19th Century Californians Learned to Love Chile Peppers

I recently gave a presentation in Los Angeles, sponsored by Culinary Historians of Southern California, titled “How Californians Turned America onto Chile Peppers.” For those of you who missed my talk, this is how they did it. By publishing — and raving about — recipes laced with chile peppers in the late 1800s, a time when most Americans back east had never seen, much less eaten, one.

three vintage California salsas

The nation’s definitive culinary reference of the day, the Boston Cooking-School Cookbook, first published in 1896, is devoid of chile peppers. The 623-page book has one so-called “Chili Sauce” recipe, but it wouldn’t break zero on the Scoville scale of chile heat. It calls for 12 tomatoes, 2 cups of vinegar, an array of spices including cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg, and a single “pepper,” which in New England in that day would have meant a bell pepper.

Most early California cookbooks, in sharp contrast, included recipes for sauces with hefty helpings of peppers identified as “chiles,” using the Spanish spelling, or described as “long green” or “Spanish,” to make it clear that the recipes were calling for the pungent, Southwestern varieties of peppers that were indigenous to the region. These sauces were, as Cookery in the Golden State, published in Sacramento in 1890, noted, “anything but chilly.” The hottest of the several chile sauce recipes in that book, which called for a ratio of one large “red pepper” per tomato, has a “wonderful combination of sweet and sour and active pungency” that would “tempt the appetite of a mummy,” the book declared.

For my talk, I prepared chile sauce recipes from three of the early California cookbooks featured in Vintage California Cuisine. The three recipes illustrate how Californians in the late 19th century, most of whom were newly arrived from back east, had begun to add chiles to their diet.

One of the recipes is from a cookbook published by Charles Fletcher Lummis, a New England native who walked across the country to Los Angeles in 1884 to take a job with the three-year-old Los Angeles Times. In a book he later wrote about his “tramp across the continent,” Lummis claimed he was convinced he had been poisoned the first time he was served a dish laced with chiles shortly after he arrived in the Rio Grande valley. He soon became one of the leading Anglo aficionados of chile peppers, and all things Southwestern, as I reported in a biography I wrote about Lummis.

Bernalillo chile sauce

Bernalillo Chile Sauce (1903)

He included an array of chile recipes in the Landmarks Club Cook Book, which he published in 1903 to raise funds to restore California’s crumbling Spanish missions. Some of them were ones he had personally gathered in his wide-ranging travels. There was the Peruvian stuffed pepper recipe I wrote about earlier this year. The one I took to the talk is from the New Mexico town of Bernalillo, where Lummis had friends in the four years from 1888 to 1892 when he was living 30 miles down the Rio Grande River in the Pueblo Indian village of Isleta. “Most Americans do not at first flush like dishes in which [chiles] predominate; but it is an easily acquired taste,” Lummis observed in an introductory chapter. “It is one of the most healthful condiments in the world, and almost a hygienic necessity in California and other non-humid lands.”

Chili (Spanish) Zalza

Chili (Spanish) Zalza (1881)

Another of the recipes I prepared is from the first cookbook published in Southern California, Los Angeles Cookery, compiled by “the ladies of the Fort Street Methodist Episcopal Church” in 1881. Published just 33 years after California passed from Mexican to U.S. rule, the book shows that the Episcopal ladies of L.A. certainly knew how to handle real chile peppers. A recipe for Spanish hash, for instance, calls for roasting five red ones in an oven and pounding them into a pulp to add to the other ingredients. The recipe from that book that I prepared for my talk, titled Chili (Spanish) Zalza, Sauce Piquant, is an uncooked pico de gallo-style salsa, which specifies that “green chili peppers” should be used, in a 1:1 ratio with tomatoes.

Ancho Chile-Almond Sauce

Sauce with Almonds (1898)

The third recipe I chose is from El Cocinero Español, California’s first Spanish language cookbook, published in San Francisco in 1898 by Encarnción Pinedo. She was a descendant of one of the oldest, and at one time wealthiest, families of the Californio ruling elite, with roots in California that date back to the Spanish colonial era. Her chile recipes are, not surprisingly, much more sophisticated than those published by her Anglo contemporaries. She used chile peppers in intriguing combinations with other ingredients ranging from almonds and walnuts to olives and cocoa. The one I prepared is a simple but delicious ancho chile-almond sauce.

Here are the recipes:

Bernalillo Chile Sauce

Twelve large tomatoes, twelve green chiles, twelve medium onions, chop well; three cups sugar, three cups vinegar, two teaspoons allspice, one teaspoon cayenne pepper, two heaping teaspoons salt. Boil all together till thick.

Source: Landmarks Club Cook Book (1903)

Chili (Spanish) Zalza, Sauce Piquant

Take four large tomatoes, removing the tops and ends, one large silver-skin onion, and four large-sized green Chili peppers, removing the seed; chop fine and drain five minutes through a colander; place in a deep dish; season to taste, with salt, black pepper, vinegar, and best Lucca oil. To be served with either hot or cold meats. Olives may be added before serving, if acceptable.

Source: Los Angeles Cookery (1881)

Sauce with Almonds

Place ancho chiles in salt water until they swell, devein them, grind them with fried bread, cleaned almonds, a clove, cinnamon, a teaspoon of salt and with or without a little vinegar.

Source: El Cocinero Espanol (1898)

About Mark

Mark Thompson, who currently resides in Philadelphia, writes about law, history and food, among other topics. American Character, his biography of Charles Lummis, an Indian rights activist who lived in California and the Southwest from the 1880s through the 1920s, was honored by Western Writers of America in 2002 with a Spur Award for best biography. His second book, Vintage California Cuisine, traces the origins of the state's unique culinary sensibility to the earliest cookbooks published in California. Thompson also publishes a web site called SeasonalChef.com, about farmers markets and seasonal produce. He has written for dozens of publications including the Atlantic, The New Republic, the Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times.
This entry was posted in Recipes, Sauces. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply