Gourmet Live’s latest issue, California Dreaming, got me musing about the tremendous influence California has had on American food in the last 40-something years. So I called Zanne Stewart, who was the executive food editor of Gourmet during three of those decades, to get her take on it. When Stewart joined the editorial staff in 1972, the focus was mainly on Europe. “I badgered Jane [Montant, the editor-in-chief], about California restaurants, and she kept brushing me off. Finally, she whirled around one day and said, ‘California? Really? Those are the people who invented brunch.’”
Despite Montant’s withering dismissal of the topic, she did change course, and soon hired Caroline Bates, a former Gourmet staffer and gifted writer, to cover California restaurants on a monthly basis.
Informed by Bates’ columns—which didn’t just review restaurants, but also reported on emerging environmental issues—other West Coast foodies, and her own travels, Stewart distilled California’s significant effect on American food into five insightful trends:
Mediterranean Romance: The Mediterranean Diet hadn’t yet been coined as a term, but the likes of Alice Waters and others were smitten by the pure, fresh flavors in the foods of the Mediterranean, and didn’t see why they couldn’t achieve the same in California with their own homegrown ingredients.
Periphery of The Plate: The whopping hunk of animal protein dominating the center of American plates was de-emphasized as we paid more attention to the salad, the bread, and the wine. “It was a big idea that salad was made of leaves, and not from some round ball of greenish stuff that you chopped up,” explained Stewart. “The leaves in Alice Water’s impeccable salads were almost curated by the effect they could have on the palate.”
Locavore/Artisanal DIY: California had the warm climate that allowed for year-round farming, making it easy to eat locally, because much of the nation’s produce was grown in the state. And the artisanal craze started in California, Stewart claims. “It was a big deal when Laura Chenel began making goat cheese in Sonoma. Prior to that, we thought things were better if they were imported.” Today, California wines, olive oils, breads, dairy products, and charcuterie are all world-class.
Health: Again it comes down to the weather. With so many things to do outside, it was easier to be active, and with that activity came an increased awareness of health, and the essential role of good food in our well being.
Looking South and West: Extraordinary food didn’t have to come from Europe; it could come from the Pacific, or Mexico, and points farther south. California was perfectly positioned to take it all in. “The rest of the country started looking at California and saying, ‘We want what they have!’” ended Stewart with a chuckle.