The West Coast takes in the Pacific Northwest plus Northern California. Look for Southern Californian cooking in our Southwest Cuisine article.
Lighting the Fuse
Fusion cuisine often gets a bad rap for being unauthentic. But most great world cuisines are the result of "fusion." What would Italian cuisine be without tomatoes or Thai without chiles? Yet both of these ingredients originated in the Americas. Likewise, Southern barbeque would be different indeed without the pigs that the Spanish brought to the Americas in the 16th century. Cultures come into contact, new ingredients are introduced and cooks adapt and adopt. And it is in this light that West Coast innovations can be best understood. No flash-in-the pan fad, California fusion is an important contemporary culinary evolution. The West Coast, with its large Asian population, led the way in creating an innovative hybrid Pacific Rim cuisine that merged traditional Asian techniques with fresh local and seasonal ingredients. So-called California (or New American) cuisine also has Mediterranean and Latin influences and is often a fresh expression of Old World dishes.
Native cultures thrived in the lush, remarkably fertile Pacific Northwest, making the most of abundant seafood, wildlife and foraged foods, like wild berries and mushrooms. Beginning in the 16th century, the area was explored by English, French, Russian and Spanish seafarers, including Francis Drake, James Cook, Vitus Bering, George Vancouver and, of course, Lewis and Clark. Fur traders were the earliest non-native settlers to the area. Once cities were established, logging, fishing and seafaring industries attracted settlers to the Pacific Northwest. In Northern California, the population of San Francisco quickly exploded after gold was discovered in 1848, a time when places like Seattle were yet to be settled.
San Francisco Treats
The discovery of gold in California turned San Francisco from a sleepy settlement into a teeming city full of pie-eyed prospectors and those angling to get rich provisioning them. Miners set off for the hills bearing bread and sourdough starter, dressed in denim outfitted by a recently arrived German immigrant, Levi Strauss. Meanwhile, an Italian immigrant named Domingo Ghirardelli was busy establishing a chocolate dynasty. Immigrant fishermen from the Mediterranean developed cioppino, the seafood stew now nearly synonymous with the city. Others planted wine vines in the hills beyond the city in hopes of quenching the dusty thirst of weary 49ers. After arriving with the railroads, Chinese immigrants opened restaurants in a bustling Chinatown. Over the decades since, San Francisco has emerged as one of America's most important and inventive food cities. The Bay Area is birthplace, soul and center of the California Cuisine movement that thrives on fresh local ingredients served in season.
Long Live the King
In the Pacific Northwest, the wild salmon makes its last stand. From California northward into British Columbia, habitat destruction has destroyed hundreds of salmon runs. Many remaining runs continue to dwindle. Today, upwards of 90 percent of the wild salmon eaten in America are pulled from Alaskan waters. The King, or Chinook, salmon is the rarest--and the most prized for its rich flavor and large size. Sockeye and Coho (or silver) are a little leaner. The good news is that measures are being taken to protect both fish and fragile environment, with hopes that the wild Pacific salmon will not become a thing of the past.
The Inland Pacific Northwest
As you move inland from the Pacific Ocean and cross the Cascade mountain range, the scene shifts dramatically from moist and evergreen to sun-baked high desert. The Cascade Range acts as a rain shield, dumping most of the rain on the soggy Pacific Ocean side. Out on the sunny eastern side, you find the apple, plum and pear orchards of Oregon and Washington, Walla Walla onions and the burgeoning wine country. Ellensburg, Washington, is well known for flavorful lamb (they pair well with Yakima Valley and Walla Walla Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots). Further out in Idaho, potatoes and rainbow trout add to the rich culinary traditions of the Northwest. In Boise, meanwhile, the large Basque community contributes to the culinary color of the inland Northwest.
California can lay claim to more than a few of our favorite foods. The cheeseburger, so universal today, was invented in Pasadena in 1920. (For a uniquely California cheeseburger, top it with Monterey Jack--one of only three cheeses invented in the US.) Other California creations include the Popsicle, hot fudge sundae (although this claim is disputed by Wisconsin and New York) and the French dip sandwich. In the 1930s, Hollywood's Brown Derby restaurant was the birthplace of both the Cobb salad and the Shirley Temple. Though it doesn't dress the Cobb salad, creamy Green Goddess Dressing was dreamed up by a San Francisco chef in the 1920s. More recently, the fruit smoothie, the California sushi roll, and the concept of California cuisine have come rolling out of the Golden State to nationwide success.
From Potlatch to Potluck
When Americans come together bearing casseroles and other covered dishes to share a meal with friends and neighbors, it's called a potluck. When the Chinook Indians did it, they called it "potlatch." As with the modern potluck, the potlatch was a "bring your own" affair, a ceremonial feast to which people of the community contributed foods that they had prepared themselves. Potlatch means "gift," and to this feast, members of the tribe would bring gifts of food culled from the rich Pacific Northwest environment, including fresh salmon and other seafood, local mushrooms, berries and other seasonal foods.