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Saturday, November 3, 2007

A History of Food: The 1990s

I spent the entire decade of the 1990s living in San Francisco where I had landed as a 23 year old in 1986. I was also in a relationship of almost 9 years with Whatshhisname that ended in 1999. It is what I would call a "starter marriage."

For the most part I lived out near Ocean Beach and the Cliff House in the far Western part of the city. It was quiet, very foggy and cold in the summer, and in a way an entirely different city from the rest of San Francisco. Some friends considered it so far West that I told them to just set their watch back a half hour when they arrived.

San Francisco was and still is considered one of the "foodie" capitals of the world. From Jeremiah Towers' Stars, Alice Waters' Chez Panisse, Mark Minna's Aqua to Bradley Ogden's One Market there were many new and innovative restaurants. Visiting these places also helped shape my culinary tastes. It gave me the courage to experiment with new techniques and new ingredients.

And I can't forget the various farmers' markets - I usually frequented the rudimentary one down by the Ferry Building held where the old Embarcadero Freeway was before the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. It has now been transformed into a large market inside the Ferry Building itself.

The best market was in Marin County, on the grounds of the Marin Civic Center built by Frank Lloyd Wright. It was one of Wright's last commissions and is a stunning piece of architecture.
Whatshisname and I would drive over early on a Sunday morning and walk through this market which took up at least 2 acres of space. There were items that now in 2007 we take for granted but were new and interesting in the mid-1990s: organic produce, pomegranate juice, fresh dates (still on the branch), brussel sprouts on the stalk, etc. There was the man who roasted all types of chili peppers in a large metal masket over a gas flame. The lettuce lady - she had a large kiddie pool filled with unusual types of greens - all organic. You would take a plastic bag, put it around your hand, and grab what you wanted and place it in another bag. And samples and samples of stuff from every vendor. The strawberries from Watsonville, the peaches and nectarines from the San Fernando Valley - all fresh and inviting.

I also went on a trip to Spain in May, 1997 with Whatshisname and his parents. This was an unbelievable time for me and an exposure to authentic Spanish cooking. We visited Barcelona, Zaragosa, Valencia and Madrid. I remember the farmer's markets at all these place. And the ham. If you've been to Spain you know what I mean - there is even a place call the Museum of Ham! Jamon Serrano is a dried, cured ham much like prosciutto but a very different flavor. We had paella and horchata in Valencia. Horchata is a summer drink made from the tiger nut and water - when pureed it turns into a milky soothing drink, much like soy or almond milk. We also had blood sausage and lentils in a small town called Guadalajara - a stew with these sausages made from pig's blood, lentis, onions, tomatoes. Outstanding.

I was very close to Whatshisname's parents who had immigrated from Nicaragua during the civil war of the 1980s. That relationship coupled with my location in a city with a large Hispanic population helped form many of my views towards food.

I cooked lots of arroz con pollo (chicken and rice), paella, empanadas de yucca (savory appetizers made using flour from the yucca root), tostones (plaintain chips), frijoles negros enteros (whole black beans) and used ingredients like crema del vaso (Mexican sour cream), carnitas (fried and roast pork) and queso fresco (a fresh white cheese).

I remember early Sunday mornings at La Palma over near 24th and Alabama. It was a Mexican deli basically where I could buy all these ingredients. The best item: tortillas handmade by the abuelitas (grannies) in the back of the store. They all sat around large griddles heated by a wood or gas fire - these were huge at about 2 to 3 feet across. The women would pick up a handful of tortilla dough made with masa harina (corn meal), quickly and expertly form it into a flat round circle (no tortilla presses here) and throw it on the griddle. Then, with an expert eye and a sense developed from 50 plus years of cooking, they would know exactly when to flip the tortilla.

People would wait in line to buy these tortillas by the dozen. There were bags of premade tortillas - that had been made by these women the day before or earlier in the day but the die-hard afficionados knew that the only good tortilla was one that came right off that grill immediately. I would buy 3 dozen at a time - we used them like bread in my house back then.

And the best part: going out to your car, opening the package and seeing the steam come out, rolling up a tortilla and dipping it in the cream del vaso - all done on the hood of your car. I've seen grown men cry while doing this. All because certain foods, especially the foods of your past, the foods of your people, can transport you back to your roots.

Photo: me in May 1997 at an horchateria in Valencia, Spain.

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