lemon juice and olive oil. Put it on the grill and burn some laurel leaves under it from time to time so the fish receives all the smoke. Serve with finely chopped green onions and parsley.

In the introduction to his 1986 book “New American Classics,” Jeremiah Tower explains how dishes such as this one came to exist. Sometime in the mid-'70s, when he was chef at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, Tower created a soup made out of locally grown ingredients. “It was American food using French cooking principles,” he exults. “I could not contain my exhilaration over what I beheld as enormous doors of habit swung open onto a whole new vista . . . the restaurant and I--and several others--were never the same again.”


Tower concludes his discussion of this nascent movement by saying, “I have gone on to develop a style of cooking which . . . has become a new American classic.”

How new? Well, in her 1983 book, “The Cuisine of California,” Diane Rossen Worthington claimed to offer the “first definition of California Cuisine.” She explained that it borrowed from French, Italian, Mexican and Chinese cuisines, as well as from the foods of Japan and the Middle East. She noted that there were three main principles: brief cooking, an emphasis on freshness and an eclectic interpretation of regional ingredients. She said that grilling was “the signature of the California Cuisine movement.” And she stressed that the movement was “still in its formative stage.”

Apparently, Worthington never read the books of Helen Evans Brown. In “California Cooks,” Brown wrote that " . . . California Cuisine, like everything Californian, is a fast-growing cuisine. We believe that the more it is nurtured, and pampered and appreciated, the better the chance it has of becoming the greatest cuisine in the world. It won’t be long now.” That was in 1946.

But Brown wasn’t the first to notice the use of simple, fresh, locally grown food cooked on a grill either. Even earlier, in 1933, cookbook author Genevieve Callahan wrote about California as a “way of life” and went on to talk about grilling and using all the fresh ingredients grown in the state. Californians, she said, “like to substitute informality for formality, imagination for elaboration, flavor for fussiness.”

But Callahan wasn’t first either. The truth is, California Cuisine has been around since the Gold Rush brought money and adventure into a place blessed with one of the greatest growing climates in the world. As long as there have been people in California, they have been eating well.

“California Cuisine,” says Dan Strehl of the Los Angeles Public Library, “has been here as long as a printed record of cooks has been here.” Strehl should know--just about every existing book on the subject has passed through his hands; the library’s Rare Book Collection offers an astonishing look at the history of California Cuisine.

Consider, for example, the recipe for grilled trout listed above. The recipe, 100 years old, comes from the first cookbook printed in Spanish in California--"El Cocinero Espanol.” (The book was published in 1898 and is only now being translated, for the first time, by Strehl.)

“Visitors from other parts of the country frequently ask, ‘Why do your green salads have so much more character than the ones we usually get back home?’ ” mused an early author.

“The answer to that query,” she continued, “is the greater variety of salad greens used here. In addition to head lettuce and garden leaf lettuce, such other greens as long-leafed romaine, ruffly escarole, feathery chicory, curly endive and delicate oak-leaf lettuce are included in the California green salad. Other parts of the answer are: our more common use of wine vinegars (frequently herb-flavored); of garlic, chives and green onions; of coarse-ground black pepper; of minced fresh herbs from the garden.”

The quality of ingredients, as Callahan noted in that quote from the ‘40s, is one of the first things that makes California Cuisine special. But salad--the hallmark of the new California cuisine--has always typified California cooking. As early as 1883, Clayton’s Quaker Cookbook, printed in San Francisco, was offering a recipe for a “Celebrated California Salad Dressing.”

And don’t think that salad referred to plain old leaves of iceberg; early cookbooks talk about all manner of fruits and vegetables we now think of as exotic. Radicchio, the trendiest “new” lettuce of the ‘80s, is casually mentioned in a San Francisco cookbook of the ‘30s. Another recipe book of the early ‘30s gives recipes for most of the fruits we now think of as new and exotic: cactus fruit, cherimoya, feijoa, guava, jujube, lychee, loquat, mango, papaya and passion fruit.

Herbs have been another important part of the food revolution of the ‘70s and ‘80s. But they’re not new to California cooking. Almost 50 years ago Helen Evans Brown was writing, “Herbs have come into their own.”

