What Does San Francisco Taste Like?

By John Birdsall | October 21, 2015
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slicing molinari salamiIllustrations by Dan Bransfield

 

I unwrapped the salami I bought drunk, when my husband was out of town and I was supposed to be cooking for myself, only I didn’t cook. That night I went out with a friend for drinks, stopped at Safeway late, came home with this Molinari salami and the last, stiff levain on the shelf.

As I found the knife in the dish rack and got to work, it struck me: the feel of powder mold in my steadying hand, the release of tangy, delicious breath from the friction of blade on meat composite. This is one of the objects of my personal terroir, I thought, one of maybe half a dozen things that makes my life taste like itself.

The fermented, blood-shadow taste of this salami, it occurred to me, had long ago been coded into my reckoning of things. In a life spent within a narrow ring of cities around San Francisco Bay, Molinari was an immovable slab in my landscape. It was the dip of the ridgeline on the coastal hill I grew up looking at from the deck off my childhood house, the first telephone number I memorized and never forgot. It was, I realized—pressing uneven, shim-like slices onto a hunk of bread to plug my mouth with—an object of constancy.

Every life is a pic collage of memories and associations: the Marvin Gaye song that played on the car radio your first week of high school, when your mom dropped you off; the smell of the mock-orange blossoms on the tree outside your bedroom and that seeped through the window even after it was slammed tight, that summer when you knew you had to tell somebody you were gay. 

This struck me as something more than personal, more than something specific just to me. I thought, can a city have a flavor? An aggregate of tastes that define it, its own terroir, taking in not just the things that grow in its soil, but also the things cooked there, its history and culture?

I ask Ed Young, an old friend, to say what San Francisco tastes like. Ed grew up in the Richmond District, son of first-generation parents from Guangzhou, China. He ate very different things than I did as a kid. 

“That’s a good question,” Ed says. “I know when I travel and I eat Chinese food somewhere else, it doesn’t taste like Chinese food at home, but I don’t know how to explain it.” When I push him, he talks about technique, wok hei, or “breath.” “Chinese food that’s cooked in a wok has a smokier taste in San Francisco,” Ed says—he’s comparing it mostly to food in Monterey Park, near LA, which he knows pretty well—and it’s lighter here, less oily, and with subtler seasoning, especially his mom’s cooking. Does a city’s skills define its flavor?

I remembered Thomas McNaughton, the Flour and Water chef, saying offhandedly once how striking it is to come back to San Francisco from anywhere else, how restaurant cooking here, even Italian food, has a recognizable taste (herbaceousness, a pronounced acidity) that makes it feel familiar. But I wasn’t after some flavor profile, the outward contour of a thing. I wanted its essence.

Everywhere now in San Francisco you feel the rumble of the restaurant boom, the virtual sledgehammering of old eating places—entire districts—and the scaffold-rise before the new. Is there something that survives change, something of the old Paris of the West still perceptible in Tech-Bro City? Can a city have an abiding food identity, a truth that wires the present to the past?

It was the late 1960s; I was small. My great-great-aunt Sue (she was in her 90s, tough and terrifying as an old jay) had died. My older brother, Walter, and I were liberated from school not for the funeral, which our mom feared would haunt us, but for the lunch afterwards. So on a day when the sun bleached the sidewalks after the fog sluiced away and my blue suit felt scratchy on my legs, I saw, for the one and only time it would register in memory, Aunt Sue’s grim old house in the Bayview.

It rises huge in recollection, that house. It smelled like prickly brown furniture and oldness, as if the windows had long ago been permanently shut against the rumble of buses and cars down on Third Street. I sat, bored, in an unyielding scroll-leg chair, as grown-ups clinked ice in highballs of 7-Up and bourbon (it had a whiff like balsa wood) and raised their voices (my grandma and her cousins would end up drunk and fighting, reviving some long-unsettled feud, before my parents made us get in the car to drive back down the Peninsula).

In the drawn-blinds dining room with chandelier glaring, on a paper plate with a rim of serial dimples, I remember it: thin slices of a pebbly-looking aggregate of red and white, shedding powdery strips of casing skin. It was set out with other lunchmeats, big-holed Swiss cheese, hunks of sourdough, gob of mayo and sweet pickles in Aunt Sue’s crystal dish. But the salami—that was the thing that stuck.

It had a blunt fatty taste under something weirdly tangy that I loved right off, a funky sharpness like the smell of the raw wood boards lining Aunt Sue’s garage, down the kitchen stairs. It tastes now as it did then, fused in recollection with the greasy remains of Ruffles chips, the soapiness of canned black olives. In other words, exactly like San Francisco, a product of the Genoese who settled here starting in the 1800s, and of a past I didn’t yet have the ability to imagine.

But there was something else, a sense of danger, about that day. As my dad steered his ice-blue Impala down Third Street, my mom turning her head to tell Walter and me to lock our doors, my parents talked about how the neighborhood—the Butchertown that used to be Irish and German, where a couple of generations of my mom’s family had lived and owned a grocery store for the meat-factory workers—how it had changed.

Black families were living in the houses on Aunt Sue’s block, working in the Hormel canning factory. There were different businesses on Third Street than the ones my parents knew, hair salons and fish fry places. I remember my parents saying it was a good thing Sue was gone; now the family could finally sell the house, get rid of her stiff old furniture, cut the last tie with the Bayview. We never went back.

