Moral: While some people can't resist the lure of good clichés, perceptions of California cuisine has evolved. Apparently, we don't subsist on tofu and juice cleanses, although if you ask enough folks who reside outside of state lines, alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast will inevitably come up. (Thanks again, Woody.)
That said, we're not afraid to buck tradition and enjoy a superb meal whether on a food truck or in a strip mall. Call it fusion, hybrid cuisine, "ethnic" ingredients used with French and Italian techniques or cilantro-and-avocado-fueled iconoclasm. Whatever.
Some people who live here do indeed eat Wolfgang Puck-made pizzas, either in a restaurant or from the freezer case. We can get a little crazy when it comes to pizza. For better or for worse, frozen yogurt is beloved by many here and we've helped popularize it elsewhere. We like salads of all kinds, whether it's simple fresh greens, luscious Cobb or crisp Chinese chicken.
We care about seasonal, but we don't forage for our food and cook exclusively from splattered and dog-eared copies of Alice Waters and Diane Worthington volumes.
Even among natives who have seen food trends come and go, we know the times have changed. Macrobiotic and raw foods are now peddled and served in sleek, LEED-certified, wood and glass-enclosed restaurants designed by top architecture firms, rather than in converted bungalows where a group of spiritual adherents pooled their collections of tapestries and hand-loomed pillows. Oops, we're slipping back into misperception. Which is ironic, because the gulf between Californians' vs. non-Californians' responses isn't as wide as one might think.
Methodology: Survey using social media, informal conversations, and asking people who are either native or near-native Californians, or those who we know to have limited first-person familiarity with the Golden State. Much like applying the word "local" to food, using it to refer to a Californian and, in particular, an Angeleno, can be fraught with complexity. Let's face it: A preponderance of caveats won't prevent social scientists from cringing.
Conclusion: Some stereotypes are based in fact. Yes, we do have access to fabulous produce and good wine. Yes, we boast a progressive and inventive approach to various cuisines. Yes, there was strong agreement that avocados would occupy a substantial chunk of California's MyPlate graphic. We allegedly, and actually, eat a lot of fish tacos, fresh fruits and vegetables, sushi, Mexican and Thai food. No shame in that game.
Responses included singular ingredients (asparagus), mixed condiments (Green Goddess dressing), entire national cuisines (Mexican, Thai), specific dishes (fish tacos), technique (grilled) and dietary regimens (macrobiotic). "Seasonal," for example, is a philosophy, an ethos and a cooking approach. All these different components further complicate any attempt to categorize California cuisine. Such is the tossed salad of the world we now live in.
Based on this sample, relatively few responses fell exclusively into the non-Californians column. In other words, what we think of as "California food" hews close to outsider assumptions. We also love certain specific, highly local foods that others don't know about or failed to note. Date shakes or Santa Barbara spot prawns, anyone? A few California denizens gave sourdough a shout out. Not exclusive to our state in particular, but this style of starter does have a specific history in the Western United States.
While macrobiotic and other "health foods" were a part of the survey dialogue, something on the other end of the spectrum was mentioned several times: hamburgers. Indeed, the burger is essential to the history of food in California (particularly Southern California), and vice versa, so it's heartening to see it recognized. Plus, it's no big secret that grilling and outdoor cooking can happen almost year-round, thanks to our climate. Whether it's because of In-N-Out burger's association with the L.A. area or the variety and popularity of burgers these days, burgers can peacefully coexist along with big, ornate salads, representing contrasting aspects of California food at its best.
Notes: Anthony Bourdain seems to bring out the inferiority complex in some Angelenos. For those who really want him to like us, the fact that Wolfgang Puck/Spago pizzas are a part of this conversation might be vexing.
California is a big state, after all, and it's slippery to make generalizations about an incredibly diverse region that comprises the world's eighth-largest economy. A few regional differences cropped up. Oysters were associated with Northern California, while specific requests (that food be grilled, butter withheld, sauce kept on the side, etc.) is a Los Angeles-area habit. Obviously, this kind of question can be parsed according to thousands of demographic and geographic criteria.
Tacos were strongly identified as a California food, which isn't a big shock, but we expected to hear more references to burritos.
It turns out, the term "California cuisine" does not instantly translate to conversations about Chez Panisse and incendiary comments from prominent New York chefs, or debates over whether Roy Choi or Michael Mina is the best current representative of the movement and ethos. In the end, our state is largely about all kinds of fresh produce, fish tacos, numerous cuisines that have been imported and continue to flourish either in their traditional forms or with some creative license. And avocados.