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Old Spanish Days Fiesta Cooks Up Flair for Food

California's rancho cuisine serves as the main course for a feast of traditional fare

It All Began in the 1700s

Old Spanish Days Fiesta celebrates the history, culture, traditions and spirit of the Old Spanish Days, i.e., the 1820s to the 1860s in California, known as the Rancho Period. To understand California’s rancho cuisine, one needs to take into consideration both Mexico and Spain, as they were in those early years.

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Historically, the Spaniards were great borrowers. When the Spaniards conquered Mexico in 1519, they either had to borrow Indian foods or starve to death. They adopted four prime Mexican ingredients: tomatoes, chiles, corn and chocolate.

“The story of Mexican cuisine is that of the Aztec and other Indian foods embellished by the Spanish conquerors and then given Spanish names,” according to Jacqueline Higuera McMahan in California Rancho Cooking. “More than 200 years went by, and this blend of foods was carried north into Spanish territories. The blend of Spanish and Mexican merged into Californian.”

The Californios. Once the Spaniards arrived in California in the mid- to late 1700s to stay, they settled down, married and had children. Those children in California born before February 1848 to these settlers — for whom Spanish was their native language — are called Californios or Californianos. Among their many accomplishments was the creation of a unique cuisine.

In time, the Californios, particularly the rancheros, thought of their style — and themselves — as a separate one. Barbecuing was the only way of cooking for celebrations or feasts. Its perfection became the calling of the asador. Olive oil was used lavishly for cooking, anointing vegetables and marinating meats to be barbecued, according to McMahan. Various green herbs, black pepper, cumin and red chile were favorite seasonings.

Californio Heritage in Our Mercado Food

Shrimp and fish are staple foods in Spain, Mexico and all over the world. Both were common in the Rancho period.

During Fiesta, you can find shrimp cocktails and fish tacos or ceviche. Tortillas were a staple of the Spaniards and became the first bread of California. They were and still are made from ground corn, or wheat flour. Those coming from Sinaloa in those early times preferred flour to corn. We know them best used in tacos. They are street food in Mexico, and you can buy them at Fiesta Mercados, taco stands and restaurants. It is a tortilla folded over with something in it like beef, pork, chicken or fish with lettuce or cabbage, cheese, salsa or other sauces, jalapenos, chopped onions and cilantro.

Tamales then as now were made with meat, masa and red chile sauce. Charles Lummis, in Landmarks Club Cookbook, says: “For ordinary sauces, toast lightly your red chilies, dry or fresh, in the oven. Soak in water a few minutes, and grind on a milling-stone or in a mortar, to a wet pulp. Strain in a colander to remove bits of skin. The hotness can be graduated by leaving or removing the seeds, which contain most of the fire. Add a little salt and a tablespoonful of vinegar, and fry all together with a little butter.”

Grilled meats were a passion of the Californios and Asaderos (barbecuing experts). We know this as barbecue today, and the best in the Central Coast is Santa Maria style tri-tip, but its roots come from the Spaniards cooking meat over a wood fire on the trail.

You’ll find Asaderos busy in De la Guerra Plaza cooking hundreds of tri-tips and serving, in some cases, as a torte, or Mexican sandwich.

“Rub the meat with herbs, salt and pepper, place it in a bowl and sprinkle olive oil, wine or vinegar over the meat and let it marinate overnight,” according to Dan Stehle in Encarnacion’s Kitchen. “The meat was served with Sarsa, the Californio name for salsa, and is very similar to what is found all over Santa Barbara and beyond. Made with chiles, green onions, garlic, olive oil, oregano, cilantro, salt, pepper and green or black olives, it was always on Rancho tables.”

Frijoles, or beans, were a mainstay of Rancho menus and were served almost at every meal. For a simple recipe for Frijoles Blancos Guisados (Stewed White Beans), Stehle says, “Put a pot on the fire with fresh lard. Fry onion, tomatoes and green chiles. When these are done, add the beans, not too soupy, and stew over a moderate fire.”

Green salads were available toward the end of the 19th century. They were simple, with tomatoes and “tossed with a teaspoon of mustard, 4 tablespoons of olive oil and 4 to 6 tablespoons of vinegar — add chervil and tarragon,” according to Leonard Pitt in The Decline of the Californios.

While the Spaniards on the hot and dusty trek from Mexico to Alta California would have loved them, fresh fruit drinks were not something found on the trail. Today, Fiesta-goers can enjoy “Agua Fresca.” These are drinks made with fruits. Lemonade is Agua de Limon, Horchata is made with rice, Jamaica is made with hibiscus, and you can taste Tamarindo, Agua de Melón and so on. Cervesa and vino are available in the Cantinas found at the Trust for Historic Preservation and the Crazy Horse Cantina in Mercado del Norte, but that is a tale for another day.

Viva la Fiesta!

— Kathryn McKee is a native Los Angeleno who came to Santa Barbara in the 1950s to attend UCSB. She returned in 2000, started with Fiesta as a volunteer, and now is its volunteer public information officer.

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