Our favorite recipes and dishes often evoke a powerful sense of place. For me, making Pumpkin-Mushroom Soup from Sharon Cadwallader’s Whole Earth Cook Book takes me back to lunches up at the Chadwick Garden on the UC Santa Cruz campus in the 1970s, when she ran the restaurant there; and the Zucchini Burgers we still make every summer from Cynthia Mathew’s 1974 vintage Planned Parenthood’s Zucchini Cookbook transport me to my first garden in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where summer squash grew like crazy.
Capturing a culinary sense of place is the aim of the new book, Harvesting Our Heritage: Bite-Sized Stories from Santa Cruz County History, researched and written over the past five years by four young women who call themselves the heritagistas and call their work “a digestible journey to the past.”
The project started in 2012 when Sierra Ryan—a Santa Cruz County water resources planner—was given a cookbook compiled by her great grandmother, who lived on a farm in the Live Oak neighborhood. “It was gorgeous, all handwritten, like a diary of her food life,” says Ryan, who made copies of some of the recipes and gave them out to friends at Christmas.
They were inspired to look further, combing through historical archives for more old recipes and the stories behind the foods that people were growing and eating throughout Santa Cruz County’s relatively short history.
“Once you learn what happened before, it puts your own role in Santa Cruz history into perspective,” says Ryan. “It’s not just the here and now. It’s part of the past, present and future of local food.”
Ryan was joined by Jody Biergiel Colclough, Liz Birnbaum and Katie Lang Hansen to produce the 131-page book, which recounts the stories of 11 local foods and beverages from the mid-1800s to the present.
For example, while the Sierra Foothills were experiencing the Gold Rush, Santa Cruz was enjoying the “spud rush” as farmers hurried to plant potatoes on the fertile banks of the San Lorenzo River. Later they jumped on the bandwagon of different crops, the sugar beet, followed by apples, Brussels sprouts and, eventually, the berries that are planted all over south county today.
“The thing that really struck me in doing this project is that there’s always been that innovative and entrepreneurial culture here,” says Lang Hansen. “It’s not just in surfing or in high tech; we’ve been innovating in food here for 150 years.”
Lang Hansen—a dietitian and member of Slow Food Santa Cruz—wrote the chapter on berries, explaining that electricity first arrived in Watsonville thanks to early plantings of strawberries that required lots of water. A flume was devised to bring in water from the mountains and a water wheel was installed alongside the flume to generate power.
The authors, all in their early 30s, were amazed to learn that Santa Cruz was once known as a place to dig for clams and enjoy a clambake on the beach. Clamming for Pismo clams was a really big part of Santa Cruz culture for the better part of 100 years, but sadly ended in the 1970s due to a combination of over-consumption and the resurgence of the sea otter population—clams are one of their favorite foods.
Another chapter examines the more modern history of the dry- farmed tomato, specifically ones grown at Molino Creek Farm north of Davenport. “Dry-farmed tomatoes for me were really emblematic of what’s happening now in Santa Cruz food culture, this incredible celebration of ecological organic farming and growing food for taste, not travel,” says Biergiel Colclough, an organic certifier at CCOF.
As part of the research, she interviewed Molino Creek partner and local organic pioneer Mark Lipson, who revealed how the Grateful Dead had played a role in popularizing the farm’s dry-farmed tomatoes. The Dead enjoyed them so much that their chef had them shipped to each one of their tour stops in the late 1980s.
The book contains a sprinkling of recipes to accompany each story and try at home, but for the most part they serve as a reminder of how much more sophisticated our tastes have become over time. Nonetheless, the recipes are a start towards defining the true flavor of Santa Cruz.
One of the authors, Liz Birnbaum, plans to bring the stories and recipes in the book to life with a series of themed dinners this fall, put on by her company The Curated Feast.
“Through this project I’ve gotten a sense of place that I didn’t expect,” says Birnbaum. “Now when I drive around and see Chanticleer Avenue, for example, I know it means rooster and refers to the chickens that used to be raised around there. It’s such a beautiful way to access history and one I’m excited to share with people.”
Harvesting Our Heritage will be on sale starting Sept. 1 at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History, publisher and advisor on the book, as well as at Bookshop Santa Cruz, selected gift shops, and online through Amazon, with all proceeds going to the museum.
EXPLORE: To learn more about the Food Heritage Project and upcoming events related to the book launch, visit the heritagistas’ website www.scheritagefood.wordpress.com. To find out about upcoming history-themed dinners, see www.thecuratedfeast.org.
At Edible Monterey Bay, our mission is to celebrate the local food cultures of Santa Cruz, San Benito and Monterey Counties, season by season.