Food & Drink

The Q&A: Writer Maryellen Burns talks food and history in Sacramento

Maryellen Burns
Maryellen Burns Doug Austin

What did Sacramento’s first non-indigenous residents eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner when the town was just getting started between the American and Sacramento rivers? Who started the idea of farm to fork? And how did Sacramento become known as the Big Tomato?

Food lovers will be able to travel back in time and answer those and other questions at what promises to be a fascinating talk by Maryellen Burns called “The Savory and Unsavory Bits Behind the History of Sacramento’s Food: 1839 – Contemporary Times.” The Sacramento chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier International organized the event, which will run from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 20, at the Sacramento Medical Society Museum, 5380 Elvas Ave. Tickets are sold out.

The author of “The Lost Restaurants of Sacramento and Their Recipes,” Burns will also bring samples of classic foods revived by students in American River College’s Culinary Arts program. The dishes will include Delta pear cake, oyster shooters and tamales.

Burns spoke to The Bee about Sacramento’s tasty food legacy and how she plans to celebrate it.

Q: Why start Sacramento’s food history with 1839?

A: From the minute John Sutter stepped ashore in the summer of 1839 and spied wild grapes, raspberries, huckleberries, strawberries, wild game and nuts, he knew that his dream of an agricultural utopia here could be realized. Wheat and livestock came first, but he quickly began cultivating fruits and vegetables at Hock Farm. Of course, I could have started 10,000 years before with the evolution of our alluvial soil and the food ways of the native people.

Q: What were the favorite foods of Gold Rush-era Sacramento, circa 1850? Were these favorites locally grown, or shipped from elsewhere?

A: Anything that came from the rivers or ocean – oysters, clams, mussels, abalone, lobster, wild salmon, sturgeon and caviar – were extravagant and inexpensive. Salmon and sturgeon were plentiful in our rivers. The others came upriver from San Francisco. Then as now bacon was extolled for its taste and added to oysters for Hangtown Fry. It was all washed down with Champagne imported from France, although a few years later we would start producing it in Folsom. Sutter hired his first beer brewer in 1845, and the beer industry started nearby in the Old Tavern, in the building Biba’s inhabits today.

Q: Did Sacramento always have a diverse culinary scene?

A: Gold fever lured miners and entrepreneurs from all around the globe – including South America, Europe, Australia and China. Early restaurants, boarding houses and hotels were often staffed by black cooks and waiters and supplied by Chinese truck farmers. However, until the 1890s, very little of what we now call ethnic cuisine was on offer except for French, German and Chinese. The French opened fine-dining establishments, the Germans operated saloons and the Chinese introduced chow-chow or chop suey restaurants.

Delicatessens came in the late 1890s but were dominated by Italians, not the traditional German or Jewish delis of our imagination and Mexican or “Spanish” restaurants in the 1900s. The real explosion came after World War I and II and the Vietnam War, when immigrants fled their homelands and established residency here.

Q: How did Sacramento become the Big Tomato?

A: The Big Tomato, Sacatomato, Sacratomato are all derivations credited to Herb Caen, a three-dot journalist from the San Francisco Chronicle, who used to ridicule his hometown all the time. He lived near the Libby, McNeil and Libby vegetable and fruit cannery and wrote often about the horrid smell during canning season. It didn’t really catch on until the early ’70s. Honestly, I still miss the smell of Campbell’s tomato soup being produced. Another infamous Herb Caen quote is: “I tend to live in the past because most of my life is there.”

Q: How hard has it been to research this culinary history? Where do you find your information?

A: Everyone in Sacramento has a food story to tell. I can’t go to a restaurant, grocery store, butcher or farmers market without getting into a conversation about food or drink. We also have tremendous archives and libraries – the Center for Sacramento History, the Sacramento Room at the Sacramento Public Library and the California State Library have voluminous collections of materials and oral histories. However, my go-to people are Darrell Corti, acknowledged worldwide as an authority on food and wine, and chef David SooHoo, who has an encyclopedic memory on the Chinese influence on food and agriculture in the region.

Q: Tell us a few “savory” bits.

A: I find it particularly delicious that Sacramento has been a leader in the pure and whole movements since 1849, when we passed the first pure food ordinance in Sacramento County guarding against adulteration in food. The Pure Food movement in the 1890s advocated for a more wholesome food supply and its benefits upon the public health. Of particular concern were the impurities in olive oil, an issue as current then as it is today. We also participated in the farm-to-table movement introduced in 1914 by the U.S. Postal Department to get fresh farm products, butter, eggs, poultry and vegetables to urban destinations quickly. It was not unlike CSA (community-supported agriculture) today. Our first “Whole Food” Festival advocating vegetarianism was held jointly by The Sacramento Bee and The Sacramento Union in the early 1870s. Farm to fork is not a new initiative.

Q: What heads the list of “unsavory” bits?

A: Sacramento’s anti-Chinese sentiment was deplorable and especially impacted the food industry. Demeaning advertisements were placed in local newspapers and on doors of food businesses, including the owners of the Rosemont Grill, pledging to never let Chinese hands touch their vegetables, meat or fish. I grew up in an active union family and became a union caterer and was appalled to discover the active role the food unions took against employing Chinese and other people of color.

Q: Will there be samples to taste along with your presentation?

A: Oyster shooters, tamales, smothered chicken, Delta pear cake, and Roxy’s shaved cauliflower salad with almonds, pomegranates and apple represent 175 years of Sacramento’s food story, prepared by students from the American River College culinary school. Guests will indulge in a taste of the past and take home a keepsake with the recipes, a small history of each dish and the role it played in Sacramento’s food legacy.

Jack Chang: 916-321-1034, @JackChangJourno

Maryellen Burns

Author of “The Lost Restaurants of Sacramento and Their Recipes”

She is the project director of We Are Where We Eat, an alliance that chronicles Sacramento's food stories. She serves on the boards of the Sacramento County Historical Society and I Street Press.