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An Edible Legacy: Diversity, Californios, and the Birth of San Diego-Baja Cuisine

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PHOTOGRAPHY by
Olivia Hayo
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May 6, 2019
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The traditional market in Tijuana is a great place to take in the diversity of influences that have shaped the region.
Today, the influence of the Californios persists in the San Diego-Baja region.

Their blend of Mexican, Indian, and Spanish foods became part of the border culture, with tamales eaten during Christmas and enchiladas eaten all year round. In keeping with the multiethnic heritage of the Californios, the continued growth of diversity in this area also enriches the culinary terrain.

In 1821, Mexico declared independence from Spain and Alta (Upper) California came under the Mexican flag. By then, a large community of men and women had come from Baja California and Central Mexico during the late 1700s onwards and settled in what today constitutes the state of California.

They forged a fiercely autonomous identity. Not wanting to be known as Españoles or Mexicanos, they began calling themselves Californios.

The Californios held prominent political offices in towns throughout Alta California. They also raised cattle, as selling hides became a lucrative business. Many of the Californios traced their ancestors back to 1769 when Gaspar de Portolá trekked from Baja California into San Diego with a large party of soldiers that were of blended ethnicities precisely because Mexico under Spanish colonialism had been such a vast melting pot for centuries.

The Californios, like those who came before them, were of mixed ethnicities, including mestizo, Afro-Latino, Spanish, Portuguese, Amerindian, and even Jewish people.

The Californios had a distinct way of cooking. William Smythe, the first to write a definitive history of San Diego, described their food as such: "The Californios naturally survived on a diet of mostly meat. Alongside beef, they enjoyed veal, but did not eat venison, mutton, or pork. Added to their staple protein diet, they made tortillas, tamales, and chili con carne. They ate fish on Fridays and their sugared pastries were highly prized."

Sacred Expedition with Captain Gaspar de Portolá and his party of soldiers going through Goat Canyon in what is the US-Mexico border today. Painting by Benjamin Meza

After California became part of the United States in 1850, the Californios began to lose both their political influence and their lands.

Many prominent families from Old Town San Diego migrated to the border region and their descendants continued living in towns on the American side, such as San Ysidro, and owned smaller cattle ranches outside Tijuana.

While their prominence waned, their cuisine experienced a renaissance thanks to a native-born Virginian named Bertha Haffner-Ginger who came to Southern California and published the first known book of Californios cuisine, appropriately titled California Mexican-Spanish Cookbook.

Her cookbook included recipes for salads, soups, tamales, omelets, and beans, among others, and she explained the early distinction of Mexican cuisine in her introduction.

"It is not generally known that Spanish dishes as they are known in California are really Mexican Indian dishes. Bread made of corn, sauces of chile peppers, jerked beef, tortillas, enchiladas, etc., are unknown in Spain as native foods; though the majority of Spanish people in California areas devoted to peppery dishes as the Mexicans themselves, and as the Mexicans speak Spanish, the foods are commonly called Spanish dishes."

Today, the influence of the Californios persists in the San Diego-Baja region. Their blend of Mexican, Indian, and Spanish foods became part of the border culture, with tamales eaten during Christmas and enchiladas eaten all year round. In keeping with the multiethnic heritage of the Californios, the continued growth of diversity in this area also enriches the culinary terrain.

The Chinese began to settle in Baja California during the 1800s and still today tout their signature shark fin soup at many restaurants.

Jewish communities in Chula Vista, Bonita, and Tijuana remain kosher, refraining from pork as has been their tradition for thousands of years, but also mirroring the diet of early pioneers to Alta California.

Tamales have become a Christmas tradition on both sides of the border.

The Filipino community has made its mark in National City where a bust of Filipino nationalist icon Jose Rizal stands in front of Seafood City, a market that offers many traditional Filipino delights including lumpia and pancit.

Individuals from these communities have sometimes intermarried, their children tracing their descendants to ever more diverse heritages. The children of Filipino and Mexican parents, for example, identify as Mexipino and shape the San Diego-Baja cuisine through new culinary traditions such as adding longaniza meat to Mexican scrambled eggs with chile.

As everywhere, so too in the border region the adage remains true: We eat our culture. Old and new at once, these food traditions represent 200 years of the ever-changing multiethnic heritage of the San Diego-Baja region.

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