Why? According to Brown, ". . . the war did it. Until that time, commercial herb farms were almost nonexistent. But when the shooting started and the imports of herbs and spices stopped, the wail set up by U.S. gastronomes was heard in California. We grew them!”

Californians grew everything--but there was more to native cooking than good fresh ingredients: There was the way the ingredients were used. California cooks learned about grilling from the Mexicans, and they have always understood that food tastes best when it takes of itself.

While other Americans were cooking the life out of food, Californians were undercooking everything that came into the kitchen. If you think we owe the notion of undercooked meat and vegetables to Nouvelle Cuisine, listen to Helen Evans Brown in 1952: “I do hope that those who shudder at the sight of blood will someday close their eyes and taste wild duck rarer than they think they like it.” She also gave a recipe for wild geese that would look perfectly appropriate in any modern cookbook:

“Like wild ducks, wild geese are preferred cooked rare by those who know. A hot oven and 35 minutes in it is recommended. . . . Prunes are good with wild goose, particularly if soaked overnight in red wine or brandy, and if you want a rare delicacy, soak the breast of a wild goose in a light brine, herb flavored, then smoke it for three days.”

And while pasta al dente may be the cry of the ‘90s, as early as the ‘40s Brown was offering recipes for spaghetti olio e aglio and pleading with her readers to cook the pasta alla dente.

It’s not surprising that Brown was using Italian cooking terms: California has always prided itself on its cosmopolitan cooking. Turn-of-the-century cookbooks casually offer recipes for risotto and cassoulet, and one 1908 book offers a recipe for Rose Salad containing figs, roses, almonds, honey and Chartreuse, with the off-hand remark, “This salad was given to me by a member of the Sultan’s household.”

“No people in the world live faster or more sumptuously than the people of San Francisco,” wrote one critic in 1853. In those days vegetables and fruits were shipped from the Sandwich Islands; butter, cheese and eggs from New York; and cured foods from China. Ice was towed down from Alaska. By the turn of the century there was hardly any food you couldn’t find on the Barbary Coast. Meanwhile, Los Angeles was not exactly dying of hunger. “There is no other city in whose households are in vogue so many varieties of cookery from so many lands and localities,” wrote Charles F. Lummis in the “Landmarks Club Cook Book” in 1903.

Early cookbooks from both San Francisco and Los Angeles are filled with references to foods from all over the world. One 1907 cookbook “for epicures” has recipes for tamales, macaroni a la Rossini and “zabajone” ( zabaglione ), and by the time the ‘30s rolled around, Californians were happily eating foods that the rest of the country wouldn’t discover for another 40 years. Restaurant reviews in the San Francisco News in the early ‘30s are a revelation. Those of us who think of sushi as a ‘70s food will be interested to learn that critic Ruth Thompson ". . . ate seaweed and raw fish and enjoyed them,” and went on to give her readers precise directions for eating sashimi.

What’s the single trendiest dish on the new California menu? Gourmet pizza made in an open kitchen. It’s hardly new. Here’s Thompson writing about pizza in the San Francisco News in the very early ‘30s:

“When the order is given, the chef takes one of the rounds, places it on the marble slab and, scattering flour over it, he begins beating it flat with both hands. Then he picks it up and with thumbs and index fingers he tears it flatter and then beats it again. . . . All conversation must cease during this rite, for one’s voice cannot be heard above those energetic slaps. He next places the remaining ingredients over the dough in the big, round pan, puts the pan on a long wooden shovel, and flinging open the oven door he places it beside the fire blazing within.”

Does the critic like it? “It is,” she concludes, “very tasty.”

The same critic spent some time in a restaurant called Ruth’s Health Food Store discussing the “infinite possibilities” of soy beans with the chef. They can, enthuses the critic, be made into bread, muffins, cookies, puddings, milk and oil. She gives a few tips on healthy eating and then tells her readers about a wonderful dessert . . . made from soybeans. “I ate--and enjoyed--a dish of three-flavored ice cream,” she says. “It is non-fattening, made of a mixture of soy bean milk and honey.”

