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California and the Far West

California and the Far West

California mirrors the history and culture of many states in the Far West. Like the states in the Southwest, California was first settled by the Spanish from what is now Mexico, but it received many of its subsequent settlers from the eastern United States during the Gold Rush of 1849. California's population includes descendants of Russian settlers, as do the states of Oregon and Washington. Like Idaho, Nevada, Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, California is home to Basque families, many of them sheepherders, whose ancestors came from the Pyrenees Mountains of northeast Spain and southwest France. Chinese laborers who came to the West to build railroads settled in many small towns and founded businesses, eventually creating the great California Chinatowns of San Francisco and Los Angeles. California also encompasses many of the agricultural activities of other Western states, including citrus growing, also found in Arizona, and wine making, a prominent industry in Oregon and Washington. Fruits and vegetables that are grown in the Imperial Valley of California in winter hit their peak growing seasons somewhat later farther north in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys; Oregon and Washington follow even later. The American West could be said to begin where the Great Plains meet the mountains of the Continental Divide. From that point west, all streams flow in the general direction of the Pacific Ocean. From there ranges of mountains separated by broad, fertile valleys or deserts stretch across the land until, after the final range, the land, moist from winter storms and fog and rich from the great river bottoms, drops gently to the Pacific Ocean.

The great majority of the population in the West is concentrated along the Pacific Coast, yet cities like Denver, Salt Lake City, and Las Vegas grow each year, as the population of the United States moves into the Sun Belt in ever-greater numbers. The states of the West adjacent to California and the Pacific Northwest contribute greatly to the character of the Far Western states, because it is through them that many of the settlers migrated from the East on their way to the Pacific's shores. This region is also home to its first settlers, the Native American nations, whose ancestors, in prehistoric times, are thought to have crossed the land bridge from Asia into what is now Alaska. These nations and tribes have made a significant contribution not only to the development of foods in the region, but also to its artistic and spiritual elements.

It is misleading to categorize the food and culture of the Far West by state lines or even by cities or small communities. Cultures rarely start and stop at administrative boundaries. Traditions and tastes spread with far greater subtlety as groups move from one community to another, not only taking with them food that has always been a part of their lives but also adopting foods and flavors along the way. The largest cities of the West are cosmopolitan places where many ethnic groups practice a broad variety of food traditions. Most towns and villages have food and culture practices similar to those of larger cities. In addition, many families of specific ethnic descent do not eat the foods of their own tradition every day, but enjoy exploring the foods of other cultures or foods generally considered "American." It is most often at various festival times that ethnic groups celebrate their heritage, whether it is the festivals of individual pueblos in northern New Mexico or a Greek Orthodox festival held for the entire community on a specific saint's day. The Far West can be grouped into four general areas for the purposes of discussing food and culture: The Mountains, the Great Southwest, California, and the Pacific Northwest. (The Southwest is also covered in more detail in a separate article by that title.)

The Mountains

The states of Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado are punctuated by broad expanses of plains at the easternmost extent, leading to ranges of mountains separated by broad expanses of farming or ranch country. The food of the region is reflected in the activities that once took place there or in current lifestyles. After the Native Americans, the first settlers were trappers seeking furs. They were followed by settlers who came west in the mid-1800s following the Lewis and Clark Expedition (18041806). Mining exploration took place throughout the region in the nineteenth century. At the height of mining activity, larger mining towns possessed hotels and restaurants with menus to rival those in long-established cities, and the finest performers played in the local opera houses.

Large ranches, which raised cattle and sheep, were established in the nineteenth century followed by the smaller farms of homesteaders. Food in the ranch house or farmhouse was simple, reflecting both the Yankee origins of the settlers and the distance consumers lived from the sources of supplies. Early settlers subsisted on salt pork and beans, supplementing their diets with fresh foods if they could find them. Quick breads were made either using a kind of baking powder called saleratus or from a sourdough starter. When a steer or sheep was slaughtered, every part of the animal was put to good use. The huge extent of large ranches dictated the use of portable, compact camp kitchens called chuck wagons, which could be moved from one place to another to feed cowboys while they were working away from the main ranch buildings. The Dutch oven played a versatile role both in the home and in chuck wagon cooking. Over the coals of a fire it was an excellent vessel for making all kinds of stews. Buried in the coals, the Dutch oven served literally as an oven capable of producing biscuits, cobblers, and other shortbreads.

