I’ve been going to the L.A. Central Library to do research. Interiors-wise, it’s no NYPL Main Library, but there are books and stacks galore. I’d be perfectly happy to plant myself in the cookbooks section, sit on the floor, and just pull books off the shelf one by one. Yesterday I was rushing out to try and catch the train home when I spotted this spine on a shelf.
How could I resist a cover like this?
I took it down just to flip through, but I fell a little bit in love.
When we think of the ’50s, we often think about tuna casseroles, overcooked vegetables, and pupu platters. Food Timeline’s list of 1950s foods is filled with bland convenience foods, some of which I would totally go for (hello, Baked Alaska) and some, not so much (what do you think a Maraschino cherry pudding tasted like?).
The West Coast Cook Book was published in 1952, nine years before Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking; it covers the recipes and native (local!) ingredients of California, Oregon, and Washington.
Brown shows us a 1950s cuisine free of gloppy canned soup recipes and Jell-O novelties. Her book details a coastline that brims with oysters, abalone, and geoduck; at desert feasts, vaqueros roast sides of beef in fire pits to be eaten with hand-patted masa tortillas and spicy red beans; at Chinese banquet halls, armies of chefs with miles of mise man woks with spider-web skimmers. In Brown’s California, a hunter could shoot his own wild duck and bring it into Paul’s Duck Press in Los Angeles to be roasted and squeezed by the namesake contraption. On her west coast, a Chinatown, and therefore a steady supply of fresh “wun tun paste”, is never very far.
The intro wouldn’t be out of place as a foreword to any Sonoma County or Portland or Puget Sound farm-to-table cookbook printed this year:
This is a book of West Coast cuisine — if anything as simple as our cookery can be called a cuisine. It is an informal book about the foods we eat and the foods we cook; we love to do both, and we think we do them rather well…Probably nowhere else in the world is there a region so calculated to delight the cook. Thousands of miles of coastline with its piscine population; tens of thousands of acres lush with fruits, nuts, vegetables, grain; mountains still teeming with game; valleys given over to cattle and poultry. Avocados, artichokes, salmon, wine grapes, oranges, nuts, olives, turkeys, oysters, figs, and dozens of other choice foods are ours. As Henry Fink, an Oregonian and a gourmet, said: “In Oregon, as in Washington and California, the epicure fares particularly well because the luxuries of life are as cheap as the staples, and quite as abundant.
Despite its publication during the era of McCarthy xenophobia, the culinary traditions of immigrants exist harmoniously with one another. The chapter on eggs includes recipes for Chinese egg rolls, Italian frittata, and huevos rancheros, as though it should be perfectly natural for a 1950s cook to want to eat any one of those things. She compares the assembly of Russian Sebastopol piroshkis to those of empanaditas. Seven years after the closing of the Manzanar internment camp, Brown extolls the virtues of Japanese cooking practices and provides readers with the appropriate pronunciation of sukiyaki (“The chief one, perhaps, is sukiyaki, which, if you care, is pronounced ‘skiyaki’.”) And it’s fun to see that nearly all of the Chinese recipes included call for M.S.G.
Brown has an easy, conversational style of prose buttered with historical references without seeming pedantic. The ingredients are only listed after you have read her instructions on cooking them. (This order really appeals to me — whereas ingredient lists in modern recipes often act as sentinels, guarding the rigidity of the instructions from the conversational, and often contextual, headnotes, Brown lists the ingredients below the light-toned instructions, almost as an afterthought.)
Here’s her recipe for Hangtown Fry:
This, most famous of our own oyster dishes, dates back to the days of the Argonauts. That we know, but we don’t know just exactly how it got its name — it’s too good a one not to have started many yarns a-spinning. A sure guess is that it had something to do with the town of that name (Hangtown was later renamed Placerville to appease some of its more fastidious citizens). One story is that a man about to be hanged asked that his last meal be “fried oysters with scrambled eggs on top and bacon on the side.” A story that seems more likely is that the dish was named after Nick “Hangtown,” whose nickname was acquired when he cooked for Mr. Studebaker, the wheelbarrow king, in Hangtown. (Mr. Studebaker was quite busy laying the foundation of his family’s fortune.) Later Nick went to Collins & Wheeland, in San Francisco, where he became the cook, and introduced the famous oyster dish.
