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Arts & Culture
The sour truth behind San Francisco food myths
Our part of the world is famous, or maybe infamous, for its interest in food and how it’s grown. We’re also known for local specialties ranging from sourdough bread to the super burrito. Author Erica J. Peters of Mountain View explains the history of several “signature dishes” in her book San Francisco, A Food Biography.
The book highlights a number of Gold Rush-era specialties. Two of note are the Hangtown Fry, and sourdough bread.
You may know the Hangtown Fry as basically a fancy omelet, made up of eggs and oysters. It’s not what we think of as a delicacy. But Peters explains that in the 1850s chicken eggs were rare and could cost a couple of dollars each -- that’s more than $24 apiece in today’s money. Fresh oysters were also hard to come by in the mines. So eating a Hangtown Fry became an example of conspicuous consumption: “Hang the cost; I’ll have the most expensive thing available.”
Another basic foodstuff that traces its origins to the miners is the famous San Francisco sourdough bread -- or so we’ve come to believe.
“The story everyone knows about sourdough in San Francisco, and the connection, is that the miners were out in the mines, and this was their method of making bread for themselves, because they were so far away from civilization,” Peters says. Soon, city folks came to appreciate that sour taste of the miners’ bread, and adopted it as their own.
It’s a nice story, but Peters says there’s nothing accurate about it. “That just blows my mind,” she says, “that we have a whole story that we tell each other and no part of it is true.”
The truth, she says, is that “the miners who are called sourdoughs are not our miners at all. They’re the Klondike miners.” People who were working up in Alaska in the 1890s.
These miners had to “carry pots of sourdough starter on their bodies, to keep it warm, for months, until the supply ships came back,” she says. “And they are called Sourdoughs. Jack London writes about them, the famous sourdoughs. But it’s not our miners.”
What we think of as “San Francisco sourdough bread” is a 20th Century invention. Civic leaders, anxious to bring tourists back to the city after the 1906 earthquake, knew that specialty foods had always been an attraction. The bread was a vehicle for self-promotion.
Not all of the book’s entries focus on the Gold Rush. Chapter titles include “Immigrants and Ethnic Neighborhoods,” “Food Markets and Retailing,” “Famous Restaurants,” and “San Francisco Cookbooks.”
To hear the entire story click the audioplayer.