Saturday, May 23, 2009

History of the San Francisco Bay Area - how it was

(I don't even know if Frances Johnson is still with us. If she is, I want to thank her for this piece of history.)

Firm-fleshed trout fresh from icy streams, wild mushrooms fit for the gods, quail roasted in a wood-burning oven -- these are the stuff of  GOURMET MEMORIES 

By Frances Johnson, 1983

When I saw crab in the Piedmont Grocery the other ay for $12.50 a pound and discovered that the market no longer even stocks abalone because the price is now $30 a pound, I remembered between laughter and tears how richly we ate here in California when I was a child and we were dirt-poor.

My father was a longshoreman (many years later during the general strike [1934?] he was president of the ILWU), and work was scarce to nonexistent. But he had time, and Lucullus himself never dined more luxuriously than we.

When the docks were idle my father would pull out his crab nets -- we wove them ourselves around two metal rings, using heavy twin and a wooden netting needle -- and we'd go to the Berkeley pier, which was crowded with poor fishermen like ourselves.

Pollution was minimal, smog was not even a word, the skies were blue, the breeze blew fresh and the crab were plentiful -- great big crab, easily seven to eight inches across the shell. We'd carry our catch home in a wet sack - the claws clacking -- then cook, crack and feast. The meat was sweet, juicy and plentiful. We dipped it in homemade mayonnaise, beaten with eggs gathered from the chickens raised (no longer legal in the city) in our own backyard on Valdez Street.

When the first spring rains arrived my father hiked to the Oakland hills to gather wild mushrooms. He would return home with the smell of wet earth and grass pungent on the black work pants all longshoremen wore at that time, bearing a huge yield of mushrooms in a paper bag. Those who know only the pale, white, costly fungus sold in the produce sections of today's stores have never really known mushrooms -- that rich earth flavor with a slight metallic tang; that wonderful aroma as they sauteed in butter. As a side dish for dinner, as a main dish for lunch, creamed over toast points - my mother baked her own bread - they were epicurean. 

In those same hills lay a reservoir, now filled and built over, where flocks of wild duck paused in their annual migration. My father was a superb shot, and all duck season we dined on tender birds stuffed with homemade bread dressing and served with slices of fried apple, the fruit grown in our own backyard. Like the wild mushrooms, the wild duck has a flavor that cannot be duplicated in domestic birds, a gamy taste that carries to the palate the sense of wild skies, reedy marshes and a vast teeming world of times past.

Quail, too, lived and bred in abundance in the hills. I can see them now, plucked, stuffed, their tiny legs and wings tied tightly to their plump bodies, tucked into the roasting pan and set into the oven of our black-iron, wood-burning stove. No gas, no electricity, no microwave can produce the smells or bring out the flavors like one of those old stoves. Basted in butter and wine, those quail excelled any dish from any of today's highly rated and priced gourmet restaurants.

Though fishing was never my father's real talent or interest, he did fish when times were really hard. My uncle had a Ford and a small open trailer; we shared gas expenses -- it was five cents a gallon then -- and at the opening of the trout season we would drive to Gualala River. Since we had no money we camped out. The fishermen rose early to return with breakfast. I know of no meal in the world more appetizing than firm-fleshed trout fresh from an icy stream, cooked in the open and served with biscuits my mother made in a battered portable oven we always carried with us, washed down by coffee brewed in a speckled granite pot from clear water drawn at a nearby spring.

After breakfast we would go over to the coast to property owned by our friends the Ohlsons, who ran sheep. Part of this property is now Sea Ranch. There my father would fish off the rocks, a dangerous occupation if one was not watchful of the incoming waves. An old Indian who lived close by would give him advice on the best rocks from which to fish, and the awareness of danger and the romance of listening to the old Indian added zest to the flavor of the catch. 

Sometimes my cousins and I would gather mussels, but I remember better my fascination with the lustrous lining of their shells than I do their taste.

No, the real marine joys of eating were fish chowder and abalone. The fish my father caught off the big rocks were bullhead. The fillets, cooked on the beach, were delicious, but still not equal to chowder made from the huge head. Potatoes, onions, a bit of salt and pepper and the big head simmered together in a deep pot over a slow fire,  dished up in thick bowl after our day's racing around on the sand — neither we nor the gods would exchange it for ambrosia.

Abalone depended upon the conjunction of no work and minus tides so there was something special about procuring it. There was the mystery of rising m the dark and reaching the beach for the low tide; there was the wonder of the response of sea to moon, the tide falling, rocks rising from the tea bottom, water receding toward the horizon and the land advancing to reveal, deep down among the rocks, the abalone, clinging there with a force as strong as life itself. 

My father, stripped to a loincloth and with a tire iron in his hand, was Everyman engaged in the eternal battle with nature, plunging and reaching into the cold depths, straining to pry loose the powerfully dinging mollusks, and all before the tide could turn and treacherously sweep back in.

When the contest was won, the fire was lighted and the Dutch oven was set on to heat. What anticipation! The abalone had to be removed from its shell and beaten with a special corrugated hammer to break down the tissues; otherwise it would be tough as leather.  

No one else I know cooked abalone as we did. Oh, if the catch was good we brought some home in our wet gunnysack and had slices fried in the conventional way, but on the beach it was different. The abalone was placed in the Dutch oven with a liberal helping of butter and some slices of lemon, then covered and roasted on top of the fire. While it cooked, my cousins and I, with long ropes tied around our middles in case of undertow, would run out and swim in the returning tide. Later, cold, salty, weary and starved, we would sit in a circle around the fire. The cover would be lifted from the Dutch oven and all the richness of all the seas since time began would fill our nostrils. The abalone would be lifted out, aiming and tender, then sliced and served with its gravy of juice, butter and lemon. At such moments, time itself stood still.

I live now on one of those hills where my father used to collect mushrooms and hunt wild duck and quail. The rocks where he used to fish for bullhead and plunge into the water for abalone are closed off by housing tracts. The crab have retreated before pollution.  

To be poor today in California is no longer the gourmet adventure it was back then, nor will poverty now provide the rich memories it did for me and my cousins. But what a time it was, everything fresh, everything abundant — all for the taking. Truly, that was California living.  

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