All-American Cooking

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.

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15 Comments

Filed under 1940s-1950s, Boys' Clothing, Children's Vintage styles, Musings, Uncategorized

15 responses to “All-American Cooking

  1. Wonderful post. And heartening in a time of such rancor and divisiveness. I’m always amused and gratified that we lovers of so many old things and old skills — clothes, sewing, antiques, handiwork — tend to be among the most forward-thinking when it comes to our fellow humans. Not everything old is worth saving or celebrating. Thank you for sharing this personal account. It made my morning.

  2. Fantastic post, thank you for sharing your story. It’s the people to people interactions that keep xenophobia at bay. And now I need to find a recipe for vegan pozole! Cheers, Juliet

  3. Katy

    Really interesting post. Today I had an urge for some traditional cooking, so I found a great recipe for Yankee Pot Roast. Fantastic! 🙂

    • I wonder if it’s like my Grandma’s? I do miss her cooking — even “her” mashed potatoes! (and I miss her, of course.) Those childhood favorites can never be equaled — even if she rarely used garlic or onions. (I can’t cook without them.)

  4. Oh my what a post that went straight to my heart and stomach. I too was raised in CA and lived there for much of my life until at 65 I came to France. Went to school at Berkeley, drove highway 1 to SF so many times in my youth and middle age. My dear friends from SF were just here for a visit. I have many friends up and down California. Living there, growing up there, we forget what a rich experience it is. At this point, its all I miss about America.
    bonnie in provence

    • I haven’t given up hope yet, but we do seem to be changing for the worse, moving backward and forgetting our ideals. (They were never fully achieved, but I’m not ready to abandon them. During the 1930s, Langston Hughes wrote in a poem
      “America never was America to me,
      And yet I swear this oath—
      America will be!”) Metaphorically, I’m wearing a cap that says “I Still Have a Dream.”

  5. Thanks for such a great post. Ny?Nj raised- ended up in the Bay Area in ’73-Oaklsnd, then SF. I miss it very much. I am in St Paul MN now. I love St Paul, but struggle with the Midwestern Mindset – thanks for warming my heart with reminders of the greatest place to live.

  6. Lovely post makes me nostalgic for the City by the Bay, although my double decades were spent on the Peninsula. Warmly recall work mates from Cuba, India, etc., and the great variety of restaurants for lunch with everyone. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • I was born in Redwood City, on the Peninsula, as we call that finger of land with San Francisco as its “fingernail.” Hello, neighbor!

      • Hi! Although I must tell you I forsook the perfect weather there for Chicago and then back to the East Coast, missing weather too much. Winter weather, that is. Yes, I know that sounds crazy… 🤪 Used to know Redwood City quite well. Lovely place! Lucky you! 😉

  7. TBG

    I love this post and it makes me realize I want to read more of your writing. Where can I find more (besides this wonderful blog, of course!)? Thanks!

  8. What a wonderful celebration of our state, Susan! May I add that Southern California is much the same. Even in my suburban town, we now have Korean, Chinese, Filipino, and Persian groceries stores.

  9. Linda

    So uplifting to see an emphasis on community and acceptance ! I grew up in small town Oregon and thought my neighborhood was diverse because we had a couple of families from California and Texas. Thankfully, I went to a college that brought in people from all over the world. Life is so much richer, including delightful foods and beautiful fashions with African and Asian influences. Bravo !!

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