As we sip boba balls through fat, pink straws and squeeze Sriracha over steaming bowls of pho, we generally don’t think about how far our culinary choices have come in a relatively small blip of time. And why would we? Los Angeles is one of the world’s most plentiful food cities, with choices from virtually every corner of the globe, and we're just busy trying to get a reservation — but of course, it wasn’t always that way. Just a few hundred years before we could order tonkatsu ramen with the tap of a smartphone, Californians dined on the robust plants and animals of the land; and now you can, too, at the Autry’s Historic California pop-up dinner, the first installment of the museum’s culinary series, Flavors.
On Jan. 27, get a literal taste of history from Crossroads West executive chef Brad Robertson and chef de cuisine Peter Cabrera, with their deeply researched menu of indigenous California plants and livestock with early Spanish influences.
“We are trying to focus on animals and indigenous ingredients that reflect the time and place of Southern California roughly 250 years ago,” Robertson says. “We want to give the museum guests a possibly once-in-a-lifetime chance to taste and experience these ingredients that have been lost to the masses for a very long time.”
Robertson and Cabrera collaborated with the Autry for nearly a year to create a menu that’s as historically accurate as possible while also pleasing to modern palates. Offerings include Spanish goat served over blue corn tostadas, wood fire-grilled tri-tip with braised tepary beans and corn on the cob, and Bronze turkey in mole with fig and mesquite empanaditas.
“Bronze turkeys are a heritage breed that do not resemble a typical, modern grocery store turkey,” Robertson adds. “They are much leaner, and the flavor has more minerality and slight gaminess. They’re also much smaller in size, with a much more equal light-meat to dark-meat ratio.”
The protein-centric menu is a reflection of the ranching culture that permeated most of coastal California, including Baja, between the 18th and 19th centuries, says food historian and Whittier College history professor Natale Zappia.
“The menu uses foods that are both indigenous to California and were brought in during the colonial and Californio eras, thus it ranges from the cultivation of tepary beans thousands of years ago, to the Longhorn cattle used by the Spanish/Mexican rancheros, and beyond,” said Zappia in an email. “In many ways, Southern California cuisine through the Gold Rush era was part of a larger Sonoran palate. Today, of course, Mexican cuisine dominates much of Los Angeles — although it is much more diverse, reflecting not only Sonoran but Oaxacan and other regional flavors.”
The evolution from the Sonoran influences during the Gold Rush to the kale cashew crema tamales of today didn’t come without cost. The industry and infrastructure it takes to feed a state of nearly 40 million, including our fair metropolis of nearly 4 million, has had its effects on the environment.
“Commercial agriculture and urban infrastructure have dramatically altered Southern California’s ecology,” Zappia adds. “On the eve of World War II, L.A. was among the most agriculturally productive counties in the country. The shift in infrastructure, manufacturing industries and residential developments completely transformed the environment.”
Zappia explains that L.A.’s current food system depends primarily on global imports, and that the land’s great potential for native plant restoration is the first step toward revitalizing the city’s ecosystem.
“Although there continues to be a widespread perception that L.A. is a desert with imported water, the L.A. Basin is in fact categorized by ecologists as a 'Mediterranean prairie.' A desert it is not.”
The Historic California experience is designed to emphasize the sustainability of indigenous plants and livestock as present-day choices, not just the foods of yesteryear.
“I would love to figure out time travel and see if someone from 1780 California would find our food recognizable and enjoyable,” Robertson says. “The real message behind what we’re doing, and the uniqueness, is that production on these animals and this produce that we’re featuring halted at one point or another.”
Tickets are $45 for Autry members and $50 for nonmembers, and include four farm-to-table food stations, a meet-and-greet with chefs and food experts, and exclusive access to the Autry’s recently opened California Continued galleries and garden. Reserve early, as space is limited. [Update: As of Jan. 20, the Autry website says this event is at capacity, but tickets remain for the next installment; see below.]