But for me, the ties survived. Every time I had salami, Molinari or Gallo or whatever, I felt the fat on my fingers, sensed the sharp smell of time in the curing, the sawdust smell of mold on the casing. I always took the nub end, with its shiny little bull nose-ring it’d hung from—it dangled the possibility of a San Francisco that existed long before I was born, when the Bayview house was crowded for family dinners on Sundays and clinking-highball New Year’s Eves and even dead old Sue could have laughed.

scomas restaurant san francisco

The truth is, my family has a tradition of San Francisco food nostalgia. When I was a kid, Thanksgiving dinners started with a Dungeness crab cocktail so steeped in past regret—a sense of what could have been—it forced you to cross a threshold of tragedy.

I knew the story of that crab cocktail like I knew the story of the Mayflower. In the 1940s my great-aunt Kay met the handsome son of the Scoma family, scion of one of the founding dynasties of the seafood houses of Fisherman’s Wharf long since faded and one of the founders of Castagnola’s restaurant.

They dated for months, Kay and the young Scoma. Kay’s pop—my great-great-grandfather, Pop Trueb—wasn’t thrilled that his daughter was seeing an Italian, but great-great-grandpa was a gourmet, and he put the pressure on his daughter (this is family legend), before she cut off the friendship, to extract one thing from Mr. Scoma: the cocktail sauce from Castagnola’s.

I have a memory of seeing a photo (black-and-white, deckle-edged, on shiny paper) of Aunt Kay and the Scoma boy, she with some elaborate spray corsage, he in a pale, wide-lapel suit—handsome—dark eyes, pencil mustache, black pomaded hair combed off his forehead. You could sense how many barricades there would have been, in the segregated San Francisco of 70 years ago, for a German-Irish girl from Butchertown to merge with an Italian boy from North Beach. But she got the recipe. 

My mom’s copy, written out in blue-pen cursive, lived in her recipe binder. By modern standards, it reps the industrial convenience cooking that went out of style in the 1970s: ketchup, a stir-up of things that came in bottles. The only striking thing is a call for “Sauterne,” the name for Sauvignon Blanc in pre-Mondavi Napa, no relation to Château d’Yquem or the noble French Sauternes. Wine was a sophisticated add for the 1940s, an epicurean move that signaled a certain aspiration for worldliness.

As it turned out, the Scoma affair was the end of Aunt Kay’s own aspirations for transgressive glamour, San Francisco–style. She ended up marrying Mel, a very nice, rather scarred Marine who survived the Bataan Death March in World War II, and moving to perennially foggy Westbrae in South City. I knew Uncle Mel much later, of course, a sad and quiet presence on the newspaper-scattered sofa, winking a watery blue eye at me, digging in his pocket, coming through with a 50-cent piece.

By the time I remember tasting it, the family crab cocktail was a mix of wistfulness of pride, served ice cold—in little bowls nestled into slightly bigger ones of crushed ice (must’ve been something copied from restaurants on the Wharf) formed by emptying out the ice trays, loading the cubes into a pillowcase, pounding with a hammer. My grandmother picked the crab herself, laboriously, a mark of quality, rather than settling for lump crab from the fish counter, which—everybody knew—gypped you on claw meat and was sure to have shell shards all mixed up in it.

“Your Aunt Kay got this recipe from Scoma’s.” I must’ve heard my grandmother say it a hundred times, talking about her sister as if she weren’t there. “Used to take her out to all the best places downtown—right, Kay?”

“That’s right,” Kay would answer without elaborating, a sign of sadness, maybe, or a desire to lay history to rest. “He sure did.”

San Francisco was forever the place that had been, salamis and crab cocktails the survivors of a past that somehow managed always to seem more vivid, but that gave the present meaning, a definite shape.

When I started writing this story, I emailed Donovan Unks—The Dapper Diner on Twitter—a guy who eats out more than anyone I know, to ask what he thinks San Francisco tastes like.

“Currently,” he wrote back, “SF tastes like an expensive lab-manufactured nutrition pill brought to your doorstep via a delivery app, which upon taking allows the user to enjoy a damped cyclical food experience with highs of creativity and honesty connected to lows of mediocrity and imitation, leading into a slow death spiral of affordable authentic global cuisine and the dominance of sameness.”

Well, Unks is a smartass. But he’s smart, and, like me, grew up here: he’s seen the city go through change after change. His answer points to a fear—perpetual, I think, intensified now, though, as the region booms—that San Francisco is always in danger of losing something, some essential part of itself—individuality or earnestness—to prefab bullshit.

Maybe the taste of San Francisco is nostalgia for an idea of San Francisco as this place of meaning and connection. Maybe that’s what defines us.

Old Regret Cocktail Sauce

This makes enough for 6, to serve with 1 pound of cooked seafood: picked Dungeness crab or shrimp, or a mixture of the two. Note: “Sauterne” is an old name for California Sauvignon Blanc, a dry wine with a lush-fruit nose. Do not use the French sweet wine known as Sauternes.

1 cup ketchup

4 tablespoons white wine (Sauterne or Riesling)

1 cup tomato juice

1 1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

6 dashes Tabasco

Stir everything together, cover, and chill. Spoon into glasses or bowls, then add crab or shrimp. Serve with lemon wedges.

 

What San Francisco Tastes LIke was published in the Fall 2015 issue. © 2015 Edible San Francisco. Illustrations © 2015 Dan Bransfield.

 

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