What marks the region today are foods that can be enjoyed in the outdoors while hiking, fishing, river rafting, skiing, or camping. Freshwater fish, especially trout, and game are plentiful. While camp food tends to be the simple fare like beef stew inherited from the English, Welsh, and Yankee settlers, it is sometimes enhanced by experienced camp cooks, who produce creative dishes like lasagna made with dried spfoglia pasta sheets and reconstituted dried shitake mushrooms in Dutch ovens over their campfires. Restaurants in major cities of the Mountain region offer many different kinds of cuisine to sophisticated diners.

The Southwest

The Southwest encompasses New Mexico, Southwest Texas, Arizona, and the southern part of Colorado settled by the Spanish. The distribution of what is considered "traditional food" of the Southwest (a combination of Native American food and food adapted from Old Mexico) is not uniform, but instead is reflected in the areas that have been settled the longest. For greater detail on this area, see the separate article on the Southwest.

One aspect in the history of the Southwest that affected the growth of food culture throughout the West by introducing refinement in menu offerings and service was the Harvey House restaurant chain established along the line of the Santa Fe Railroad. Here entrepreneur Fred Harvey established restaurants that served train passengers at scheduled stops. A sophisticated menu was offered, and passengers made their choices en route. The orders were forwarded by telegraph to the restaurant so that the food was ready to be served when the train arrived. Passengers were served in the restaurant dining rooms by uniformed young women who had been recruited from respectable eastern families. This effort led to greater expectations for quality food and service throughout the West. In addition, many of the young women stayed and married business and professional men, contributing to the character of many of the cities in the area.


Contemporary California is a land of dramatic contrasts, from the richly populated coastline to the sparsely settled inland deserts; from the highest point of land in the contiguous United States (Mount Whitney) to the lowest (Death Valley); from the hot dry interior to the cool, moist, and sometimes foggy seacoast. In the San Joaquin and Imperial valleys, where fields are irrigated, vast amounts of produce are grown for markets throughout the United States. Lettuces with names like red leaf, oak leaf, and curly leaf grow near other table greens with names like radicchio, trevise, and arugula, reflecting their French and Italian ancestry.

Table corn and table grapes are grown in California's Central Valley for consumption in several western states. In the microclimates near the coast, delicate produce is raised for sale at local farmers' markets. Some communities are known for specialized crops: Gilroy claims the title of Garlic Capital of the World, and Castroville, near the coast above Monterey Bay, boasts proudly of its artichokes. Ingredients indigenous to California's land and seacoasts include soft fruit, stone fruit, nuts, grain, game, cattle, poultry, fish, shellfish, and olives. Also grown are avocados, figs, pomegranates, persimmons, citrus, almonds, asparagus, strawberries, and dates.

The settlement of California. Spanish settlement in California began in the sixteenth century with military and missionary expeditions from what is now Mexico. Spanish missionaries often resettled Native Americans near their new missions, sometimes giving a tribe a new name to match the name of the mission. Civilians came with these expeditions and established the great land-grant ranches of early California, bringing with them food traditions of Spain, tempered by years in Mexico.

Some settlers came by sea. Russian families settled in Northern California and farther north in Oregon and Washington. Basques from the Pyrenees mountains of northwestern Spain and Southwestern France settled to grow sheep in eastern mountains of the state, bringing with them their special versions of sheepherder's bread and oxtail stew. With the discovery of gold in 1849, people of all backgrounds moved west, many staying to take up some activity other than mining. Many Chinese provided labor for the construction of the railroads.

