A Mexican Dinner in 1890s Orange County with Madame Helena Modjeska

Categories: Mexi Meals
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Wikimedia Commons
The caption says it all...

In doing general research for my book on the history of Mexican food in the United States, I've unearthed numerous accounts of non-Mexicans enjoying Mexican food for the first time, or quickly learning how to love the stuff. One of the earlier accounts I've discovered pertaining to Orange County is telling in that even in the early days of our existence, "Mexican" food ruled--especially among our civic fathers and mothers.
They were vacationing. An August 21, 1892, Los Angeles Times dispatch describes the dinner hosted for Helena Modjeska, the famous actress who became OC's first celebrity inhabitant. The location was at her summertime cottage in San Juan-by-the-Sea (nowadays, roughly Capistrano Beach), and the man behind the grill was Marco Forster, whose family was Californios, or Mexicans who lived in the state before it became part of the United States. Of course, the reporter and Forster didn't call it Mexican food but rather a "Spanish" dinner, Californios famously insisting their blood was Iberian and not mixed with mestizo.

Roasted ox started the meal, served alongside frijoles, which the Times correspondent noted "is to be seen at almost every meal in this part of the world." More interesting was the sarsa, which we would now call salsa (I'll save the Spanish phonetic lesson for some other time). Also served for Modjeska were enchiladas and flour tortillas 15 inches in diameter. "Being without any particular flavor," the gabacho correspondent reported, "they reminded me of the unleavened bread which the Jews serve up at Passover time." Obviously, these tortillas weren't good, because the best flour tortillas do have a distinct flavor--but they ain't corn, let me tell you.

Tamales (more than 500) and chile con carne closed the dinner--and here is where the history gets interesting. Chile con carne (nowadays just known as chili) isn't a Mexican meal or even a "Spanish" one or even native to Southern California; it was the daddy Tex-Mex meal of them all. How was it that Californians were already incorporating "Mexican" food from other regions into their diet? Details to come. ...


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9 comments
Bill T.
Bill T.

Brings to mind Richard Henry Dana's account of his meal at mission San Diego de Alcala on his first shore leave on their visit to San Diego in the winter of 1837 ("Two Years Before the Mast").

Jim Bernard
Jim Bernard

Great read. I will look for your new book! I hope you won't forget Emilio Ortega who gave us the "Anaheim Chili" or " California Chili" in the early 1900's. It is sold in all the Southwest states now days. That was the first "Mexican" chili they ate!!! It was my first.

MayhemInTheHood
MayhemInTheHood

Do a lot of people really think of chili as a Mexican or Spanish dish? I know I never have, but I've never really thought about what other people's presumptions might be( I've always thought of it as something born out of convenience/easy preparedness for settlers heading west in the 1800's, cowboy chuckwagon type food. Tex mex isn't too far off from that, I reckon). You're out and about talking food constantly, so of course you'd know better. So, is that a common misconception people have?

gustavoarellano
gustavoarellano

Mayhem: That's a whole chapter in my book! All I'll say right now is that what we now know and love as "chili" was originally called "chile con carne," so that should give you a clue as to the dish's provenance...

MayhemInTheHood
MayhemInTheHood

Oh, and your book sounds extremely cool. I'll promise to buy a copy if in it you address the abomination that is having lettuce in a burrito, as well as expose the person(s) that unleashed that horrible, horrible idea on our world.

MayhemInTheHood
MayhemInTheHood

Well, then that is indeed interesting! And now I want chili.

MayhemInTheHood
MayhemInTheHood

I never knew my mortal food enemy had a name. Thanks for the morsels of new info today!

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