A History of Bay Area Food

By Alisha Green

Waves of immigration, the region’s innovative spirit, and our unparalleled access to fresh seafood, meat and produce are just a few of the forces that have shaped classic Bay Area food.

Illustration by Martha Rich

The Bay Area food scene is at at once the product of human ingenuity and divine natural providence, which is on full display in the number and range of foods that were born here before bursting into the mainstream—unforgettables like sourdough bread and cioppino and tasty treats such as Popsicles and the It’s-It ice cream sandwich, all of which are uniquely San Francisco. One major force shaping the region’s food history is the continual influx of cultures from around the world. Going back to the Gold Rush and beyond, San Francisco has attracted people who bring the different ingredients, flavors, recipes and traditions of their culture with them.

Take cioppino, for instance, the fish stew first recorded in the early 1900s among Italian fishermen and their international brethren in San Francisco and was often made from the catch of the day — the name itself is a take on “chip in,” for fishermen to add in part of their haul. Or look at its perfect pairing, sourdough bread, which French bakers brought to the city around the time of the Gold Rush. That bread, like some other foods introduced to the area by immigrants, became a unique offshoot of its traditional roots by drawing on new preferences and approaches, according to Erica J. Peters, director of the Culinary Historians of Northern California and author of San Francisco: A Food Biography.

Illustration by Martha Rich

“I love when cultures collide and learn from each other in ways that make a new dish,” Peters says.
Sourdough even became one of the unique marketing tools San Francisco used to lure tourists back to the city after the devastating 1906 earthquake. It was touted as one of the foods you couldn’t find anywhere else, Peters says. It’s also the usual vessel of choice for another San Francisco classic known to Pier 39 denizens the world over: clam chowder in a bread bowl

In fact, San Francisco has baked up a number of classics, from sandwich-must-have Dutch crunch
bread to sweet hybrids like cruffins (the best of both worlds for fans of croissants and muffins) and the Rebel Within, a savory pastry with a soft-boiled egg waiting inside.

A magic mix

These days, food is one of the top three reasons people come to San Francisco, says Gwyneth Borden, executive director of the Golden Gate Restaurant Association. That’s due in no small part to what Borden calls our unique “agricultural bounty,” unprecedented access to fresh produce, meat
and seafood. The region’s agricultural largesse draws people from various cultures and inspires them to share their experiences through food. “It’s like a magic collision of … the ingredients and the chefs inspired by those ingredients and their cultural heritage and an audience of customers who are so receptive,” says Lisa Rogovin, founder and CEO of walking food tour company Edible Excursions.

Illustration by Martha Rich

The region’s climate offers a year-round growing season, Rogovin notes, which makes for “astoundingly delicious” ingredients for all kinds of cuisine. “If the foundation is good, it only gets better from there,” she says. Look no further than the number of San Francisco versions of the
Mission burrito and the soup-filled dumplings xiao long bao for additional proof that people from all over the world are bringing their culinary heritage to the city and putting their unique, delicious spins on it.

Illustration by Martha Rich

Foodie inventors

In addition to bountiful local ingredients and a rich cultural mileu informing their use, the region’s untamed spirit of innovation has sparked the rise of countless San Francisco classics and treats. When 11-year-old Frank Epperson accidentally left a sweet drink out on the porch overnight in 1905, for instance, he found it frozen the next morning. He patented it as the Popsicle in 1923 and it became a hit at amusement parks and beaches.

San Francisco’s Playland-at-the-Beach boasted its own hit treat, too: The It’s-It ice cream sandwich
was birthed in 1928 by George Whitney when he put a scoop of vanilla ice cream between two large old-fashioned oatmeal cookies and dipped it into dark chocolate, according to company lore. It became part of what attracted people to the amusement park, since you couldn’t find the treat elsewhere for several decades. It’s now blazing a delicious trail across the country.

Illustration by Martha Rich

San Francisco boasts a number of other culinary inventions. Rice-A-Roni was so proud of its roots here that it dubbed itself “The San Francisco Treat” and featured the city’s cable car as part of its logo. Ding ding! And while the city might be known for fine dining, San Franciscans enjoy their share of hearty grub. There’s the Hangtown fry, yet another popular dish to come out of the Gold Rush era; Joe’s Special, a happy medley of closing-time ingredients; and the Gilroy garlic fries at AT&T Park, the aroma of which has practically supplanted fresh-cut grass as the scent of baseball in the city.

Illustration by Martha Rich

More classics to come

The current of creativity flowing through the city’s food landscape takes a wide range of shapes today. As Laurie Armstrong Gossy, senior director of global public relations and media relations
for the San Francisco Travel Association, puts it: “You take these traditional culinary cultures, then add the innovation aspect … then you sprinkle it on top of a little friendly competition, and it’s really good.”

On a whim, Daniel Patterson came to the Bay Area in 1989, never expecting to stay. But by 1995, he had opened his first restaurant in San Francisco. “The food scene was really exciting,” says the chef, restaurateur and food writer. “There was a sense of openness and optimism and curiosity and intense interest in ingredients and learning.” Those forces contribute to the continued
evolution of food here. It’s part of why Patterson refrains from picking just a few words to describe
the city’s cuisine. “I think it’s still in the process of being discovered,” he says. “So I don’t think it’s settled into anything definite. I think, if we are lucky, it will keep evolving.”

Cloudy cocktail origins 

Not all San Francisco classics are undisputed originals. This seems to be especially true when it comes to tipples. While San Francisco and Martinez have both tried to lay claim to the martini,
what people do seem to agree on is that it originated locally as a celebratory drink for gold miners. And it’s a drink that is certainly enjoyed everywhere after being popularized by a variation from Jerry
Thomas at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco and in the adventures of a handsome spy who goes by the name of James Bond.

Irish coffee, meanwhile, wears its true origins in its name. But San Francisco’s claim to the coffee-and-whiskey cocktail comes from the tale of travel writer Stanton Delaplane. After enjoying the concoction at an airport in Ireland in the 1950s, he brought the drink stateside, where it spread from the Buena Vista Cafe into the mainstream. Bottoms up!




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