The shucked oysters are dried, dusted with flour, dipped in beaten egg which has been seasoned with salt and pepper, then rolled in cracker crumbs and browned on both sides in butter, not more than a minute on each side. Beaten seasoned eggs are poured over the oysters and allowed to set, then turned, oysters and all, and browned on the other side. (About 4 medium oysters and 2 eggs to each serving.) This is served with bacon, and often fried onions and/or fried green peppers are an extra embellishment. An even simpler way to make this famous dish is to mix scrambled eggs with fried oysters and serve!
4 medium oysters
Salt and pepper
The book is steeped in west coast history, both native and settler. Her fruit chapter pays tribute to the San Gabriel Mission (which I really want to visit now), and paints Father Junipero Serra as a sort of Noah of California fruit. We also learn of the date palms of the Coachella Valley, the wild cranberries of Oregon and Washington, and even exotic, still obscure edibles like the tropical cherimoya or the sapote.
I love the entry on the local freak grunion:
It is not a gag, this business of grunion hunting. The tiny fish, a kind of silversides, do actually come right up on the beaches to spawn. They perform a fantastic sort of dance, digging holes in the sand with their tails, and in them depositing their eggs. Their run is so regular that their time of arrival can be charted fairly definitely, so people by the hundreds gather and catch them bare-handed. It’s a fun game, enjoyed by everyone, including California’s Governor Warren and his family. Grunions are cleaned, and cooked in deep fat like smelts. They should be very crisp, these slender little fish, so dipping them first in egg or milk, and then in corn meal is in order. They are highly prized for food as well as fun.
(Governor Warren must be Earl Warren, as in Chief Justice Warren who presided over Brown vs. Board of Education and many other landmark cases you actually know.)
This is the west coast that gave birth to Julia Child (Pasadena, CA) and James Beard (Portland, OR). It’s the west coast that M.F.K. Fisher grew up in (Whittier, CA).
Speaking of Beard, he and Brown wrote The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery together. Evan Jones writes about their first meeting in Epicurean Delight: The Life and Times of James Beard:
One day in 1952 the phone rang in the leaf-canopied homes of Philip and Helen Evans Brown in the Pasadena hills, and the voice was that of James Beard, who had just read Helen’s West Coast Cook Book. “He wanted Helen to know he thought it was the best new work he’d seen,” Philip Brown remembered. “He wanted to know if he might stop in to see us. He came out to the house immediately and we began to talk as if it were an unfinished conversation. We were so into it, he stayed all night.”
Jones says that Helen Evans Brown was a regular contributor to Sunset magazine, and was already a respected, published cookbook author. There’s also a book of letters Beard wrote to her, Love and Kisses and a Halo of Truffles, which I’ll have to check out next. According to Janet Jarvits’ website, Beard and Jane Nickerson felt Brown should have succeeded Nickerson as food editor of the New York Times instead of Craig Claiborne.
Helen Evans Brown was also apparently an avid charitable cookbook collector. Her collection of 5,000 titles of food history and cookbooks is now being sold by Janet Jarvits of Pasadena’s famed Cook Books (this is another place I should clearly go visit). So I wonder why we don’t know much about Brown, given that she was such a respected contemporary and collaborator of Beard’s. The West Coast Cook Book seems to be out of print, but if you like food and regional stories, I strongly recommend seeing if they’ve got a copy at your library. It’s a lovely book to spend time with. I’m especially intrigued by a recipe for a dessert called Fried Cream, which was apparently popular in San Francisco at the time.
Scald a pint of heavy cream and add to it 2 teaspoons of Jamaica rum, 1/8 teaspoon of salt, 1/4 cup of sugar, a 1/2-inch stick of cinnamon, and 5 tablespoons of cornstarch moistened in 3 tablespoons of milk. Cook long enough to remove the starch taste, then beat in 3 egg yolks and cook over hot water, whisking continuously, until thick. Remove cinnamon and pour mixture, about 3/4 of an inch deep, into a flat dish (an oblong Pyrex dish is perfect) to become cold. Turn out on a board, cut into squares or oblongs, and roll in very finely grated almonds. Now dip in beaten egg, and then in finely crushed salted crackers. Chill again, then fry in deep fat at 390 degrees just long enough to brown the nuts. Pour on heated rum, set afire, and serve flaming. THIS RECIPE SERVES 8.
1 pint heavy cream
2 teaspoons Jamaica rum
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
1/2-inch stick of cinnamon
5 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons milk
3 egg yolks