May 10th, 2004

Dancing Thru

Iron Chef Californio

Once again, I create magic. Because food is magic. It evokes another time and place in a way that challenges perceptions, and brings the past alive. This time, since we had twice the number of living history participants (over 60), the challenge of lunch increased. I have 3 hours to create early California food, and make it a great demo, while answering questions from the visitors. Unlike Iron Chef, I don't get my dishes disqualified if I run little over, because my fires aren't burning well, etc.

This time, the fires were perfect. The chickens cooked ideally. The sauce base for the Pollo Verde cooked to perfection. The beans with lettuce and green onion were just the right consistency when I moved them to the coals to keep warm until serving. The boned chicken cooked in the sauce with the parsley, and the second batch simmered as I dished up the first installment, and pulled the rice with garlic and onion off the fire, just at 1 pm. The rice could have used a couple minutes more, being very slightly al-dente, but it was nice and fluffy right down to the bottom of the dutch oven, and came out at exactly the same time as the chicken. (I'm my own worst critic. I was the only one who thought the rice could be a bit better---my diners were talking about how good it was, and how amazing it had been done over a fire.) Halfway through the service, I pulled the second batch of chicken off, and topped up the serving dish, so everyone in line got it piping hot. I was told by two separate people the Pollo Verde was the best chicken they'd ever had in their life. And it was the first time I'd made it. The very first time. Reconstructed from accounts of early California and my painful translation of an 1853 Mexican recipe, where everything was in vague terms, from amounts to instructions. How much vinegar? How much parsley? The tomatos were supposed to be roasted---can I let them just cook down in a dutch oven? What do they really mean by this term, that translates "waddle like a duck?"

I'm finally getting there. I'm finally achieving the status of Californio Master Cook, like some of the rancho or mission cooks I've read about, that is HOW we know what they cooked, because visitors remembered the meals enough to write about them years and decades later. So many of my original sources talk about how well the Californios ate. Even when they disparaged with the tone of a bland-palleted New-Englander, they still gave great detail, talking about "meat and vegetables in a mess of highly-flavored sauce" or "a sweet ball of dough, fried crisp in grease" (donut holes, anyone?), or (horrors) "leafy green salad full of purslane". And it's so different from what people expect.

So then I went home and worked on the cookbook. I dabble at it periodically, but this time, I wrote pages. I should do this after every event, as that's when my entire being is bubbling with the essence of Californio food, from rib stew to migas, tamales to verdugas con huevos. All those original accounts nag at me, and I see myself at wedding feasts and picnics, eating breakfast or barbecue, and creating food for all of them, early in the 19th century. When it's done, it will forever revise how people think of food in early California.
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