But California has more than tofu, climate and curiosity to recommend its cuisine. California has one enormous advantage over the other regional cuisines of the country. California has the movies.

“California Cuisine,” explained Brown in 1946, “is as cosmopolitan as any in the world. . . . The Spaniards brought dishes from Europe and S. America; the Indians contributed their native lore; the ‘49ers who came from everywhere, brought recipes from everywhere. The Chinese gave of their best, and the early wine growers brought not only their knowledge of viticulture but that of gastronomy, for those who have an appreciation of fine wines invariably know their foods. But it is the movies, ‘The Industry,’ that is setting a new style in dining.”

Hollywood, Brown believed, brought drama into the kitchen. As evidence she offered a swell new dish called “ironed bread.” To make it you take fresh thin-sliced white bread, trim the crusts, put two slices together and cut them in circles or oblongs. You then take a hot iron and iron one side of the bread, exerting enough pressure to flatten it. When it is brown and shiny, you do the same to the other side. Then you slip a small sharp knife between the two slices and work back and forth, creating a pocket which you fill with any sort of sandwich filling before sealing the edges with a hot iron. Your guests, of course, will be amused, puzzled and delighted.

Brown also spent time talking to the chefs who catered to the stars. From Chef Francois Rogalle, of The Players on Sunset Strip (current site of Roxbury), she brought her readers a recipe for a dramatically different Turkey Diable.

It’s easy to see how the movies helped usher in the age of the celebrity chef. It was a short leap from the drama of the star-studded restaurants of the ‘30s and the ironed bread of the ‘40s to the dramatics of the open kitchens of the ‘80s. And once you’ve given the chef a stage, he quickly becomes a Personality. It’s no accident that the archetypal California Celebrity Chef, Wolfgang Puck, runs the Tinseltown restaurant most beloved by the stars.

That theory makes a lot of sense--until you consider Victor. Victor did not work in an open kitchen. Victor predates “the industry.” Victor was a San Francisco chef. And Victor was every bit as famous as Wolfgang.

“Travelers who come to San Francisco may ask, ‘Who is the mayor?’ ‘Who is the governor?’ or ‘What is the great street of Frisco?’ ” wrote the author of “L’Art Culinaire,” which was published in 1910. “But they never ask, ‘Who is the chef at the Hotel St. Francis?’ They know.

“They begin talking about Victor as soon as they leave Oakland. They keep it up after they leave. They go where they came from and tell all whom they know of Victor. So gradually, everywhere, everyone is getting to know Victor.”

Victor Hirtzler remains famous--even today, many people know that he invented Celery Victor. Wolfgang Puck will probably remain famous too.

But if history is any guide, in another 30 years or so, somebody’s going to discover California Cuisine all over again.

These recipes--old and new--were chosen because they represent some aspect of California Cuisine. Many of them come from articles Helen Brown wrote in the ‘40s in “The Californian.”

Brown, who was probably the first to use the term “California Cuisine” was married to Philip Brown, who had what he calls “a passion for books.” The two had a great collection of old cookbooks, including most of the books that the recipes below were drawn from. Helen Brown was also a great collector of recipes; Philip Brown says that she went “chasing up and down the coast” collecting them for “Helen Brown’s West Coast Cook Book” which was published in 1952.

The book, annotated by Philip Brown, was reissued this year by Knopf. It’s a wonderful book filled with recipes that you’ll have a hard time believing were written in the ‘50s. And it’s certainly the best argument for California Cuisine that has ever been published.

“What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking,” the first cookbook published by an African-American in California, was printed in 1881. This probably isn’t a California recipe, but it was so unusual that I couldn’t help copying it down. When we tested the recipe, we found it so delicious that I had to include it here.


1/2 pound unpeeled apples, grated

1/2 pound Monterey Jack, grated

1 tablespoon sugar

1 cup milk

4 eggs

Dash ground nutmeg

1 tablespoon butter, cut in pieces

Place grated apples in cheesecloth and squeeze dry. Place in bowl and mix with cheese. Stir in sugar and milk.

