Fusion: The California Birthright

Russ Parsons is a columnist in The Times' Food section

WE ARE THE FOODIES OF THE NEW FRONTIER. WE WILL GO ANYWHERE and eat anything. We have rejected the stodgy foods of our fathers and embraced a lifestyle of gustatory hedonism. We are Californians, the originators of fusion food and the seekers of every oddball fruit or vegetable on the planet.

Don't you just want to slap us sometimes?

If you read the papers, you'd think the current generation of Californians is the first to shop at a farmers market, visit an ethnic restaurant or follow a bit of improvisation while cooking. Not to put a damper on today's food lovers--childlike enthusiasm is such a wonderful thing--but it's important to give credit where it's due. Some of your parents and even grandparents were foodies long before you slurped your first hand-thrown Chinese noodle.

An appreciation for the good things in life--or at least those parts of it that are edible--seems to be a birthright for every Californian. Far from a modern fad, the roots of our food obsession can be found almost as far back as you care to look. The 1905 "Los Angeles Times Cook Book No. 2," which featured recipes from prominent turn-of-the-century Angelenos, included an entire chapter of "Old-Time California, Spanish and Mexican Dishes." Sunset magazine, that bible of the California lifestyle, was running recipes for pit-baking meat wrapped in banana leaves back in the 1930s. And what would you call Trader Vic's but an early outpost of fusion cuisine?

Even in the postwar era--a time we now think of as belonging strictly to Ozzie and Harriet, bland suburbs and white bread suppers--there was an enthusiastic embracing of the kitchen arts. Consider the evidence left behind by Genevieve Callahan and Helen Evans Brown, both cookbook writers and Californians--the former if not by birth, then certainly by avocation.

Callahan was born in Iowa in 1897. After attending Iowa State, an early-century hotbed of home economics, she became one of the first editors at Better Homes and Gardens, based in Des Moines (it had just changed its name from Fruit, Garden and Home). She came west in 1928 when Sunset publisher Larry Lane lured her and co-editor Lou Richardson to help run his newly purchased magazine. After putting out the first of several Sunset cookbooks, Callahan published her own, "The California Cook Book," in 1946. It was intended, she wrote, to provide "not only the recipes of the region, but also the way of living and entertaining that is typical of California, the background and traditions of California hospitality and the recipes and menus that our various foreign groups have contributed to the California dining table."

At a time that we now think of as belonging to the canned soup casserole crowd, Callahan highlights cooking from a surprising number of ethnic groups. You might expect Mexican, Chinese, Italian and French (yes, in the '40s, French was an ethnic cuisine). But there are Armenian, Danish, Filipino, Indian and Syrian recipes as well. It is a collection as diverse and chatty and definitively Californian as any William Saroyan novel.

Her recipe for Syrian stuffed eggplant, Callahan wrote, came from "a friendly Western Union operator who liked the sound of a recipe I was describing in a wire to Good Housekeeping and who offered this one in exchange for a copy of mine." Essentially eggplant stuffed with lamb, pine nuts and goat cheese, it sounds remarkably like something that might have been served at the old City restaurant on La Brea when it was in its boundary-busting prime.

Brown cast her net even wider--and deeper. A native Pasadenan born in 1904, she is somewhat better known today than Callahan, largely because of her long friendship with James Beard. They wrote "The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery" together in 1955 and some of their correspondence from that period was collected in the 1994 book "Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles."

"Helen Brown's West Coast Cook Book," published in 1952, is one of the classic American regional cookbooks. The recipes are well-chosen, but more than that, it is gracefully written, well-researched and opinionated in all the right places--even though she didn't seem to have the same familiar ease with cooks from different ethnic groups as Callahan had. Her tendency to write things such as, "Japanese food has never attained the popularity that has Chinese, but there are many of their dishes that we like tremendously," is somewhat jarring after Callahan, who always seemed to write as if she were sharing recipes with a next-door neighbor. But Brown's knowledge of diverse cuisines and her sense of taste are undeniably deeper.

While Callahan was the cook down the street passing recipes over the back fence, Brown was the studious type who spent her time dining at obscure restaurants and delving into old cookbooks (she and husband Phillip Brown were also important antiquarian book dealers, and "West Coast Cook Book" concludes with a five-page bibliography).

In describing bunuelos (Mexican fritters), she quoted from an early California historical account: "Women sent them to friends at Christmas time and often, for a joke, would fill them with cotton wool." Of a chicken and watercress soup, she wrote: "Quite obviously Chinese and quite obviously good only if the stock is rich with chicken." Granted, most of Brown and Callahan's recipes aren't what we would demand today from an ethnic cookbook. Chinese recipes tended to be dishes such as egg foo young, chop suey and sweet-and-sour spareribs; Mexican fare was guacamole and chiles rellenos.

But compare these two works to cookbooks of the same period from anyplace else in the country, and that seems like a nitpick. The openness is more important than the authenticity.

The interest in what their neighbors were cooking was not the only place these authors were ahead of the curve. On close reading, both books reveal a wealth of raw ingredients that would make today's cooks envious. If California is now a food lover's paradise, it must have been an absolute heaven in the '40s and '50s. There are recipes for vegetables that are sometimes difficult to find even at our best farmers markets: salsify, purple-red Venetian cauliflower and fresh cranberry beans. Fruits include exotica such as cherimoyas, feijoas, loquats and various types of guavas, while even the more common are enjoyed with lip-smacking relish.

Consider the persimmon, perhaps the archetypal California fall fruit: "I purchase [them] when they are hard so that I can enjoy their full beauty before they reach the eating stage," Brown wrote. "I arrange them lovingly in a huge shallow bowl and give them a place of honor on the dining table. I watch them change their color, soften, reach that degree of transparency and utter ripeness at which they are at their very best. And then, when they've become of more than passing interest to the fruit flies, I throw them, ever so reluctantly, into the garbage can."

Fruits and vegetables are just the beginning. The books also present the full range of California's seafood--from rock cod to sand dabs, halibut and salmon, as well as assorted crabs, shrimp and clams. ("In shellfish, as in some other features--temperatures, altitudes, and redwood trees, for example--California rather runs to extremes," Callahan wrote.) There's even a prescient elegy for the abalone. Commenting on new laws prohibiting out-of-state shipment of the tasty gastropod, Brown wrote in 1952: "[They're] designed to keep these delectable shellfish from going the way of the great auk. We weren't always so smart." Among the recipes is one from a Los Angeles restaurant called Paul's Duck Press: abalone stuffed with lobster tail, shrimp and crab meat bound with a cream sauce.

California was apparently a cornucopia of game as well, and not today's farm-raised stuff, either. Under "Game" in Callahan's index, there's the note "See also Duck, Goose, Pheasant, Quail, Rabbit, Venison." But it's Brown who really went all out. She covered preparations for everything from elk and wild boar to wild turkey and sage hen: "Delicate if it's cleaned the minute it's shot; otherwise the flavor of sage becomes so unbearably strong that it tastes as if it has been cooked by an herbiculturist."

Nostalgia is a trap laid for the willing, especially here in California and especially when it comes to food. We must be careful not to romanticize a time that most of us can't know except by hearsay. At the same time, one of the pleasures of reading old books is the way they allow us to see our own time more clearly. And in this case, that means being reminded not only of what we've gained but also of what we have lost.

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Recipes adapted from "Helen Brown's West Coast Cook Book," by Helen Evans Brown (Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1952)

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ESTOFADA

SERVES 6 to 8

Brown says, "The early Californians liked their stews highly seasoned, but the American ladies who adopted their dishes often kept their names but not their seasonings. This comes from a cookbook written in the 1880s, and is typical. It says, 'Use two pounds of beef ribs or mutton. A chicken is best."'

3 pounds stew meat

1/4 cup lard

2 medium onions, quartered

2 green peppers, quartered

1 clove garlic, crushed

1/2 teaspoon dried thyme

2 tablespoons cider vinegar

1/2 cup raisins

1/2 cup California pitted green olives, with juice

1 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, roughly chopped

4 slices toast, torn into 1/2-inch pieces

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

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Brown the meat. Using the lard, brown onions, green peppers, garlic, thyme, vinegar, raisins, olives and tomatoes. Add toast for thickening. Simmer in a covered pot for about 11/2 hours. Season with salt and pepper.

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NOTE: Two other Mexican dishes, olla podrida and sancocho, were also popular with the early Californians. The former, named after the olla, or clay pot in which it was cooked, was a wondrous stew of meats and vegetables, with as many variations as an Irish stew. It was made of beef or mutton, sometimes poultry and game, chickpeas or beans, and vegetables, and usually had some chorizo added. The sancocho was also of meat, and had potatoes, corn, and other vegetables included. It was probably just another olla podrida.

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BUNUELOS

MAKES 6 to 8

Brown says there are many kinds. "One is a crisp little rosette, light as a rose petal that is made on an iron resembling a Swedish timbale iron. Another, also deep-fried, is a puffy bit of nothing, often served with a cinnamon-flavored syrup, or with honey for dessert. This same fritter, without the syrup, makes a spectacular and utterly delicious hot bread, a sort of Mexican popover." It is important when cooking these fritters to pat them with a spatula so they keep submerged in the hot oil and puff the way they should.

