A First in 1884: Salad Dressing Recipe Labeled “Californian”

Labeling culinary items and concepts “Californian” is such a cliché these days that it’s hard to imagine there was a time when the state’s name had no such cachet. Yet such was the case in the first decades after statehood, when California was widely regarded as a far-away, uncouth frontier.

The two celebrity chefs whose cookbooks are covered in Vintage California Cuisine, Jules Arthur Harder in the 1880s and Victor Hirtzler in the first two decades of the 20th century, rarely deigned to mention California in their recipes. In their high-brow San Francisco hotel restaurants, they served dishes with European place names, such as Parisian, Viennese and Valencienne, instead. It was left to a San Francisco caterer named H.J. Clayton to first make the case that California was worthy of a culinary identity of its own. He wasn’t ashamed to credit the state in the names of the recipes he included in his 1884 volume, Clayton’s Quaker Cookbook.

One such recipe apparently was one of his most popular creations, judging from the name he bestowed on it: Clayton’s Celebrated California Salad Dressing. Aside from the name, the recipe’s mix of ingredients wasn’t particularly ground-breaking. The first cookbook published in California, How to Keep a Husband or Culinary Tactics, issued 12 years earlier, had a salad dressing that called for mustard, olive oil, vinegar and an egg yolk. But that earlier recipe used a pulverized, mealy potato as the thickening agent instead of the emulsification technique used by Clayton. Here’s his recipe:

 Clayton’s Celebrated California Salad Dressing

 Take a bowl with a wooden spoon fitted to its bottom. Mix 2-3 tablespoons mustard until quite stiff. Pour on slowly 1/4 pint best olive oil, stirring rapidly until thick. Add 2-3 fresh eggs, mixed slightly. Pour on remaining 3/4 pint oil and stir rapidly until it forms a thick batter. Add a teacup full of best wine vinegar and juice of one lemon, a small tablespoon salt, one tablespoon white sugar. Stir well until all is incorporated. For those not fond of oil, sweet cream of about 60 to 70 degrees in temperature is a good substitute though it doesn’t keep very well.

Source: Clayton’s Quaker Cookbook (1884)

I assume Clayton meant that a prepared mustard mixture should be used. To be sure, the Dijon mustard I started with got thinner, not stiffer, the more I worked it over with a wooden spoon. Had I started with dried mustard and a little water, I would have had a stiffer base to work with. But the end result would have been a mighty spicy concoction, so I think I made the right guess.

I halved the recipe, and used one egg, instead of the one-and-a-half eggs that I would have used had I gone with the upper end of the egg-content range suggested by Clayton. That may be one reason I never did get any semblance of  the “thick batter” that he said I should aim to achieve before adding the vinegar and lemon juice. It stayed on the thin side even though I set aside the wooden spoon in favor of a whisk, and eventually whipped the mixture up in a blender, in an unavailing effort to get it to really thicken up. The result, nevertheless, had a nice consistency for a salad dressing, even at room temperature.

So, what is it that San Francisco gourmets allegedly were celebrating in 1884? A basic, mustardy vinaigrette. On this test run with the recipe, I had no sweet cream on hand. Before I try this again, I’ll get some so I can try out Clayton’s suggestion to use cream in lieu of olive oil.

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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