Beat eggs lightly in separate bowl. Add to apple mixture. Blend well. Season with nutmeg.

Pour into greased 9-inch pie plate or 1-quart baking dish. Dot with butter. Bake at 350 degrees until set and puffy in center, 20 to 30 minutes. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

215 calories; 228 mg sodium; 237 g cholesterol; 16 g fat; 7 g carbohydrates; 11 g protein; .5 g fiber; 67% calories from fat.

This is a real native dish; it dates back to the last century, and its origins are unknown. Some historians say it was invented by Portuguese fishermen, others that it was an Italian fisherman in San Francisco’s Fishermen’s Wharf who first cooked the dish. One thing nobody argues about is how good it is. This is Helen Evans Brown’s recipe.


1/2 cup olive oil

1 teaspoon minced garlic

1 cup chopped onion

1 cup chopped green onions

1/2 cup minced green pepper

1 (8-ounce) can tomato sauce

1 (28-ounce) can whole tomatoes

2 cups red wine

1/2 cup minced parsley

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground oregano

1/4 teaspoon crushed dried basil

1 1/2 pounds firm-fleshed fish, cubed

1/2 pound raw shrimp, shelled

1 large crab, cleaned and cracked

1 dozen clams

Heat olive oil in skillet. Add and saute garlic, onion, green onions and green pepper. Add tomato sauce, tomatoes, wine, 1/4 cup minced parsley, salt, pepper, oregano and basil. Cook 5 minutes.

Arrange fish, shrimp and crab in layers in big casserole or pot. Add sauce, cover, and cook on low heat or in 350-degree oven 30 minutes or until fish is cooked. Add clams, and, as soon as open, sprinkle over remaining 1/4 cup parsley. Serve in casserole or tureen. Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

476 calories; 1,039 mg sodium; 110 g cholesterol; 22 g fat; 15 g carbohydrates; 41 g protein; 1.3 g fiber; 42% calories from fat.

Encarnacion Pinedo, who wrote “El Cocinero Espanol” in 1898, was a remarkably sophisticated cook. In addition to recipes we would think of as Spanish (salt cod in tomato), and Mexican (sweet tamales; stuffed chiles with walnut sauce), her book offers recipes using truffles and pate de foie gras. And yet the bulk of her recipes are simple, sophisticated--and perfect for modern life. This is one of those.

(We’ve printed the original recipe, but it needs adjusting. Be sure to read the note following the recipe.)


1 1/4 pounds pork chops (4 chops)

Salt, pepper

1/2 pound mushrooms

1 medium onion, chopped

1/4 cup minced parsley

2 tablespoons basil, minced

1 cup white wine

1/2 cup hot water

Heat non-stick skillet and sear pork chops until golden brown. Turn several times, seasoning both sides to taste with salt and pepper.

Remove chops. Reheat drippings and cook mushrooms, onion, parsley, 1 tablespoon basil, wine and hot water. Return chops to pan and cover with sauce. Cover pan and simmer until chops are tender, 35 to 45 minutes. Uncover last 15 minutes of cooking to reduce liquid. Garnish with remaining 1 tablespoon of basil. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Because pork is now a lot leaner than it was at the turn of the century, it’s likely that you will have few drippings left in skillet after the chops are seared. We added 1 tablespoon olive oil in place of the drippings. You may also want to add an additional 1 tablespoon olive oil before searing the chops.

Each serving contains about:

900 calories; 612 mg sodium; 247 g cholesterol; 60 g fat; 5 g carbohydrates; 71 g protein; .5 g fiber; 60% calories from fat.

“It’s fun! It’s delicious! It’s a thrill!” exclaimed restaurant critic Ruth Thompson when she told her San Francisco readers about sukiyaki in the ‘30s. She consumed hers in the real Japanese fashion, dipping the cooked food into a raw egg before eating it. Helen Evans Brown, who included this recipe in the “West Coast Cookbook,” suggests the same--and also suggests that sake would be the appropriate beverage.