In the twentieth century, California's population grew tremendously, and cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and, somewhat later, San Diego expanded to accommodate larger numbers of people and their needs. Today the state is home to a considerable portion of the aeronautical industry, film and television production, some large military installations and a great diversity of technical development, especially in the field of computing. New residents came from Asia, eastern Europe and the Middle East. Chinatown in San Francisco is one of the largest in the United States, bringing with it much excellent food and sources for ingredients. Los Angeles has its own Chinese community as well as a well-established Vietnamese community. The Los Angeles suburb of Glendale is host to a large Armenian enclave with its own supermarkets and its own hospital.

California foods. Food availability in California makes cooking at home and dining out a pleasure. The broad, year-round availability of good fruits and vegetables, seafood, poultry, locally grown rice (including exotic types), and many other products gives cooks and chefs enormous inspiration. Fine fresh ingredients have always been appreciated in California, as is evident from California cookbooks published in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the last quarter of the twentieth century, a champion of these products, Alice Waters of the restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, launched a renewed appreciation of locally grown ingredients acquired directly from producers, a move that ultimately inspired the growth of local green markets across the entire United States. The emphasis on freshness and proximity to the buyer is reflected in the cuisine of many of California's restaurants, now emphasizing the uncomplicated flavors of ingredients in season.

Some traditional dishes in California reveal the origins of its inhabitants. Cioppino (a tomato-based seafood soup) is the child of Italian immigrants who became fishermen in San Francisco and the Monterey Peninsula. Another dish, a product of nineteenth-century San Francisco in gold-rush days, is hangtown fry (a combination of fried oysters, crisp bacon, and scrambled eggs often served as a special breakfast). Mexico's influence, both old and new, can be seen in the Mexican food of Southern California, where flavors and textures of the food of the Mexican state of Baja California are reflected in such simple but excellent fare as shrimp or fish tacos wrapped in soft, warm tortillas and garnished with shredded cabbage.

Despite a frequent focus on the coastal cities of California because of their large populations, there is much to California that is neither coastal nor urban. The deserts along the borders of Arizona and Nevada are dry and desolate. Where water is available, ranches like those in the Mountain States and in the Southwest continue to flourish, raising cattle and sheep. Where Basque families have settled, they have established restaurants featuring the traditional foods of their culture. Food is served in many courses, family-style, and includes hearty stews with sweet peppers and Basque sheepherder's bread. Major inland agricultural centers are large farm-oriented operations. Others, catering to the demand for organically grown produce or specialty items, employ methods imported from Asia and other countries and do much of their work by hand.

In the northwestern part of California, where giant redwoods populate the forests, the rainfall may exceed one hundred inches a year, too wet for most farming but an exceptional climate for fresh wild mushrooms, which are gathered by experts who have their own special spots that only they know. The mushrooms are then passed on to produce brokers to sell.

Wine. The California wine industry produces wines to complement the breadth of California food. Although the wine industry in California burgeoned after World War II, it actually was begun in the early twentieth century, surviving the effects of Prohibition. The state's many hills and valleys are home to microclimates that give unique character to the many varieties of wine grapes grown locally. Best known of the regions are the Napa, Sonoma, and Russian River valleys of California north of San Francisco, and the Santa Ynez Valley north and east of Santa Barbara, but other vineyards abound in Monterey County and even as far south as Temecula, near San Diego. Wines made in the state have won many awards in "blind" tastings against some of the finest wines in the world.

The Pacific Northwest: Oregon and Washington

Like California, both Oregon and Washington are dry in the eastern portion and more humid in the west and along the seacoast. And, as with California, these states are rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, excellent fish and shellfish, quality meats and poultry, and outstanding wines. Each state has its own special character, dictated by the climate and latitude.

Oregon was founded at the end of the Oregon Trail, a two-thousand-mile route from Missouri that was followed by thousands of emigrants, primarily from the 1840s to the 1860s. From the mouth of the trail poured settlers from the Midwest and the East, bringing with them architecture and foods of their previous homes. Foods learned along the way also became a part of the culinary repertoire, with desserts like cobblers, popular because of the ease of producing them and the abundance of berries in the area. Cherries, blackberries, loganberries, raspberries, and blueberries appear as summer progresses. Occasionally, blueberries and quail are raised together, the berries providing some of the food for the quail while also enhancing the taste of the flesh of the bird as well. Oregon's eastern farms and orchards produce extraordinary pears and other cool-weather fruit.

