Long before Rick Bayless, the Too Hot Tamales and even Diana Kennedy, there was another teacher and cookbook writer who introduced authentic Mexican food to a wider American audience. Though she is all but unknown today, at the turn of the 20th century a remarkable woman named Bertha Haffner-Ginger not only learned how to cook Mexican favorites but also packed lecture halls nationwide and published a cookbook sharing her knowledge, whetting the country’s appetite for a cuisine that wouldn’t travel outside of the borderlands in earnest until the 1950s.
And she got her start at the Los Angeles Times.
Haffner-Ginger was hired by the newspaper in 1912 to head the inaugural Times School of Domestic Science, an institute the paper devoted to the art of teaching the region how to cook via test kitchens, classrooms and hands-on training. She lectured weekly on subjects ranging from French techniques to baking, dairy to poultry, in an auditorium in the Times’ then-new office building. From there, she took her show on the road, touring the country teaching.
Among her most popular topics: Mexican cooking. “An announcement that my lesson for the day would be Spanish dishes invariably brought record-breaking crowds in any city in the United States,” she claimed in the introduction to her “California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book,” published in 1914.
At first glance, Haffner-Ginger was a most unlikely candidate for the job. She was born in Virginia in 1868, but little else is known about her early life. Newspaper accounts from the early 1900s paint her as the era’s Martha Stewart, someone who traveled across the country preaching the gospel of better housekeeping, who won medals at the St. Louis World’s Fair and who lectured at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the same extravaganza that introduced chili con carne and tamales on a mass scale to the world.
She first arrived to Los Angeles in 1911 as part of a West Coast tour and started to work regularly for the paper the next year. Haffner-Ginger, The Times wrote, “has been responsible for improving the domestic harmony of many a household.”
Her “discovery” of Mexican food could be described as serendipitous. The newspaper’s offices in downtown Los Angeles were not far from Sonoratown, the city’s historical Mexican core, nowadays the area around Olvera Street. One day in April 1913, Haffner-Ginger decided to stroll through the neighborhood and take in her new city. She walked into Elías & Guzman, a tortilla factory on 618 San Fernando partly owned by Arturo Elías Calles, a former Mexican consul (and half-brother of future Mexican President Plutarco Elías Calles).
There’s no plaque commemorating the chance meeting — in fact there’s no building and San Fernando is now Spring Street — but Haffner-Ginger’s visit set into motion the birth of the Mexican cookbook and cooking class industry in the United States.
At Elías & Guzman, Haffner-Ginger watched a dozen women making fresh tortillas, enchiladas and tamales, and the sight so delighted her that she asked the owners if one of their workers could demonstrate tortilla making for her American public.
A large crowd gathered the following day at Haffner-Ginger’s class to see “this simple method of primitive cooking that held sway here before the Gringoes [sic] came,” The Times enthused.
An idea had been planted. In 1914, Haffner-Ginger published her 96-page cookbook. Nearly a century later, “California Mexican-Spanish Cook Book” stands as a valuable artifact of Mexican cooking in California. It includes a glossary of food terms and the first-ever documented recipe and photo for tacos in the United States, although Haffner-Ginger called for sealing the edges of the folded tortilla with egg, then deep-frying it and covering it with salsa.
And in an era when most Americans still referred to Mexican dishes as Spanish, Haffner-Ginger preached the opposite, noting, “It is not generally known that Spanish dishes as they are known in California are really Mexican Indian dishes.”
Of course, fascinating as it might be, to modern readers there is also much that seems silly and patronizing. The cover features an improbable pastiche of a Mission Revival mansion on the Pacific coast, palm and pine trees flourishing in the sand. The pages mix laughable illustrations (a drawing of decrepit Indians with the caption “The mission of the old padres was to make life brighter for such as these”) with pictures of “types” of “Spanish” people — dancers from Casa Verdugo (one of the last Californio restaurants in Los Angeles), brides and musicians. Nonetheless the “California Mexican-Spanish Cookbook” is a critical link in the evolution of Mexican food in the United States. No longer would Americans have to rely on visits to restaurants when they wanted Mexican food; now they could cook it at home.
Haffner-Ginger disappeared into our historical ether shortly after her magnum opus. She died in obscurity, in an Orange County nursing home, in 1963 and was buried at Forest Lawn in Glendale.
In this city where history plowed over in the name of Progress is our most-lasting religion, Haffner-Ginger’s present-day obscurity isn’t surprising. Yet perhaps some historical society or civic group can commission a marker, pick a parking spot at random in the Olvera Street lot where 618 San Fernando once stood and host a grand fiesta around it. It’s the least we can do for a woman who set us on a Mexican food path we’ve never strayed from.
Gustavo Arellano is the editor of OC Weekly and author of “Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America,” out April 10.