1 1/2 pounds round steak

3 tablespoons oil

1 bunch green onions, including some green parts, cut in thin shreds

1/4 cup soy sauce or to taste

1/2 cup water or stock

1 teaspoon sugar

1/2 cup sliced mushrooms

1/2 cup shredded bamboo shoots or celery

1 pound tofu, cut in cubes, optional

Cooked rice

Cut round steak in thin slices or shreds. Heat oil in wok or skillet over high heat. Cook beef lightly 4 to 5 minutes.

Add green onions, soy sauce, water and sugar. Cook 3 minutes. Add mushrooms and bamboo shoots. Keep vegetables in separate piles.

Cook another 3 minutes. Add tofu. Cook only until hot. Serve with steamed rice. Makes 6 servings.

Each serving contains about:

333 calories; 750 mg sodium; 74 g cholesterol; 25 g fat; 3.6 g carbohydrates; 24 g protein; .5 g fiber; 67% calories from fat.

Helen Evans Brown first offered this recipe in the ‘40s in “California Cooks.” By the time she wrote “The West Coast Cookbook” in 1952, she was calling the dip “guacamole.” But you may want to omit the dip altogether--these home-made Fritos are really wonderful.


1 cup boiling water

7/8 cup cornmeal

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 1/2 tablespoons melted butter

Mix boiling water, cornmeal, salt and melted butter in bowl. Drop from teaspoon onto buttered baking sheet. Flatten to 1/8 inch with spatula dipped in ice water to make 3x2-inch rectangle.

Bake at 350 degrees until lightly brown at edges, 10 to 12 minutes.

Makes 4 1/2 dozen.

Each serving contains about:

9 calories; 26 mg sodium; 1 g cholesterol; .5 g fat; 1 g carbohydrates; .1 g protein; 0 g fiber; 45% calories from fat.

This recipe, from Helen Evans Brown’s “California Cooks,” is one of the few she did not repeat in her “West Coast Cookbook.” Perhaps she thought there were too many steps. I’ve included it because it is not only delicious, but a fine example of the off-beat mixing of ingredients that characterizes California Cuisine.


4 (3-ounce) serving slices cooked turkey breast

Sauce Diable

1 cup fine, soft white bread crumbs

2 tablespoons butter, melted

Salt, pepper

1/2 pineapple, peeled, cored and sliced into 4 pieces

Mustard Sauce

Dip turkey slices into Sauce Diable. Roll in bread crumbs. Drizzle 1/2 teaspoon butter over each side. Season with salt and pepper. Broil until golden, turn to brown second side.

Brush pineapple with 1 tablespoon butter. Broil 4 minutes until golden, turn to brown second side.

Place turkey and pineapple on plate and serve with Mustard Sauce on side. Makes 4 servings.

Note: Garnish with souffled potatoes or French fries and watercress, if desired.

Sauce Diable

1/4 cup oil

Ground white pepper

1/4 teaspoon dry mustard

Mix oil, pepper and mustard until smooth.

Mustard Sauce

1 cup tarragon vinegar

White pepper

3 tablespoons prepared brown sauce

2 tablespoons prepared mustard

1/4 cup melted butter

Mix vinegar with generous amount white pepper. Cook down until reduced to 1/2 cup. Add brown sauce, mustard and butter. Cook gently until blended. Makes about 1 cup.

Each serving contains about:

405 calories; 296 mg sodium; 67 g cholesterol; 35 g fat; 20 g carbohydrates; 8 g protein; 1.3 g fiber; 78% calories from fat.

This is also from “California Cooks,” and it makes a pretty dramatic presentation at a party. Brown ends the recipe by saying "... or would you rather take your Vitamin C in tablet form?”


1 thin-skinned orange

1 lump sugar

1 jigger California brandy

Score orange around middle. Peel back on both ends until you have goblet with peeled orange for stem and inverted orange skins for bowl and base. Place on saucer.

Place sugar in orange cup.

Warm brandy. Set aflame. Pour into orange cup. Let each guest spoon flaming brandy, continuously over inside of goblet until flame goes out.

Drink brandy from cup. Eat orange.

Makes 1 serving.

Rich, easy--and pure California.


