Curry Comes to California, Circa 1885

When I set out to find 300 recipes from early California cookbooks that showed how a distinctive culinary sensibility began to emerge in the Golden State in the first decades after statehood, I was especially interested in finding evidence of early arrivals of a diversity of foreign influences. Jules Arthur Harder’s 1885 cookbook is a treasure trove of recipes that fit that bill. I included 24 of them in Vintage California Cuisine.

Chef de cuisine at the Palace Hotel, San Francisco’s swankiest hotel of its day, Harder filled his 481-page book with recipes from around the world. Titled The Physiology of Taste: Harder’s Book of Practical American Cookery, it was intended to be the first of a six-volume set. None of the other volumes ever materialized. Luckily, the first covered vegetables. It thus, encompassed two key elements of the culinary style that would come to be known, a century later, as California cuisine.

Stewed Carrots, Indian Style

Stewed Carrots, Indian Style

The book gave readers a globe-spanning array of ways to use the bounty of vegetables produced year round on the fertile farms that were sprouting up everywhere in California in those days. More than 300 different herbs, fruits and vegetables are covered in the book. Provencal, Macedonia, Palestine, Germany, England, Turkey and Brazil are among the many farflung place names mentioned in recipe titles.

One of the Indian-influenced recipes in Harder’s book was a big hit at a vintage California dinner party that I recently hosted. It is simple and as reproducible today as it was nearly 130 years ago when Harder included it in his cookbook. Here’s the recipe:

 Stewed Carrots, Indian Style

Cut and trim two dozen young Carrots, all of even size. Put them in water to cover them. Then season with salt, pepper and sugar, and add a piece of butter. Cook them until tender. Then slice an onion and put it in a saucepan with a piece of butter. Fry it lightly, adding a soup-spoonful of flour and a teaspoonful of curry powder. Let it cook for a minute, while stirring it well, and mix with it a glass full of cream and some of the Carrot broth to make a clear sauce. Add the Carrots then, and season with salt and pepper, and let them simmer for 15 minutes.

Source: The Physiology of Taste: Harder’s Book
of Practical American Cookery (1885)

Harder’s measurements aren’t easy to replicate with precision, given his penchant for nonstandard units, including “soup-spoon” and “glass.” But all you need to do is gradually stir in cream and carrot broth until you get a sauce of whatever consistency suits your fancy. The result is delicious, proclaimed my dinner guests, who made quick work of the dish, leaving me wishing that I had made twice as much.

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.
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