Some prominent restaurants in Oregon have chosen to celebrate local foods and wines on their menus, featuring the excellent oysters that are harvested in the area, or farmstead cheeses and local wines.

Aquaculture plays a large role in the production of oysters, mussels, and Atlantic salmon in the Pacific Northwest. Restaurants and stands offering shellfish may have four or five varieties of oysters available for tasting.

Oregon's and Washington's wines are almost as well known to many Americans as the wines of California. Many of the smaller productions rarely leave the state or are eagerly purchased by knowledgeable wine shop proprietors and sommeliers (restaurant wine stewards). Oregon wines include exceptional ones made largely from the pinot noir grape and the cabernet sauvignon grape, both of which develop well in cooler climates.

Like Oregon, Washington's coastal area is home to growers of all kinds of crops, including a rich supply of soft fruit, that require a mild climate. The eastern part of the state is famous for its apples. Washington is also well known for its salmon production and nearly as well known for its smoked salmon as its fresh fish. The Ballard area of Seattle is home to many Scandinavians, whose emigrant parents brought with them the skills for both hot and cold smoking.

While New England Yankees, Scandinavians, and Russians were some of Oregon and Washington's first settlers, the Asian population has contributed greatly to the area in terms of food culture. One historian referred to the region as less a melting pot than a stir-fry. New residents to the region have come from Southeast Asia and also from Hong Kong during the period when it was becoming a Special Administrative Region (status conferred in 1997) of China.

Native American food traditions have considerable influence in Washington and Oregon, where salmon is split open, stretched on wood racks, and roasted before an open fire. The salmon plays a similar sacred role in the Pacific Northwest as corn does for the Native Americans of the American Southwest.

Also a part of the tradition of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest is the "potlatch" gathering, celebrating wealth sharing, prosperity, and overabundance. The word "potlatch" comes from the Nootka-Chinook patshal ("gift"). The largesse demonstrated at these gatherings is a demonstration of success as well as an attempt to outdo the host of the previous potlatch feast.

While permanent and temporary markets abound in the coastal regions of Washington and Oregon, no place represents the bounty of the area quite like the Pike Place Market in Seattle. This open market is active every day, featuring the freshest of fish and shellfish, vegetables and fruits in season, and other ingredients, as well as flowers and crafts. Permanent indoor shops in the complex sell many items other than those related to food, and shops around the market have expanded into blocks to the east, but the array of ingredients for the dishes of many cultures remains a main attraction and represents a microcosm of the food culture of the region.

See also Crustaceans and Shellfish; Farmers' Markets; Fish; Fish, Smoked; Fruit; Herding; High-Technology Farming; Organic Agriculture; Organic Food; Vegetables; Wine.


Bertolli, Paul, with Alice Waters. Chez Panisse Cooking. New York: Random House, 1996. The original edition was printed in 1988.

Brown, Helen. Helen Brown's West Coast Cook Book. Boston: Little, Brown, 1952.

Conlon, Joseph R. Bacon, Beans, and Galantines. Reno and Las Vegas: University of Nevada Press, 1986.

Cox, Beverly, and Martin Jacobs. Spirit of the West: Cooking from Ranch House and Range. New York: Artisan, 1996.

Fussell, Betty. I Hear America Cooking. New York: Viking, 1986.

Hibler, Janie. Dungeness Crabs and Blackberry Cobblers. New York: Knopf, 1991.

Rex-Johnson, Braden. Pike Place Public Market Seafood Cookbook. Berkeley, Calif.: Ten Speed Press, 1997.

Skott, Michael, with Lori Mckean. Pacific Northwest Flavors. New York: Clarkson Potter, 1995.

Van Loan, Sharon, and Patricia Lee with Mark Hoy. Thyme and the River: Recipes from Oregon's Steamboat Inn. Portland, Oreg.: Graphic Arts Center, 1988.

Madge Griswold

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