History and Influence on Cuisine

Compared to the United States as a whole, California has a relatively young cuisine, the foundation of which is innovation. The third largest state in America and with the largest population, it has a wide variety of microclimates and geography, making it well suited for growing and raising foods of all kinds. Agriculture is the core of the state's economy and California produces more crops than any other state. Home to the largest irrigation systems built in America, farmers even in the most remote deserts have the opportunity to raise and harvest valuable crops.

California cuisine takes advantage of the region's abundant natural resources. With the wide variety of fresh produce and vast grazing land for livestock, obtaining fresh, local, seasonal ingredients is easy. The inclination toward a healthy lifestyle has also encouraged the development of California cuisine. Foods grown and harvested naturally, prepared simply, and without preservatives and fats, along with the constant flood of aspiring chefs bringing their culinary heritage, have assured California has its share of creativity with regard to food and food-related products. Chefs today recognize they have a commitment to the environment, to their community, and to using their talents to continue to lead the nation in fresh, new ideas that change the culinary landscape.

California “The Golden State,” California's history and development has been intertwined with gold in one form or another. The state flower is the golden poppy, the state tree is the California redwood, and the state animal is the grizzly bear. The state bird is the California quail, and the state fish is the golden trout. The state motto is “Eureka”—the Greek word meaning “I have found it.”


The earliest residents of California were Native Americans. There were hundreds of small groups, speaking more than 100 languages, with no central government, but they existed in relative peace and isolation. Mountain tribes lived in small villages and ate deer and other small game. Coastal tribes harvested fish and shellfish from the sea. Their diets also included fruit and nuts. Acorns were an important food for almost all of California's native population. After drying the acorns, and leaching out the tannin, the acorns were ground into flour to make dough that was cooked on hot rocks or made into a mush.

European Contact

The first settlers to arrive in California were the Spanish. Many were Roman Catholic missionaries who traveled to California to “civilize” and convert the natives to Christianity. Franciscan friar Junipero Serra established the first mission at San Diego in 1769, and eventually 21 California missions stretched from San Diego to Sonoma. The food in the missions reflected the Mexican and Spanish influences in the area. They grew crops such as wheat and corn and raised livestock, including cattle and pigs. The missionaries taught the Native American tribes about farming and other trades.

Along with the missionaries, a group of people known as “Californios”—Spanish-speaking people from Mexico or Spain—settled in California. These were powerful and often wealthy families who held vast territories under Spanish land grants and raised tens of thousands of cattle. They established sprawling ranchos, or cattle ranches, along the California coast. Most of the rancheros sold cattle hides and tallow, or animal fat used to make candles and soap. Some made wine and grew citrus fruits, which were exported. They lived and entertained in grand style. Beef was the main staple of their diet. The fortunes of the Californios changed after the Mexican-American War of 1846 to 1848. Mexico lost the war and, in 1848, ceded California to the United States. Though they lost their land, the Californio legacy remains. The citrus and wine trade continue to be two of California's largest industries, and the names of many California cities—including San Francisco, San Jose, Monterey, Los Angeles, and San Diego—are reminders of the Spanish-speaking people who first settled them.

The California Gold Rush

In 1848, shiny particles were found near a sawmill owned by German-speaking Swiss immigrant John Sutter. The particles were gold, and it was not long before more gold was found by other workers at Sutter's mill and news of the chance discovery began to spread. When the news reached San Francisco, virtually the whole town flocked to the Sacramento Valley to pan for gold. As gold fever traveled eastward, overland migration to California rose from 400 people in 1848 to over 44,000 by 1849. By the end of 1849, California's population exceeded 100,000. The rest of the world caught gold fever as well. Among the so-called “forty-niners”—the prospectors who came to California in 1849—were people from Asia, South America, and Europe. The discovery of gold revolutionized California's economy. Gold financed the development of farming, manufacturing, shipping, and banking. Because of its location, San Francisco became the supply center of the region. Ships linked California markets to the expanding markets of the rest of the United States.
The Transcontinental Railroad

Even after the gold rush, California remained the fastest growing state in the nation. Entrepreneurs Charles Crocker, Mark Hopkins, Collis Huntington, and Leland Stanford—known as the “Big Four”—joined together to build the western railroad link to overcome California's geographic isolation from the East Coast. Their crews laid over a thousand miles of track to join the eastern and western railroad lines.

When they needed workers to lay the track, they hired primarily Chinese immigrants. By 1869, when the railroad was finished, 10,000 Chinese workers had helped to build it. After completing the job, the Chinese turned to the agriculture, mining, and manufacturing industries for work. They lived in their own neighborhoods, establishing large Chinatowns in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and other cities.


In the early years of the 20th century, moviemakers found their homes and fortunes in California. Southern California made outdoor filming possible during the winter months, and striking landscapes soon turned it into the glamour capital of the world. Catering to the movie studios and its stars, restaurants such as the Cocoanut Grove, the Brown Derby, and Chasen's opened and quickly learned to provide high-quality food with excellent service, setting the trend for today's modern California cuisine restaurants.

The Geography and Microclimates

When discussing any great area of agriculture, it is helpful to organize it into regions reflecting climate, geography, and culture. The coastline of California stretches 1,264 miles from the Oregon border in the north to Mexico in the south. More than half of California's population resides in the coastal region. Most live in the major cities that developed around harbors at San Francisco Bay, San Diego Bay, and the Los Angeles Basin. The San Francisco Bay, one of the finest natural harbors in the world, covers about 450 square miles and is famous for its ocean breezes and the fog that rolls in from the sea. It became the gateway for newcomers heading to the states' interior in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The completion of the Santa Fe Railroad in 1885 spurred population growth, as did the establishment of major army and navy bases during World War I. The Los Angeles Basin is the largest lowland area in California, and with construction of a huge breakwater along the harbors of San Pedro and Long Beach, this bustling port overtook New York City in 1994 as America's premier gateway for foreign trade.

