I enjoy reading about food. I’m assuming you do, too. So here are a few stories about signature San Francisco dishes, a bit of history on your plate.
If there was such a thing as a celebrity chef in the 1920s, it was Alsatian Victor Hirtzler. Instead of wearing a white toque, or a backward baseball cap as would-be superstar chefs do today, Hirtzler wore a red fez, a goatee, and an attitude.
Before coming to San Francisco and taking over as chef de cuisine for the Hotel St. Francis, he cooked for King Don Carlos of Portugal, for whom he created a dining experience in 1910 so elaborate it led to an assassination. For Don Carlos, Hirtzler prepared mousse faison Lucullus — pheasant breast stuffed with truffles and woodcock with a Champagne and Madeira sauce. It was said the dish cost $180 per serving — a lot of money then, and now too — and that so incensed Portuguese patriots they tossed a bomb into the king’s automobile and concluded that monarchy. Hirtzler got the message and immigrated to the United States. Mousse faison Lucullus notwithstanding, Hirtzler’s most famous recipe, and one closely associated with San Francisco, is celery Victor. As far as I can determine there are no restaurants serving Celery Victor anymore, so here’s the recipe, right out of his Hotel St. Francis Cookbook:
Wash six stalks of celery. Make a stock with one soup hen or chicken bones, and five pounds of veal bones in the usual manner with carrots, onions, bay leaves, parsley, salt and whole pepper. Place celery in a vessel and strain broth over same and boil until soft. Allow to cool in the broth. When cold, press the broth out of the celery gently and place on a plate. Season with salt and fresh ground black pepper, chervil, and one-quarter white wine tarragon vinegar to three-quarters of olive oil.
Some might say that I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about cioppino. And I suppose I do. Cioppino occupies me more than, let’s say, frozen fish sticks. The story behind this succulent, tomato-based fish stew is that it originated in San Francisco with Italian fishermen in North Beach, where it can be found on many menus today.
Now I don’t want to be a spoilsport, and I bow to no one in my love of San Francisco’s North Beach, not to mention its Italian fishing community. Nevertheless, I refuse to believe that along the coast of Mare Nostrum — that ancient sea, the Mediterranean — no fisherman ever came up with the grandfather of all cioppinos.
As a devoted cioppino lover, I have been doing some research.
Giuseppe Bazzuro who, in 1850, turned an abandoned ship into San Francisco’s first Italian restaurant, created cioppino, closely related to ciuppin, the fish stew of Genoa. He used whatever seafood was at hand, including Dungeness crab. My main man on just about anything gustatorial is the incomparable Waverley Root, who wrote the authoritative twin volumes, The Food of France and The Food of Italy. Root never mentions cioppino, but traces brodetto, ciupin, burrida, cassola zimini, ghiotti, zuppa de pesce and, of course bouillabaisse, which he describes as “… the very ancient fish chowder said to have been invented in Athens and spread throughout the Mediterranean by Greeks …” There we have it — precursors to what in North Beach is called cioppino.
All these noble elixirs include tomatoes in some way or another. Tomatoes were introduced to Europe in the 16th century from across the Atlantic in the New World. So it figures that a fisherman in a small boat netted a mixed bag of Mediterranean fish, boiled them with some seawater, and threw in a few chopped tomatoes, onions, and whatever else was at hand.
Perhaps this is more than you ever wanted to know about cioppino, but my defense is cioppino is sublime.
The Old Poodle Dog, a French restaurant that dated its founding back to 1849, is said to have created the Dungeness Crab Louis in 1908. The chef was Louis Coutard, and the salad and dressing were named for him. Another old San Francisco establishment, Solari’s, had a Crab Louis on the menu in 1914. Today Crab Louis is ubiquitous in San Francisco restaurants. Louis dressing — something like Thousand Island — is usually mayonnaise, chili sauce (or ketchup), pickle relish, and a dash of Worcestershire sauce.
GREEN GODDESS SALAD
I remember Green Goddess salad from when I was a kid, and on special occasions, my folks took me to the Garden Court in the old Palace Hotel. That was good living and good eating. Chef Philip Roemer created the salad in 1923 for actor George Arliss, who was starring in a play here called The Green Goddess. Roemer’s version is not found on menus today. Yes, you can find Green Goddess salad at the Garden Court in the Palace, but not like this: On a bed of shredded iceberg lettuce, place a sliced tomato and sliced hard-boiled egg. Position an artichoke heart in the center. Fill it with Dungeness crab legs — legs only please. Smother this with Green Goddess dressing — mayonnaise, sour cream, chervil, chives, tarragon, anchovies, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and a bit of minced garlic.
This intriguingly named dish can still be found on the menus of Tadich Grill and Sam’s Grill. Basically, it’s an omelet with bacon and oysters. But it’s the story behind the dish that is worth telling. The Gold Rush town of Placerville up in El Dorado County was known as Hangtown — and that needs no explanation. Frontier justice was harsh. There are two versions of the Hangtown Fry story: The first is that a prospector who made his poke of gold nuggets invented the dish. Eggs were very expensive, so were oysters shipped on ice from San Francisco. So that’s what this Gold Rush gourmand ordered from his hotel kitchen.
The second story is a stopper: A quick-thinking, condemned man in the local hoosegow was asked what he would like for his ritual last meal. An omelet with oysters. Granting his request delayed his hanging, but only for a day.
What’s so special about Joe’s Special and what’s its origin? I spoke to the indispensable Alessandro Baccari Jr., retired San Francisco historian, whose knowledge of North Beach knows no bounds. This is what he told me:
“Joe’s Special was introduced at New Joe’s on Broadway by Joe Ingressia who ran the place. But the real origin of the dish was the old wholesale produce market, which was where Embarcadero Center is now. The produce workers were up all night unloading vegetables from the San Joaquin and Salinas valleys. Around midnight they would drop into one of the small cafes that sprang up there and have a Midnight Special — eggs, a few vegetables like spinach or chard, a little ground meat, and maybe a few hot peppers, all scrambled together. Joe Ingressia put it on the menu at New Joe’s around 1930, and that was how Joe’s Special was born.”
You can still find Joe’s Special on menus around town, and when I’m in a Joe’s Special mood, I go to Original Joe’s in North Beach.
Bagels are fine. English muffins have their charm. Warm tortillas have doting fans, as do steamed pork buns. Even foamy white commercial bread has devotees and responds well to tuna salad. But it’s the iconic San Francisco sourdough that turns on residents of this bread-wise city.
It began with the Gold Rush in 1849. Many believe the miners brought sourdough “starter” or “mother” north from Mexico. While panning for gold they had to do things for themselves, even making their own bread. Some say miners carried their mother under their saddles to keep it warm and alive. Others tell they kept mother in their armpits. Mother was just a bit of yesterday’s bread dough — flour, water, salt, and wild yeast. But not all 49ers were miners. In 1849, a French immigrant, Louis Isadore Boudin, opened a bakery here. Boudin’s is still going strong, and is the mother ship of sourdough bakeries. It says its mother dates back to the original 1849 supply. In 1941, the Boudin family sold out to Steve Giraudo. Steve’s son Lou operates the bakery, but he doesn’t keep the mother in his armpit.