Does Northern California Have a Regional Cuisine?

The short answer is: ‘no.’ But there is also a longer answer that can provide some texture, depth, and a feeling (possibly illusory) of understanding.

If you travel to Italy, you may find the locals passionately arguing the relative merits of the cuisines of Tuscany and Liguria and Calabria.  At a finer scale, each little valley has its own cheese, wine, olive oil, and way of seasoning a chicken, deeply rooted in tradition and slightly different from neighboring valleys. This, too, is subject to endless discussion and judgment.  Such is regional cuisine at its best.

The Italian experience is not replicated here. You will not find partisans arguing the merits of the cuisine of Sacramento compared to that of, say, Bakersfield or Redding.  The entire state shares the national food culture: Whopper and fries, large Coke and a Snickers bar, to go. And, as food is based in agriculture, the Whopper and fries can be seen as the fruit of industrial agriculture, that many-armed conglomeration of Monsanto/Cargill/Bank of America/Exxon/ADM/John Deere/Union Pacific/General Mills/USDA/Dow Chemical/Goldman-Sachs/Burger King and their multinational brethren. It is a system that is good for the shareholders but not so good for the land, nor for those who eat its food-like products.

Of course not all land in California is farmed industrially; there are plenty of farmers, mostly on small farms, following contrary and original philosophies, and harvesting crops of exceptional quality.  And there are chefs who recognize the culinary value of these farms and their products, and feature them in their menus.  Could this not be the basis for a regional cuisine?  Not yet. It fails on a number of points.

Regional cuisine is not so much the inspired creation of a chef as it the shared culture of an entire populace.  It is most likely to develop in geographic isolation, and in conditions of poverty, or at least austerity.  It also requires cultural continuity over generations.  The local wine of some little valley is the product of a particular strain of grapes, styles of trellising and pruning, the tradition of spreading ashes and duck manure in the vineyard on a particular saint’s day, the manner by which ripeness is judged, the kind of baskets in which the grapes are carried, the strain of yeast used in the winery, the type of wood used to make the barrels, the temperature, and five thousand other factors that jointly determine the character of the wine.  The result in turn must endure the judgments, prejudices, and endless discussion of the locals who will drink—or refuse to drink—the wine.  It takes generations for all of this to come into balance. The same goes for the local goats that make the cheese, the local varieties of wheat and rye, and the local style of grafting fruit trees.

Another feature of true regional cuisine is that it is repetitive.  You eat the same meal ninety nights in a row, and then, as the season changes, you eat a somewhat different meal for ninety nights in a row, and so forth, until soon the year rolls around and you’re back where you started.  Eating the same menu steadily for seventy years gives you a deep appreciation of its nuances and subtleties. Where there is a strong regional cuisine, everyone is an expert on food.

These conditions do not apply in Northern California.  We are a population of immigrants and nomads, constantly in motion.  Hardly any child follows the profession of his parent.  We value individuality and originality over cultural continuity.  We complain if we get the same meal two nights in a row. We have too much wealth, too much freedom, too high an opinion of novelty, and too little history. No matter how brilliant the creation of a chef using local ingredients, the cultural context is unsuitable for it to become the basis of a regional tradition.

This brings us to a paradox.  In our enthusiasm for regional cuisines we have dragged them home with us from every corner of the planet.  Within a few city blocks you will find Mongolian barbecue, Chinese take-out, sushi, curry, hummus, strudels, samosas, enchiladas, and innumerable other ethnic and regional specialties. But in the course of setting up this global smorgasbord, we have created a set of conditions that make it impossible for us to develop our own regional cuisine, rooted in our own agriculture and common experience. We lack the prerequisites of geographic isolation, scarcity, and cultural continuity.

This is not to say that it won’t ever happen. Globalization, which is so destructive of cultures, depends on cheap fuel and cheap food, two conditions that are rapidly disappearing.  We are seeing abandonment of trade agreements and the resurgence of mercantilism.  This is good news.  As the movement of goods and people around the planet becomes increasingly difficult and expensive, we may experience a revival of regionalism.  It could include Northern California. But not yet.

6 thoughts on “Does Northern California Have a Regional Cuisine?

  1. As a chef who studied in the Chianti region in Italy~ I fully support this statement. I have found this to be the truth of our food system in the US. In Italy, the cuisine did evolve from scarcity, geographic isolation and the nuances of cultures from north vs. south. But out of this a purity of the food, a deep honoring of the essence of the ingredients (which they did not have to consider with applied effort and gastronomy – it just came through the chefs easily and very simply).

    Having said this – the best place to start in leiu of history and geographic isolation is to consciously choose to select locally grown and build our cuisines from this. Staying in integrity with what currently is freshly grown on our farms – vs. shipped and transported. Going deeply into this local variety (which is vast) can help to bridge some gaps between communities and their food supplies to consciously create an interdependent culture of food mindfulness.

    So we may all be of different cultures and backgrounds – such is our lot in the US. Now is the time to apply our knowledge of dwindling resources, integrity and consciousness toward doing that which supports the wellbeing of the greater good. Maybe this is a different kind of slow food movement, one that learns from the past – works with what we have currently and actively chooses where to place our energy of integrity for the future.