Mountains cover most of California. The mountains guard the rich agricultural valleys from the intense heat of the desert to the east and shield the coastal valleys from the Pacific Ocean and its winds to the west.

The Central Valley lies between the coastal ranges and the Sierra Nevada. With the rich soil washed down from the surrounding mountains, this is the most productive agricultural area in California. This valley is actually two valleys in one, with the San Joaquin Valley in the south and the Sacramento Valley in the north. The climate in the San Joaquin and Sacramento valleys supports an expansive array of fruits and vegetables. After the gold rush in 1849, European settlers established vast wheat farms on the valleys' fertile soils. The great Central Valley Project, constructed in the mid-20th century, established a series of dams, reservoirs, and canals and guaranteed sufficient water for the diversification of crops. The improvements in irrigation enabled the valleys to produce tomatoes, potatoes, alfalfa, sugar beets, olives, almonds, walnuts, peaches, pears, apricots, and dozens of other fruits and vegetables.

Much of the eastern half of Southern California is a large desert triangle. Among the deserts of California are the Mojave and Colorado, as well as the notorious Death Valley. The Mojave is the largest desert in California, and Death Valley, a deep trough that is measured as the lowest point below sea level in the Western Hemisphere, was named by a group of gold seekers who struggled through the region in 1849. The Colorado Desert stretches over 4,000 miles in Southern California and includes the Coachella and Imperial valleys. In 1849, California visionary Oliver Wozencraft became convinced that these two valleys could be irrigated and turned into thriving farmland. He had a creative irrigation plan, which, over the subsequent years, was modified into a chain of levees that brought water to the valleys from the Colorado River. Many settlers moved to the valleys as farming was made easier and more profitable by the constant sunshine, inexpensive water supply, and rich soil. The settlers found that in this desert area of California, they could raise crops, harvest them, and sell them in the market before their competitors in the north. The nation's only commercial date palm grove grows in this desert oasis, and today the desert is known as Palm Springs and is a place of fashionable boutiques, exclusive resorts, and magnificent and opulent living.

Major Influences and Innovations

Innovation in Food

The largest of California's agricultural industries is dairy farming, which today produces over $3 billion worth of dairy products each year. The cheese industry of California, working with the milk of cows, goats, and sheep, is an example of the state's diversity. Small local artisans make prize-winning, hand-crafted, high-quality cheeses that compete well with their older, more established European counterparts. At the other end of the spectrum are high-tech cheese factories that produce hundreds of millions of pounds of cheese each year. Monterey Jack, one of the three cheeses invented in America, is from California.

Agricultural innovation in California began with a horticulturist named Luther Burbank, who moved to Southern California from New England in the late 1800s. During a lifetime devoted to plant breeding, Luther Burbank developed more than 800 strains and varieties of plants, including 113 varieties of plums and prunes, 10 varieties of berries, 50 varieties of lilies, and the Freestone peach. In 1871, he developed the Burbank potato, which was introduced in Ireland to help combat the blight epidemic. He sold the rights to the potato and used the proceeds to travel to Santa Rosa, California. In Santa Rosa, he established a nursery garden, greenhouse, and experimental farms that have become famous throughout the world. At any one time, he maintained as many as 3,000 experiments involving millions of plants. In his work on plums, he tested about 30,000 new varieties. From this original research, California scientists began to develop new varieties of produce carefully selected for resistance to disease, bugs, and extreme weather conditions, as well as for characteristics of size, color, flavor, and shelf life. Although a significant amount of controversy surrounds these selectively bred fruits and vegetables, especially now that some are being genetically modified, one thing is for certain: The technological advances started by Burbank in California allowed the state's produce industry to supply not only America but also the world.
Modern California Cuisine

Culinary professionals credit Alice Waters for her role in the development of California cuisine. While studying in France, Waters experienced a cuisine based on using premier ingredients grown by local farmers. She returned to America and opened her own restaurant, Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, in 1971, and partnered with local growers from Northern California. She used a single fixed-price menu that changed daily. This menu format allowed her to focus on serving not only the highest-quality products but also only when ingredients were in season, understanding that the dish is only as good as its components. As other restaurants began to adopt her philosophy, many artisan producers found opportunities to specialize in and market certain products, such as baby vegetables, varietal tomatoes, and other market-fresh produce. Chez Panisse is still considered one of the best restaurants in the United States.

About ten years later, Austrian-born chef Wolfgang Puck, the chef at Ma Maison in Los Angeles, a popular hangout for Hollywood celebrities, became one of America's first celebrity chefs. In 1982, Puck opened his own restaurant in Los Angeles, called Spago, and became known for his designer pizzas and specialty pasta dishes. He brought a lighter style of cooking to California cuisine and added an entertaining and energetic atmosphere emphasizing an “open kitchen” where guests could watch the chefs prepare their food.

Recently, fusion cuisine has become a popular innovation originating in California.
Using a creative mix of flavors, techniques, and ingredients of more than one region or international cuisine, California chefs began creating dishes that both represent and serve the diverse people and cultures in the state today.

California society has been shaped by many different kinds of people. From the Native Americans, to Spanish aristocrats, to gold hunters, railroad tycoons, and movie moguls, each group has left its imprint on the state. And immigration to California continues as Mexican, Japanese, Southeast Asian, Italian, French, northern European, Middle Eastern, Spanish, and Greek people contribute to the multicultural blend that keeps California cuisine fresh, imaginative, and exciting.
(American Regional Cuisine. John Wiley & Sons 9.3.2).