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California Cuisine 1920

November 01, 1990|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the '20s and '30s--as for most of the last hundred years--Los Angeles was full of people who hadn't been born here. Most of L.A.'s newcomers were from the Midwest, and the current idea of food was largely Midwestern.

For instance, if you were rich or famous (or the celebrities considered you interesting enough), you might be invited to join the Breakfast Club, which gathered Wednesday mornings to have breakfast outdoors on Riverside Drive. Meetings had some of the sociable paraphernalia of a Midwestern businessmen's fraternity: a symbolic Buried Hatchet, a Golden Ruler and so on. There might be 300 breakfasters singing songs like "Ham and Eggs" (tune: "Tammany"):

Ham and Eggs, Ham and Eggs

I like mine fried good and brown

I like mine fried upside down

Ham and Eggs, Ham and Eggs

Flip 'em! Flop 'em! Flop 'em! Flip 'em!

Ham and Eggs!

Perhaps the Breakfast Club showed an emerging casual California lifestyle, but the ham and eggs do not have the unique regional associations of, say, fried scrapple or red beans and rice. The fast-growing city couldn't be said to have a culinary style of its own.

Any tendency toward distinctiveness would also have had to fight the cultural leveling--call it the spread of a new vernacular culture if you prefer--that was going on all over America at the time. It was partly due to what people called "the servant problem." At the turn of the century, comfortable middle-class households always had servants, and live-in maids were commonplace even way out west in Los Angeles. By the mid-'20s, though, domestic workers rarely lived with their employers. They were no longer maids of all work but "cleaning ladies," and from now on middle-class women would have to do their own cooking.

Because of the need to make things easy for the servantless housewife--and the new phenomenon of the career woman--a cuisine arose, as if by magic, based on convenience foods, above all canned goods. This was the era when tables not only throughout Los Angeles but throughout America served identical seven-can casseroles, accompanied by Jell-O salads made with canned fruits and marshmallows, followed by Grape Nuts pudding.

Fortunately, the gas range became common right at this time. As Sunset Magazine observed in 1920, no longer did families dread the words "We had a bad bake day," meaning that the cook hadn't been able to get the temperature right in one of the old-fashioned charcoal-burning ovens. The '20s went wild for souffles, which had been unthinkable for a home cook before the gas oven.

Local food traditions were also under attack from new health ideas, which had been spread during World War I. Using the slogans "Food Will Win the War" and "Lick Your Plate and Lick the Kaiser," the wartime Food Administration (under a bright young administrator named Herbert Hoover, who everybody said was going places) had encouraged people to eat less in order to support our boys at the front, and to eat more healthily. Above all, it popularized the recent medical discoveries called vitamins.

America has never recovered. Before World War I, the aim of dieting had always been to put on weight; by 1920, most diets were for losing weight, as they still are. It was in the age of the gazelle-slim flapper that cooks began to look at food primarily as vitamins, minerals and protein.

Southern California went wilder for vitamins than any other part of the country. The Midwestern retirees and the Hollywood people, together with the now-forgotten element that had moved here because of Southern California's healthful air, became obsessed with vitamins, even though the specific diseases they were known to prevent--such as scurvy, pellagra and beriberi--were not exactly serious problems around here. Hollywood became the national capital of raw foods, multigrain breads and low-calorie salad dressings.

During the '20s, a food faddist named Elmer McCollum persuaded many Californians that if they didn't eat enough "alkaline-forming" foods, they could get something called "acidosis." As cookery writers dutifully explained, alkaline-forming foods included nearly all fruits, including (although this was a little hard to explain) the quite acid citrus fruits. In fact, oranges and lemons were basically miracle foods.

A convenient harmony was at work here, because citrus fruits were a local product. Southern Californians made a distinct effort to use such ingredients--as much, one suspects, from motives of thrift (they were cheaper here than anywhere else) and local patriotism as for health reasons. Fig and Raisin Cake and Avocado Souffle were characteristic; we also had wholesome local seafood such as abalone, which was scarcely eaten anywhere else.

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