11/2 cups flour

1/2 teaspoon salt

11/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 quart oil

1 egg

water

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Sift flour with salt and baking powder. Work oil into the mixture, make a hole in the middle and drop in the egg. Mix well and add enough water to make a stiff dough. Roll very thin and cut in diamonds or squares, or roll the dough in balls and pat out thin with the palms of the hands. Fry in oil at 400 degrees, submerging bunuelos and releasing to encourage puffing. The bunuelos will puff up and become crisp. Serve hot for breakfast or lunch. These are sometimes called sopaipillas.

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Recipes adapted from "The California Cook Book," by Genevieve Callahan, (M. Barrows & Co., New York, 1946)

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SYRIAN STUFFED EGGPLANT

SERVES 6 to 8

This is the recipe that Callahan got from the friendly Western Union operator. It is a surprisingly authentic and complex dish for the time. Before boiling the whole eggplant, remove the calyx (the green cap).

3/4 pound lamb shoulder, cut in small cubes

4 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 cup uncooked rice

1 large eggplant (or 2 small ones)

1 clove garlic, minced

1 small onion, minced

2 tablespoons diced green pepper

1/4 cup pine nuts

1 roma tomato, peeled and diced

salt, celery salt and pepper

a tiny sprinkle of cinnamon

1/4 - 1/2 cup red table wine

1 cup crumbled goat cheese or 1/2 cup grated parmesan

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Brown lamb slowly in olive oil in a heavy skillet. (If uncooked meat is used, cover after browning and let it braise until tender.) Meanwhile, boil the rice tender and set aside about 15 minutes. Parboil the whole eggplant for 15 minutes in boiling salted water. Then cut eggplant in half lengthwise and hollow out, leaving a shell about 1/4-inch thick. Set aside the removed part.

When the meat is well browned and tender, add garlic, onion and green pepper. Braise until almost brown. Add rice. Then add pine nuts, tomato and eggplant. Season to taste with salt, celery salt, pepper and a sprinkle of cinnamon. Stir in red wine to make a loose mixture. Fill eggplant shells with mixture, spread cheese over the top and bake in an uncovered 8-inch-square baking pan at 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes. Slide under broiler to brown the top lightly.

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CHINATOWN SPARERIBS

SERVES 4

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This recipe from Callahan could be a poster child for mid-century Western misconceptions about Asian cooking. Still, everyone who tried it in our Test Kitchen liked it, albeit in a somewhat apologetic way. Callahan notes that the ribs should be cut into 2-inch lengths.

2 pounds spareribs

1 tablespoon peanut oil or pork fat

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1/4 cup cold water

1 cup pineapple juice (drained from 20-ounce can of pineapple chunks in juice)

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 bouillon cube

1/4 cup boiling water

1/4 cup diced onions

3/4 cup canned pineapple chunks

3/4 cup diced carrot

3/4 cup diced green pepper

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Separate ribs, place in boiling salted water and simmer 1 hour, covered, or until tender. Drain. Brown ribs slowly in oil. Mix sugar, cornstarch and salt. Stir in vinegar, cold water, pineapple juice and soy sauce. Add bouillon cube dissolved in boiling water. Add this mixture to ribs and cook, stirring constantly, until the sauce is translucent. Add onion, pineapple, carrot and green pepper. Cover and cook until vegetables are tender but still crisp. Serve with rice or fried noodles.

For The Record Los Angeles Times Wednesday July 10, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 10 inches; 382 words Type of Material: Correction Bunuelos recipe--The recipe for bunuelos, or Mexican fritters, that accompanied "Fusion: The California Birthright" in the Los Angeles Times Magazine on June 23 omitted 2 tablespoons of lard from the ingredient list. The lard--not the oil, as indicated in the recipe--is incorporated into the mixture before the egg is added. The oil is later used to fry the bunuelos. * For The Record Los Angeles Times Sunday July 21, 2002 Home Edition Times Sunday Magazine Part ..PG: 7 Page 7 ..CF: Y 23 inches; 842 words Type of Material: Correction The recipe for bunuelos, or Mexican fritters, that accompanied "Fusion: The California Birthright" (June 23) omitted 2 tablespoons of lard from the ingredient list. The lard--not the oil, as indicated in the recipe--is incorporated into the mixture before the egg is added. The oil is later used to fry the bunuelos.
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