California's agriculture industry is not only the number-one producer in the nation, but the number one in the world. No other state in the union cultivates like the Golden State: California farmers and ranchers pump more than $30 billion a year into the California economy, employ more than a million people statewide, and export billions of dollars in goods each year to markets across the globe. In fact, California's farmers produce over half the country's fruit and vegetables on just a measly 3% of its farmland. Almonds, olives, lemons, artichokes, figs, dates, and truckloads of grapes and tomatoes are just some of the commercially produced consumables that thrive in the state's mellow Mediterranean climate.
But California's cuisine is greater than the sum of its parts. Along with a rich pantry, immigration has affected what and how Californians and its visitors eat. In Northern California, the Gold Rush attracted an enormous number of Chinese from Canton Province who stayed to work on the railroad and eventually settled into Chinatowns throughout the state. Chinese eateries opened to feed the largely male workforce, but by the 1920s, adventuresome Anglos found it fashionable to give Chinese food a try, and soon you could sample Cantonese sweet-and-sour pork in every city, big or small.
In Southern California, Latino immigrants brought their influence to bear, introducing unfamiliar spices and changing the tastes of a population to such an extent that fast food today means tacos and burritos as much as hamburgers and fries. Los Angeles, in fact, can make its strongest claim to culinary fame (beyond the first and still champion celebrity chef, the highly influential Wolfgang Puck of Beverly Hills's iconic Spago), courtesy of its many hole-in-the-wall ethnic restaurants. Reflecting the dozens (if not hundreds) of cultures that have settled in the area, the curious can nosh on Armenian, Nicaraguan, Oaxacan, Ethiopian, Isan Thai, Romanian, and Hungarian food, to name a few -- a veritable United Nations of dining experiences, and many of them within just a few blocks of each other. And that's not even discussing California rolls, which regrettably (in the minds of some purists) forever changed sushi eating from a meditative consideration on a choice slice of fish to a circus stunt wrapped in seaweed.
Perhaps the greatest modern influence on how tuned-in Californians eat can be traced to food gurus such as Alice Waters. Her restaurant, Berkeley-based Chez Panisse, began as an outgrowth of Waters's desire to feed her friends and became a philosophical training ground for many of today's important chefs. Like French cooks -- and Waters was profoundly changed by a year living in Paris -- she is interested not in the quantity or cost of ingredients, but strictly in quality and freshness.
In Berkeley, Waters created an infrastructure in which her restaurant is dependent on a cadre of small farmers, and vice versa. It wasn't enough, however, to provide customers with the freshest heirloom tomatoes and organic baby lettuces: The breads must be crusty and fresh; the meats must be sourced from trusted ranchers; the cheese should complement the fruits and come from local producers as well.
So along with a generation of restaurateurs, Chez Panisse inspired such robust local artisan producers as Acme Bread and Cowgirl Creamery. California cuisine -- which is really about showcasing the flavors of locally grown, seasonal bounty at its peak -- has spread throughout and beyond California, thanks to Waters and to the chefs who have made her vision their own.
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