Book Review: San Francisco – A Food Biography

SFFoodBIoSan Francisco: A Food Biography, by Erica J. Peters, Rowman and Littlefield (https://rowman.com/), 2013, 242 pages, $38.00

Rarely is history so delicious. Billed as a real urban biography of the “full food culture of a city,” San Francisco: A Food Biography – the second in the Big City Food Biographies Series – is a mouth-watering celebration of the City by the Bay’s epicurean history, resources, and people as told through its markets, restaurants, dishes, and cookbooks. Author Erica J. Peters, director of the Culinary Historians of Northern California, cooks up a tasty tale that begins with the Native American foodways of the indigenous Ohlone people and ends in San Francisco’s celebrated dining rooms and diners.

Recalling the preindustrial landscape upon which San Francisco took root, Peters begins by bringing the golden hills to life with the collection, processing, and preparation of acorns ground, leached, and soaked to prepare puddings eaten with seaweed or clams, or fried into breads and chips; the greens of clover, poppy, miner’s lettuce, columbine, milkweed, and mule ear tossed into salads or steamed and boiled; and the bulbs of Mariposa lily, soaproot, and brodiaea browned or roasted over hot coals. Succulent wild strawberries, cherries, elderberries, manzanita berries, and madrone berries were eaten fresh, cooked into jams, or dried, while the Ohlone foraged far afield following seasonal migrations in search of wild game – sardines, minnows, trout, salmon, sturgeon, black-tailed deer, antelope, quail, beaver, otter, raccoons, squirrels, and rabbits. With such a bounty at their fingertips, the world was their mussel, their clam, and their oyster.

But with the arrival of Mission Era European explorers in 1542 and colonists after 1776, followed by the Gold Rush in 1848, the great mixing pot that is San Francisco today began to stir with the introduction of new cultures and new ingredients. As corn replaced acorns and cattle replaced elk and antelope, the city sprung to life in the Mission lands surrounding Mission San Francisco de Asís (or Mission Dolores). With the Latino ‘Californios’ came roast beef, frijoles (beans), enchiladas, and tamales. Next came the African Americans who introduced southern-comfort okra, collared greens, and black-eyed peas. The French introduced champagne, caviar, French bread, and cornichons. And the Chinese brought to the table bamboo shoots, shark’s fins, rice liquor, and chop-suey. With every nationality that stumbled off a ship or wagon train came a pantry of ingredients and a menu to suit.

Although every city is certainly molded by its denizens, Peters is careful to illustrate how California’s particular history carefully shaped San Francisco’s culinary trajectory. It seems inconceivable to imagine a time when San Franciscans looked down on French and Chinese cuisine, but such was the case in the city’s formative years when citizens believed the dishes’ sauces were there to disguise inferior ingredients. As neighborhoods ebbed and flowed with Russian, Jewish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and Irish immigrants in tune to World Wars or Prohibition, so too did their restaurants, markets, bakeries, grocers, and butchers. And while certain ethnicities had to struggle more than others to make ends meet as restauranteurs selling the taste of their home countries, others strayed away from their cultural traditions and instead adopted the traditional ‘American’ fare. Nowhere is this clash of culture and cuisine better realized than in San Francisco’s restaurants, recipes, and cookbooks, which Peters mines for their telling histories to reveal the steaming, broiling, simmering, charred underbelly of our favorite haunts and digs, from the Poodle Dog Restaurant to the Cliff House.

In her role as culinary historian, Peters is the perfect guide to San Francisco’s greasy spoons and gourmet grottoes. Whether you’re a history buff or a food saveur, whether you’re a fan of It’s-It ice cream or a Rice-a-Roni junky, San Francisco: A Food Biography is sure to feed the foodie in you.

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