I don’t usually talk about where I live, but I do appreciate San Francisco for more than the mild climate and the Silent Film Festival.
My husband, in Texas, late 1940s. Me, in California, about the same time.
I keep being reminded how lucky I am to have grown up in a part of the U.S. which was built and is constantly sustained by immigrants from all over the world. (It’s not just the great food, but sharing a meal is a traditional way of getting to know our neighbors.) My experiences growing up near San Francisco were different from my husband’s, who remembers attending segregated schools in a North Texas town. (My own schools were segregated not by official policy, but by neighborhoods in a “walking distance to school” approach. Definitely not ideal. And California — to our shame — was the leader in many anti-immigrant policies, like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — an extraordinary example of ingratitude, since it was chiefly Chinese workers who tunneled through the Sierra mountains in the 1860s –making the Union Pacific Railroad that linked California with the rest of the nation possible.)
Recently, I was reminded of one of the things I learned by living here. Our SF neighborhood movie theater showed Harold and Maude for Valentine’s Day. There is a glimpse — just a few seconds — of Maude’s wrist. In the sixties, in San Francisco, one customer of the bank where I worked — an admirable man, a pillar of the community — was an Auschwitz survivor. Whenever he wore a short-sleeved shirt, I saw his concentration camp tattoo; that’s not something you forget. Maude has row of numbers on her arm, too; it’s a detail you might not understand, if you grew up in a town where most people have the same background, the same churches, the same politics.
My California parents (born in 1904) embraced diversity. They believed in the American “melting pot” idea — that the stew is more delicious if everyone puts something in. Speaking of stew…
Pozole is a sort of stew popular in the American Southwest. It uses many traditional Mexican ingredients. One day at the grocery store, a young woman in line behind me saw the tomatillos, the chiles, and the hominy I was buying. “Are you making pozole?” she asked, clearly surprised. When I said I was, she told me that her mother was born in Mexico, but her husband was from Palestine. Pork shoulder (on sale at $.99 per lb; one recipe makes a huge pot of pozole) is the usual meat for this dish, but her Muslim husband doesn’t eat pork. So she substitutes chicken thighs (which were also on sale at $.99 per lb., although mine weren’t halal.) I tried it and discovered that I much prefer the chicken version! How lucky I am that she spoke to me. That’s what I call All-American(s) cooking.
At a potluck party last year I met a woman who is active in a Jewish genealogy group. She has had amazing success exchanging information and photos with people around the world. [From a picture she posted, a stranger in Europe recognized the house her ancestors once lived in — it was next door to his ancestors’ home. In the 1920s, those close neighbors had exchanged photos — so he had photographs of her family that her own ancestors had lost in the Holocaust. Now she has copies.] In addition to being very helpful with genealogy advice, she had brought to the party the best kugel (a noodle and dairy dish) I have ever tasted. I confess, I had three helpings over five hours! She said, “I like to experiment with Italian dairy products — sometimes I use ricotta, or mascarpone. This time, as I was putting in the spices, I added some cardamom.” Wow! It was exceptional. (When I told a Muslim friend whose father was born in India about the cardamom, she laughed with delight.) Another example of All-American(s) cooking.
From the food truck at a farmer’s market, I ordered a sort of soft taco: barbecued pork, plus a dash of Asian plum sauce (the kind you spread on your rice pancake with mu shu chicken or pork,) plus a handful of baby greens, rolled in a warm corn tortilla. Southern barbecue, Chinese sauce, wrapped in a corn tortilla: fabulous All-American(s) cooking.
San Franciscans sharing food, sharing stories: Just a few reasons why I love this town.
Two book critics at my breakfast table.