Mexican Food in Gold Rush California

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For a little while I have been wondering about some food history questions related to the experiencing new cuisines. When people from New York or New England came to California for the gold rush, did they eat Mexican food? If so, did they write home about it and tell their relatives about their excitement in eating a brick-red chile-laced stew? Did San Franciscans eat Mexican food? The answer to the second question is most likely buried in rare document libraries, but I recently found a pretty good answer to the first question in Joseph Conlin’s Bacon, Beans and Galantines: Food and Foodways on the Western Mining Frontier (University of Nevada Press, 1987, out of print). In the last chapter of the book, Conlin has a section called “Why the forty-niners did not eat Mexican,” in which he lays out a few reasons why Mexican foods were not popular in the mining camps.

For the most part, miners maintained a diet close to what they were used to, even though certain Mexican foods made better economic or time-management sense in a mining camp. For example, compare the time and effort required to bake a biscuit with the requirements for a corn or flour tortilla. For a biscuit, you need an oven, plus time to mix and bake the dough. For a tortilla, you need only a few minutes of rolling and then a flat hot surface for cooking. But then again, making tortillas is harder than making a biscuit, and was considered women’s work in Mexico, so men probably didn’t know the technique. There isn’t much evidence of a supply of tortilla-making supplies ā€” Conlin writes that surveys of sales records for grocery stores in mining camps north of the Southwest rarely list sales of “masa” (presumably ground, nixtimalized corn) or “harina” (presumably wheat flour ground for tortilla making), even though many Mexican men were there seeking their fortunes.

Other reasons presented by Conlin include a negative attitude towards Mexicans ā€” the U.S. had recently won a war against Mexico and the Foreign Miner Tax of 1850 turned American miners against immigrants ā€” and the idea that Mexican food was the food of poor peasants. Miners were aiming to strike it rich and enter elite society, so whatever the practicality of Mexican food, it could not compete with the French food that the rich ate back east.

Conlin’s explanation seems reasonable to me. Unfortunately, he does not address whether Mexican cuisine was eaten in San Francisco by newcomers from the eastern portions of the country. I suspect that many of the same cultural biases were present, yet also imagine that there must have been some adventurous eaters who wanted to eat something different (Conlin mentions that a few restaurants had dishes like enchiladas or meat in chile sauce on the menu). I’ll have to dig into books about San Francisco history to figure out that part of the puzzle.

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  1. Super interesting how much this differs from the history of Southern California. My understanding is that, because SoCal started as ranchos, Mexican food was much more pervasive in its history.

  2. I have never seen evidence of “Mexican” food being eaten in NorCal during the Gold Rush or for decades afterward. Remember that because of the so-called “Decline of the Californios”, the Hispanic element in California’s population diluted and was dispossessed. As late as 1911, fewer than 100,000 “Hispanic” people lived in California. This is according to Bean and Rawls’ California: An Interpretive History. The present abundance of Mexicans is a recent phenomenon.

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