Beginning in the late 1800s, the commercial fishing fleet out of San Francisco’s North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf was dominated by Italian fisherman, usually from the port city of Genoa. But some boats were manned by a mix of fisherman from many other nations. Working side by side with the Italians were Portuguese from Lisbon, Mexicans from Baja, Spaniards from Barcelona, Frenchmen from Marseille, Chinese fisherman who had been in the city for many years fishing for shrimp, and there were even some highly skilled long range seafarers from Basque. Cioppino became so popular among the families in the bay area that it began to be served as street food for laborers along the wharf and by 1906, after the devastating earthquake, it was served in several restaurants in town. It is a classic San Francisco feast and always eaten with the wildly popular local crusty sourdough bread.
Fishing and Foraging
Everyone who loves crab cakes eventually gets to the big question… which are the best ones in America? For me, it comes down to two candidates… Commander’s Palace in New Orleans… and some dive I stumbled into along the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. They are very different but both were so incredible that the memory of them is indelible.
Paella is the signature meal of Spain, a national pride, and yet almost no one fully agrees on what it is or how is should be made. It is a controversial meal for many reasons… starting with the simple fact that it is a huge shallow pan loaded down with complex and expensive ingredients which completely vary from home to home, town to town, restaurant to restaurant, and from region to region in Spain. Paella in Madrid is very different from that in Seville. But at the same time, like Bouillabaisse from France, Paella is a classic meal so identified with the soul of the country that it naturally comes laden with emotion, memory, tradition, pride, and a sensory longing for the authenticity of the time and place of one’s upbringing.
Sometimes we steam the mussels we gather on the coastal tidal pools north of Santa Cruz in two copper Cataplana pots, which are made in Portugal. They are wonderful devices… hand hammered copper pots by Portuguese artisans. They have a tin lining inside and are held together like a clam shell with metal hinges, and they sit directly on the flame. The history of the Cataplana is obscure, which is excellent news for me because, as a dramatist, I can tell a good story about the legendary Cataplana that feels true to the time and place it was first recorded… which is the Algarve region of Portugal… and best of all, no one knows if I made it all up or not.
The impression most Americans have of Mexican cuisine comes from the innumerable restaurants that serve the ubiquitous food often referred to as Tex/Mex, popularized from along the borders of Texas and Arizona… hearty and filling fast food like refried beans, tacos, burritos, and the melted cheese-smothering enchiladas. But a long ways from this food in both style and miles are regions in Mexico where the cuisine is light and elegant, haunting and sophisticated, with vivid fresh flavors in salsas with aromatic herbs and spices. There is still a focus on chilies, but there are at least fifteen to choose from, all subtly different from each other, from the fresh chilies like habaneros, serranos, and poblanos and the game changing smoked and dried jalapeños called Chipotle, to the aromatic and haunting dried chiles like ancho (dried poblano), guajillo and negro. There are restaurants in Mexico City that rival those in LA or New York, but for me, the epicenter of this cuisine is the region of Yucatan and the port city of Veracruz. I find this cuisine to be exuberant and startling, like a new found love.
This feast comes from the heart of the North Country pines… northern Minnesota, the place where I did my real growing up, from boy to man, hunting and fishing in the wilds. This iconic feast, legendary among the native peoples who live there, is the essence of wildness. When you prepare the ingredients, and then feast on it, you can almost hear the cry of the loons out on the lake, in the dusk… and again at first light, as you ease your boat into the lily pads, casting for large mouth bass and northern pike. It is so deep in my heart that every scrap of my DNA cries out to be there again, one day.