Posted by: acooksca | 01/27/2010

Encarnacion’s Ranchero Kitchen

 Old food books can speak to us from generations ago. They inform us of the writer’s personal history, their social and economic status, of a concern to keep the past alive and pass information forward. Such is the case with El Cocinero Espanol (The Spanish Cook) written by Encarnacion Pinedo. Published in San Francisco in 1898, it is California’s first Spanish-speaking cookbook and the most complete record of the Ranchero kitchen.

Avila Adobe kitchen C. 1840's

Encarnacion’s recipes look much like modern California cuisine. Her ancestors were amongst the early Spanish and Mexican settlers who brought with them almonds, apples, apricots, beans, cherries, chickpeas, chilies, citrons, dates, figs, grapes, lemons, lentils, limes, maize, olives, nectarines, oranges, peaches, pears, plums, pomegranates, quinces, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, walnuts, wheat, chickens, cows, goats, sheep and domesticated turkey. She came from an educated class which adapted recipes from Spain, France, Italy and Mexico into the cuisine of the Californios, Spanish-speaking generations born in California.

Between the 1780’s and 1848, large land holdings known as Ranchos were awarded for loyalty and service to the Spanish crown (and after 1821 to the new government in Mexican City). The men who earned these Ranchos were often soldiers who had accompanied expeditions into the wilderness of Alta California. Encarnacion’s great-grandfather, a Spanish Basque named Nicolas Antonio Berreyesa, arrived with the 1775-76 expedition of Juan Bautista de Anza to establish the San Francisco Presidio. When Berreyesa retired, he was granted the 44,000 acre Rancho San Vicente in what is now Santa Clara Valley.

Encarnacion’s father, Lorenzo Pinedo, arrived in California from Ecuador. He was the sole survivor of a shipwreck off Monterey. He established himself, married into the Berreyesa family and received a land grant of 11,000 acres located near today’s Morgan Hill. The Pinedos built the first house in the town of Santa Clara and their two daughters grew up there. Dolores, born in 1845, was named after San Francisco’s Mission Dolores. Encarnacion was born in 1848 and carried the name of an uncle, slain while defending his Rancho from Yankee intruders.

Encarnacion was born at the moment the Ranchero culture began to evaporate. In the same year of Encarnacion’s birth, California was ceded to the United States by Mexico. The new law of the land did not recognize most Mexican land grants and violence swelled with the number of new immigrants. By 1856 miners and vigilantes, bent on seizing the New Almaden Mine on Berreyesa Family land, had lynched or shot eight of the Berreyesa men. Squatters went on to successfully sue in court to have the Berreyesa-Pinedo land grants overturned and the 160,000 acres in Santa Clara Valley were lost.

Encarnacion’s family tragedy of loss and persecution was not unique. Her ability to maintain her birth status as the educated daughter of a distinguished Spanish-Californio family was. She and her sister Dolores were schooled at Notre Damn Academy in San Jose, a European-style convent with a cosmopolitan outlook. Nuns trained in France, Belgium and Spain taught the schools curriculum. European literature and multi-lingual instruction were emphasized.

You can imagine Encarnacion’s desire to keep alive her Ranchero past and distinguish it from the rough, unsophisticated Americans that decimated her heritage. In her cookbook she criticizes the cultureless Americans by saying “there is not a single Englishman who can cook, as their foods and style of seasoning are the most insipid and tasteless that one can imagine”. Encarnacion dedicated her cookbook to her nieces, instructing them to preserve their heritage in the one area of influence allowed a woman in the late 19th century, the kitchen.

The University of California Studies in Food and Culture translated and published much of the original cookbook under the title Encarnacion’s Kitchen. The recipes make use of New World ingredients: hominy, tortillas, tomatoes, chilies and squash. Her pantry includes European ingredients the Californios learned to cultivate: fava beans, turnips, artichokes, cucumbers, parsley, oregano and tarragon, shallots, almonds and walnuts, vinegar and wine. And those brought in on Spanish galleons: cinnamon, cloves, sesame seeds, capers and ginger.

Encarnacion’s Kitchen is written in the style of many older cookbook texts which assume that they are speaking to women who already know their way around a kitchen. The recipes have minimal instructions and no exact measurements. Before the industrialization of our food during the last century, a cook had to understand the nature of each raw ingredient by its feel, taste and look as it changed seasonally. Exact measurements were irrelevant.

 What is fascinating is the complexity and variety of the recipes. Encarnacion includes techniques from European cooking as well as what looks like sophisticated Mexican cuisine of today. She provides recipes for French Potted Hare, Argentine-style Rice and German Meatballs. American cookbooks of the same time period were often published by women’s organizations in churches. Those recipes rely on a fraction of the ingredients and techniques that Encarnacion writes about.

Even so, American cuisine of the early and mid twentieth century didn’t resemble Encarnarcion’s splendid cuisine. We preferred the pale Yankee cooking she refused to adopt. It took nearly a decade after the loss of the Ranchero kitchen, with its emphasis on fresh produce, grilled meats and bright flavors for us to re-define California Cuisine in the likeness of the Californios.


Encarnacion’s Kitchen: Mexican Recipes from Nineteenth-Century California: Selections from Encarnacion Pinedo’s El Cocinero Espanol: edited and translated by Dan Strehl, pub. 2003 University of California Press California Studies in Food and Culture series

Voyagers to California: Del Wilcox (Seal Rock Press) 1991

Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America: Andrew F. Smith [Oxford University Press: New York] Volume 1, 2004 (p. 166)


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