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Fusion: The California Birthright

Far From Being a Modern Fad, Our Obsession With Fresh Food and Ethnic Cuisine Goes Back for Generations

June 23, 2002|RUSS PARSONS | 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?

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.

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).

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