Eating Where You Are: The Evolution of "Californian" Cuisine

Eating Where You Are: The Evolution of "Californian" Cuisine

“In the study of beings that live for centuries, how do scientists and observers begin to unravel the tangle of clues present in their own snapshot of time, and where do they lead?” —Laura Cunningham, A State of Change : Forgotten Landscapes of California.

July 8, 2015

WHENEVER JOELY PROUDFIT SEES A HACKED UP YUCCA STALK ON THE SIDE OF THE FREEWAY, SHE PULLS OVER.

Especially if it’s got a big, honkin’ blossom on top. They’re delicious steamed, she says, and good for you. It’s an impulse left over from childhood, when her mother would send her scrounging under wild walnut trees and raspberry patches for the family dinner table. Proudfit grew up knocking on the doors of strangers, asking permission to harvest their abandoned loquat trees. When they said yes, as they usually did, she would pile them into the folds of her t-shirt, held out by the hem like a hammock. They were poor, really poor, she says, but those moments taught her the value of knowing what the land can offer.

These days, Proudfit is the director of California Indian Culture and Sovereignty Center at CSU San Marcos, with a doctorate in political science. She’s also part of the Ngeesikat clan, and a direct descendant of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Mission Indians. Now she takes her own daughter onto reservations—there are 18 in her county alone—and teaches her which things are safe to eat.

“I haven’t tasted walnuts like that since I was a kid,” she says. “That full flavor, it’s like a song you know you’ve heard, but you can’t quite remember.”

It’s worth wondering if that aching familiarity is what fuels our modern love of foraging, and by extension, the restaurants that devote themselves to evoking it. The Nomas, the Meadowoods. We are spoiled in our sprawling culinary scene—nowhere more so than in California, land of sun and surfers and ideal growing climates. We have built our food culture by pulling flavors from others, and while the result is an operatic aria to worldliness, we seem have developed a longing for the kind of connection borne only from eating what’s around you. Foraging, for all it’s hype, is time travel. Uprooting a mushroom from the spongy forest floor feels like a secret, like the discovery of a whole existence untouched by modern agriculture.

The group that knows this best is not chefs. It’s those whose ancestors knew the original song before the European cover, who hunted with obsidian-tipped arrows and harpoons, waded in the tidepools of the Pacific for shellfish, and cultivated the land so precisely it blurred the lines between wilderness and cultivation. The food culture of Native Californians, like that of it’s present-day chefs, was defined by bounty, so much so that tribes never needed to develop mainlined agriculture. Instead, they used controlling burning to tempt new life from the land, and began to save seeds (nothing is new, is it?), around what historians estimate to be 9000 BCE, for selective cultivation.

“At some point, we lost our way. What separates American Indians from other groups is our ties to the land, and we’re trying to come back to it by thinking about the way we were originally intended to eat,” Proudfit says. “If we can go back to food as a gift, then it takes us back to that good place. Food is the present, the past, and the future. When you understand that, you begin to see the power of what you eat.”

For California Indians, the strongest tie to their distilled identity is still the mighty acorn, which Proudfit's people use in a dish called weewish. Apparently, it doesn’t taste great, but it serves it’s purpose. It's now only a staple for special occasions. “For us, there are songs involved with food harvesting and preparation, so your culture is sustained through that language. We’re losing it, because we just don’t eat that way or do those things anymore.”

Her Caucasian husband loves these events, she says, because of the chance to eat grasshopper and weewish, agave and yucca and elderberry. It’s a type of link to the immediate surroundings that he wasn’t raised with, and it fascinates him.

Is this the way of the future? Should our far-reaching worldliness be traded in for a deeper, insular, sense of place?

TO UNDERSTAND THE STORY OF MODERN CALIFORNIAN CUISINE AS IT CONTINUES TO BE WRITTEN, ONE ONLY HAS TO LOOK WHERE EVERYONE POINTS: IN THIS STATE, THAT’S MANRESA.


“I’ll be honest with you,” chef David Kinch admits, “a couple of years ago, I actually did some research and tried to work with some of these products. More often than not, I had failure rather than success.”

Kinch went so far as to seek out a few plant societies in the area around the Santa Cruz mountains in which the restaurant has made its home, and made inquiries into pre-contact native species. He made a cactus fruit sorbet, once. He messed around with bay leaf nuts, mesquite flour—which he says has tremendous potential as a thickener, but doesn’t have gluten— acorns, and a handful of native, edible plants that technically one could forage for, “if one was so inclined.”

In the end, it was clear that Manresa, and the flavors he seems to coax so effortlessly from his surroundings, are just as defined by the time in which they exist as the place. Place is not a static concept, as much as we might wish it to be, and the hard truth is that our time is an entirely different animal than the one of Native California. “Cuisine is about history, yes, but because this kind of cooking is a dynamic endeavor, you’re always trying to move forward,” he says. “You can look back at some of these ingredients, and perhaps incorporate it in a provocative manner, but only as long as it’s delicious.”

And only as long as it makes sense. “It’s one thing to be edible, it’s another thing to be of culinary interest,” he points out. “With fine dining, the minute you start getting caught up, it’s time to move on.”

Not to mention, the cuisines of native people were typically geared for one thing: sustenance. You made the land work for you, because that was all you had. Anything else was secondary. So, as our knowledge and access expands, it may not be entirely realistic to expect a backwards shift, however romantic the idea might seem. What is realistic in the modern food landscape—and necessary—is a deeper understanding of the potential of terroir, not the limits.

“I think California continues to lead, certainly in products. The more I travel, the more I realize how lucky we are here...I do worry about the self-confidence, the entitlement, of California though. It always comes back and bites us in the butt,” he admits. “The question for California as a culinary force is, what happens when we mature? I think it’s much more of a definition of our sense of place. How that’s going to happen, I don’t quite know. But I do feel that it’s shifting.”

That shift is going to be a complicated one, according to Proudfit, especially from a socio-economic standpoint. How do you enable a connection to the land without sullying it through mass distribution, commercialization? How do you cut through the noise? 

“I think there needs to be an easier path to access, because the movement right now is speaking to the elite,” Proudfit says. “It can be a little contrite, and a little much for most people. But if I take a class out to harvest their own miner’s lettuce and that’s the first time any of them have done anything like that, that’s crazy. That’s revolutionary, and that gets people thinking.”

So it's a combination of the two in the application of what grows obscenely well here, the high art and the everyday sustenance, that will continue to define Californian cuisine as we know it. Not fusion sushi rolls. 


By Cassandra Landry.