  2. I agree with a lot said here in the body of the post and the comment above. The solution here really is to invest in local producers. I recently moved back to Northern California, and so far, each week I have not missed the main farmers market, one of the highlights of my week. Here I find some great deals, and take home what I’ve purchased and try to make meals for the week with these ingredients.

    The problem that interferes, though, is that with the rising costs of living, when you go to your neighborhood grocery store, or even somewhere like Trader Joe’s (which I happen to like), I find produce and veggies that may not be local, but are high quality and a lot cheaper. So one has to find a trade-off. As for myself, I do all I can to put local food first, ahead of grocery equivalents, dining-out, etc…; but the ultimate cost/price can win out, sadly. As for me, I try to figure out what is in season before I head into the weekly farmers market, shop on what is cheap there (usually produce only), and then try to set up my meals around what I bring home. I am struggling a little bit here since what I buy there is usually fruits and vegetables, not usually the “stars” of a dinner. Advice?

    My other frustration is with a local shop (a natural foods coop) that legitimately prides itself on local and healthy foods. The problem though is that the prices are extremely expensive. It seems like the perfect avenue for supporting local, but the up-front consumer costs are too high. What do you do?

  3. Mike Madsen, very well said and I say this struggling with my own kitchen at home to bring culture, health and an environmental conscience to my family. We try to eat local, fresh and organic which is not always easy. We talk about our food daily and where it comes from. We discuss how our food choices here in the California Central Valley can support local farmers and then begin to create our own California culture. Not a McD’s culture.

  4. Thank you for addressing this issue, Mr. Madsen. If we do “experience a revival of regionalism” in the U.S., I believe that many will look to Northern Californian communities for examples of how to move forward in a sustainable way. There’s already a strong sense of health-consciousness, a legacy of grassroots activism, and an unparalleled variety of agriculture produced in that dizzyingly fertile place. May I suggest that the poverty needed to develop a regional cuisine there already exists everywhere in this country? But it’s not material poverty; it’s the poor health that happens when people are so far removed from the sources of their food that they will consume more nutrient-low food product than produce. And most people eat way too much of that, probably because their food product isn’t as tasty as good food.

    To address an issue raised in the replies, I too face the fact that I can’t afford to buy sustainable products only. I’m a chef in Seattle (though I’m from Sacramento); I have to decide what food to buy for my kitchen and I usually feed 100 people a day. I don’t like to buy certain things but we can’t justify the price of 100% pure food menu items to our customers. Pike Place Market is close, so I get to go there for nice seasonal produce and organic meats, but I’ll lose clientèle if I start charging $12 for a sandwich I was charging $7.50 for last week because the ingredients are all natural now. But I think you do what you can.

    I believe that if we all, at all levels, continue to consciously support local producers as much as we can, they will soon develop an infrastructure of relationships to supplant the corporate infrastructure of monopolies that makes the crappy stuff so cheap. And a better variety of good food will cost less.

  5. The conversation in these comments complemented with the body of the article say a lot about the hidden “spirit” of the cuisine of NorCal. I actually was inspired to start writing about uncovering what NorCal cuisine is all about, with a push of supporting local growers, dismantling the “industry” that has veiled any cuisines, and bringing this into the home kitchen.

    http://localnorcal.org/2008/07/local-wine-defining-our-cuisine/

    I’ve started by discussing how wine fits in the context of your post above specifically and see where this can end up.

    To the above commenters, it is pleasing and sad at the same time to see others in the similar situation where cost can be a limiting factor to contributing to the local food economy. Ryan, I’ll actually be in downtown Seattle at the end of the month, hopefully I can pass by your restaurant. What is it called?

  6. Hi Mike!
    It’s Fran, your Lake County compadre from the UC Davis Bioregion Project. Would you like my homegrown chicken soup recipe? It is most certainly the product of poverty, isolation and the use of very local ingredients, i.e. the rooster I raised from an egg and just butchered, plus whatever’s growing out in the garden.

    On a more serious note, I think that as a region we are ripe for developing a cuisine, it will just take time, as in not-in-our-lifetime. Maybe our grandchildren will see it beginning to take shape.

    As you say, a regional cuisine isn’t conceived, designed and sold, but rather it evolves out of necessity and custom. As I see it, several important factors will contribute to its development. First, the disappearance of cheap fossil fuel will result in a need to develop self contained communities. Secondly, the medical care system is rapidly pricing itself out of the market, requiring us to develop healthy lifestyles and eating habits if we hope to survive, rather than depending on the system to fix us with drugs after we’ve spent decades abusing our bodies with bad food and more drugs. That old paradigm won’t work anymore. Third, I believe our ethnic communities will lend significant influence in terms of survival skills, work ethic and food culture contributions.

    All in all, with our diverse landscape and generally forgiving climate, plus a preponderance of open-minded, creative and practical people, if you add a little necessity, I think we’ve got a great recipe for a regional cuisine, and a few little micro-regional cuisines within the region.

    And we might as well secede from the union while we’re at it.