Food's as old as we are. It's impossible to tell whether people have shaped foodstuffs more or food's done more to shape people. The Irish and potatoes, Mexicans and corn, Asians and rice, Norwegians and salmon, me and Mom's pasta, grew together. American cookery began with the first settlers, who gobbled relatively British versions of what Native Americans taught them to gobble. In general, the early settlers felt most comfortable preparing foodstuffs that were similar to what they ate in their once-native Europe: boiled meats and vegetables, relatively bland flavors, fried cakes, and pies and puddings. But Native Americans acclimated English palates to the unusual local flora and fauna. The most important early Native American influence on colonial cookery was maize, which the settlers called Indian corn. Corn was probably the most original aspect of American cookery. Because Mexican recipes have colored our cuisine, this nation has a plentiful repertory of corn dishes. Corn is more American than apple pie.
As early American cookery developed, with African influences in the South, hearty German fare in Pennsylvania, and Dutch cakes and pastries in New York, this country's appreciation became increasingly diverse. The young nation's population moved westward in the 1800s, and these newcomers came upon indigenous groups who brought unfamiliar flavors, tendencies, and opportunities to the American appetite.
Spanish missionaries and colonists, settling the West Coast from 1769 onward, imported produce from Mexico, including oranges, lemons, bananas, and sugar cane. They also introduced New World foods not previously grown in California -- chocolate, tomatoes, and chili peppers.
For the United States, Spain's loss of Mexico in 1821 meant the end of a European threat and the expansion of culinary prospects. Americans moving westward brought bacon, cornbread, coffee, butter, buttermilk, and crackers. Mexicans dined on tortillas, beef, venison, chickens, eggs, cheese, and milk. Eventually, as the United States annexed Texas and conquered California, dietary tendencies merged into a semblance of the Southwestern gastronomy that we recognize today. By the 1880s, Mexican dishes such as Spanish Hash, Stuffed Chillies, Spanish Wafers, "Zalza," and Spanish Cream, were already incorporated into regional cookbooks.
The cookbook and, later, the restaurant menu are easily the grandest artifacts relating to food. Traditionally, foodstuffs were prepared by the woman of the house, who passed on to her daughters the knowledge of how to boil beets, crumb tables, and seal marmalade jars. These techniques grew into shared family experience. Traditions were often preserved by writing favorite recipes into household journals, which were passed from one generation to the next.
Early European cookbooks offered little orderly instruction. Quantities of ingredients were unspecified and directions vague. Fifteenth- and 16th-century books on food had health and medicine in mind; they reflected the medieval partiality for spicy foods in vinegar-based sauces.
In the 17th and 18th Centuries, individual national cuisines began to emerge, though published cookbooks from that time record mostly the food habits of the wealthy. From the 18th Century on, cookery books were written by and for the growing middle class. These volumes emphasized economy in the kitchen. Not until the 19th Century did cookbooks resemble the clear and comprehensive instruction manuals we use today.
The first cookbook published in California bore the telling title How to Keep a Husband, or Culinary Tactics. It was published in 1872 by an Anglican church group in San Francisco and was dedicated to "the fair ones of the Pacific Coast." How to Keep a Husband draws more culinary inspiration from England than from California, although it does reflect an interest in the seasonal, farm-fresh produce of the West. Recipes for roasted meat and other old country favorites that would be sure to keep a husband from heading off to choicer pastures, such as calf's head soup and mushroom catsup, are listed alongside pickled California plums, Spanish flummery (custard) with local white wine, and lemon and orange puddings.
San Diego's earliest cookbooks appeared over 40 years later. The Recipe Book, "dedicated to the Girls' Home of San Diego," was published in 1915. It contained 250 recipes contributed by the women of San Diego and cost 50 cents. Page one was an advertisement for a bank located in the U.S. Grant Hotel Building, "one of the strongest banks in the West." The next pages are directions for how to serve breakfast, luncheon, and dinner. Directions include "Have fruit on table when guests are seated. When this course is finished, remove plates with left hand, placing finger bowl with right. Take soiled dishes into the pantry or kitchen. Remove finger bowls, two at a time."
Preparations in The Recipe Book range from Scalloped Potatoes and Stewed Tomatoes to Spanish Rice, Oriental Rice, and String Beans a la Francaise. Most of the dishes are accredited to the good San Diego ladies of society who contributed them.
Along with the guidelines, editorial catchphrases recommend each preparation. The Scalloped Onions from Mrs. M. Ethel Armstrong is "a very choice recipe." The Dressing for Cold Slaw [sic] from Mrs. Jennie E. Rand "makes a delightful dressing." There are also nonspecific directions. M.L. Speer's recipe for Oatmeal Macaroons, for example, "requires some time to bake."
In the Calexico Cook Book, compiled in 1914 by "The Ladies of the First Congregational Church and Their Friends in Calexico, California," recipes are personalized. This publication reveals a surprising breadth to the early-20th-century Southwestern American palate, with dishes such as Scotch Potato Scones, Virginia Corn Bread, Dixie Biscuits, Boston Brown Bread, Swiss Steak, and Spanish Loaf. My favorite recipe in the Calexico Cook Book is for a concoction called Luncheon Dish. Luncheon Dish is made with boiled ham, hard-boiled eggs, pimientos, bread crumbs, sprinkled cheese, and "white sauce." This low-fat, low-cal, low-carb, health-conscious tidbit is layered and baked until brown on top. Thanks, Mrs. Eken! Mmmmmm.
Throughout most of early human history, families have taken meals together in their homes, or when visiting, in the homes of their hosts. It wasn't until 1782, in France, that the first restaurant-like establishment opened. This occasion was precipitated by the storming of the Bastille and the subsequent French independence, which left talented chefs (chefs of the overthrown aristocrats) out of kitchens. Before this watershed incident, the best cooking was experienced in the private dwellings of the wealthy.