1 cup dates, cut up

1 egg

1 cup sour cream

3/4 cup brown sugar, packed

1/2 cup chopped walnuts

1 tablespoon brandy

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Pastry for 2-crust 8-inch pie

Mix dates, egg, sour cream, brown sugar, walnuts, brandy, salt and nutmeg in bowl. Beat until smooth. Turn into unbaked pie shell.

Cover with crisscross strips of pastry. Place on lower rack of oven and bake at 425 degrees 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 325 degrees and cook about 20 minutes more, or until filling is set. Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

572 calories; 309 mg sodium; 42 g cholesterol; 34 g fat; 57 g carbohydrates; 7 g protein; .5 g fiber; 53% calories from fat.

I’ve included this recipe as the single example of modern California cooking for a few reasons. In the first place, it has roots in both the North and the South. In the second place, it shows how enormously complicated California Cuisine is becoming. And in the third place, it’s really delicious.


8 boneless quail, quartered

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

1 teaspoon crushed hot red pepper

Salt, pepper

4 to 5 cups peanut oil for deep frying


Mango Chutney


Port Wine Sauce

Place quail on plate and sprinkle evenly with cilantro and crushed pepper. Lightly season with salt and pepper. Cover and chill.

Heat oil in deep fryer to 350 degrees. Dip quail lightly in Batter. Drop slowly into hot oil, taking care not to splash. Fry until light golden brown, about 4 to 5 minutes.

Divide Salad onto 4 plates. Ladle about 3 ounces Mango Chutney around edge of each plate.

Add quail to saute pan with Port Wine Sauce. Toss well to coat with sauce. Place 2 legs and 2 breasts over each salad. Makes 4 servings.


1 cup rice flour

1 cup water, less 1 teaspoon


White pepper

Combine rice flour and water and mix well. Season well with salt and white pepper and allow to stand.

Note: Batter may be made up to 1 day ahead and refrigerated. Stir well before using.

Mango Chutney

2 cups plum wine

2 cups rice wine vinegar

1 teaspoon finely minced garlic

2 tablespoons finely minced ginger root

1 medium jalapeno chile, stemmed and finely minced

1/2 cup orange juice

3 cups diced peeled mangoes (about 2 large)

1 teaspoon finely chopped chives

1/4 large sweet red pepper, finely diced

Salt, pepper

Combine plum wine and vinegar with garlic, ginger and jalapeno in saucepan. Bring to boil over medium-high heat, simmer until reduced to about 3/4 cup, stirring.

Add orange juice and mangoes. Raise heat to high and bring mixture just to boil. Remove from heat. Add chives and red pepper. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Cool.


4 cups mixed baby greens

1/2 carrot, peeled and cut into fine julienne

1/2 small leek, washed and cut into fine julienne

1/4 small red onion, peeled and cut into fine julienne

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon minced ginger root

1 teaspoon finely minced shallots

2 tablespoons virgin olive oil


White pepper

Wash mixed greens and spin dry. Toss with julienned carrot, leek and red onion. Combine vinegar, ginger, shallots, olive oil and salt and pepper to taste in small bowl and whisk together. Toss with salad.

Port Wine Sauce

2 cups Port wine

1 cup dry red wine

1/2 cup shallots, chopped coarsely

1 tablespoon black peppercorns

1 cup beef broth (low sodium) or light demi-glace

1/2 cup unsalted butter


White pepper

Combine Port, dry red wine, shallots and peppercorns in medium saucepan and bring to boil. Reduce until about 1 cup is left.

Add beef broth or light demi-glace and continue to reduce until sauce begins to thicken slightly. (If canned beef bouillon is used, sauce will not begin to thicken until butter is added.)

Lower heat to bare simmer, then add butter, about 1 tablespoon at time, stirring frequently. Remove from heat. Strain through fine strainer into small saute pan. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Keep warm until ready to serve.

Each serving contains about:

1,087 calories; 368 mg sodium; 62 g cholesterol; 57 g fat; 67 g carbohydrates; 48 g protein; 1.6 g fiber; 47% calories from fat.