The new Sunset Cookbook is a major tome, and one that chronicles the variety of simple, ingredient-driven home cooking that existed in the West long before Alice Waters came along. In fact, as Sunset food editor Margo True tells Grub Street, there’s an argument to be made that California cuisine really started with the ranch hands, the original cowboys, who started roasting meat over red oak in Santa Maria. “Or you could go back even earlier,” she says, “to the Native Americans who were grilling salmon on wood planks god knows how long ago.” The new book celebrates the canon of what they call “24 iconic western dishes,” including fish tacos, cioppino, and guacamole, and documents what the Times today calls “the other California cuisine [that] was being served on a million patios in the Golden State,” in the simpler days before restaurant chefs started getting all Euro on us.
Grub Street grabbed a few minutes with Margo True by phone, from her office down on the Peninsula, to talk about the book.
So this is quite a massive undertaking. Where did you start?
Margo True: Well, it was intense. A really huge undertaking considering the magazine’s been around since 1898. We had to do a lot of editing and whittling down to get to what we ended up with, which is 1,100 recipes. And one of the things that differentiates this book from other tomes is the photography. It was sort of a debate in the beginning, with some of us thinking that photography may date the book too quickly. But in the end, in the age of food blogging, we realized people really like looking at pictures of food. And we also encourage readers to write to our Facebook page with their feedback.
What did you learn, culinary history-wise, through the process?
I learned a lot. Having moved back to California after eleven years living in New York — my mom’s from Berkeley and my grandparents built a house in Ojai in the 50s — I hadn’t known much about rancho cooking, which dates back to the times of the missionaries. So just through researching Santa Maria barbecue — which started with these enormous BBQs at the enormous estates down there that were owned by Spanish aristocrats — I learned a bunch. This tradition began with the vaqueros, the original cowboys, who grilled meat — we don’t know if it was tri-tip back then, probably not — over red oak because that’s what grows there. And we tried cooking it both ways, using red oak chips (which is what you can buy commercially these days) and without, and the red oak is way better. It really perfumes the meat. So just through researching that one thing this whole world opened up.
I also learned that both the Meyer lemon and Navel orange have tragic histories. Both of the men who discovered these varieties had tragic deaths. Frank Meyer, for instance, discovered this lemon in China and brought it back… well he later drowned. And the guy who gave the first Navel orange clippings away to everyone who eventually made fortunes from it, he died in a poorhouse.
What are some of the other traditional recipes you have in the book? What are the oldest?
Well we do versions of old recipes, and some are more classic and true. The cioppino is pretty true - this was really a poor man’s soup invented by Genovese fishermen in San Francisco. The name ‘ciuppin’ means ‘little soup’ in the Genovese dialect. This was just something they made up for using up the trimmings of whatever they caught. Well the Sicilians eventually took it up and called it ‘cioppino,’ and now you have all these fancy examples with Dungeness crab and what have you, but it really wasn’t like that to start.
Plank roasted salmon (page 506 in the book) is another one. This was something invented by Native American in the Pacific Northwest that imparts all this wonderful flavor to fish.
Fish tacos - we know these from like Rubios in San Diego in the 70s, but the roots of this dish in Baja go back much farther. Some culinary historians believe this goes back to Japanese fishermen who fished off the coast of Baja in the 1800s. You know the batter-frying technique is like tempura, and you usually see the tacos with cabbage which is also kind of an Asian thing.
Also I love the story of the California roll - sushi for wimps basically, with cooked crab and with the rice on the outside so that people weren’t scared by the seaweed. And this is what started the craze for crazy sushi, where you’ve got the Godzilla roll and Philadelphia roll, and whathaveyou.
What are some dishes you included that were common in years past, but aren’t so much anymore?
In researching abalone recipes I realized we used to have so many abalone dotting the beaches. There’d be hundreds just lying there for the taking. Things really seemed to start to take a turn for the worse, environmentally speaking, in the 50s or 60s. But when my mom grew up in Berkeley they had abalone all the time, because you got it for free. Now people pay so much money for abalone!
You talk in your introduction about cooking outside, and how this is an essential piece of Western tradition. And the Times used that Sunset cover from the 1920s that shows an illustration of a couple with an outdoor oven.
Yes, you know one of the most popular stories Sunset has ever run was a project on how to build an adobe oven in your backyard. This was a story from the 70s. People still have those things in their backyard. Now there are people in the business of making these things for people.
And you know, clearly the southern Italians and southern French have this great tradition of eating al fresco, and this is where Alice Waters took a lot of her inspiration. But you could really make a case for the rancho cookouts being the roots of the way we cook out West. And, you know, people came here in covered wagons, and guess where they ate - outside. We live in such a beautiful place, and we want to be outside as much as we can. One of my favorite recipes in the book is the barbecued turkey, and that’s classic California. You can actually have Thanksgiving outdoors here.
What’s another favorite recipe from the book?
One of my all-time favorites really encapsulates so much of what I like about the recipes at Sunset. Halibut kababs with grilled bread and pancetta - page 505. It was actually created by one of our former interns here, Jessica Battilana, who’s now at 7x7. You take halibut, which is a sustainable fish, and you take bread and chunk it the same size as the fish, and you skewer it all and weave the pancetta around the bread and halibut. And what happens is the pancetta melts into the bread, which also toasts, and it flavors and bastes the fish with its fat. It basically becomes like bacon on top of everything. You end up with the most moist, tender, meaty-tasting fish. It’s so few ingredients and so little time, and the results are big. These are the recipes we like - recipes that don’t take a lot of ingredients but there are these great transformation.
Below, a slideshow of some of the “iconic western dishes” from the book.