My sister and I were strolling down Larkin Street in San Francisco recently when there wafted a pungent, salty aroma from an open window above. I was about to name the dish, but the couple walking ahead of us beat me to it. “Hmm, I smell fish sauce,” said a blond woman who looked to be in her mid 20s. “Yup,” agreed her male companion with tattoos on his arms. “It’s catfish in clay pot. With lots of pepper—and a little burnt.”
We had reasons to laugh. First, he was right on the nose. Second, when we first came to San Francisco from Vietnam more than three decades ago, my grandmother made that dish and our Irish neighbors complained about “a toxic smell.” Mortified, our family apologized and kept our windows closed whenever Grandma prepared some of her favorite recipes.
Many years passed. Grandma’s gone. But I’m confident that, if she were still here, she would appreciate knowing that what was once considered unsavory (or even toxic), and a reminder of how different my immigrant family once was, has become today’s classic. For in California, private culture has–like sidewalk stalls in Chinatown selling bok choys, string beans and bitter melons–a knack for spilling into the public domain, where it becomes a shared convention.
Or put it this way: The Californian palate had shifted along with the state’s demographic, where one in four is now an immigrant. At last count, Census 2000, there were 112 languages spoken in the Bay Area alone. On warm summer afternoons, Nob Hill, where I live, turns into the modern tower of Babel. The languages of the world–Chinese, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Vietnamese, and many more I do not recognize–echo from the street, accompanied by assorted cooking aromas. Within a four-block radius from my home, I can experience Thai, Singaporean, Spanish, Vietnamese, Moroccan, Indian, French, Mexican, Greek, Italian, and Japanese food—not to mention the regular fares at diners and seafood houses.
To live in California these days is to live in the crossroads of a global society and a global table. On April 2006 front page the San Francisco Chronicle declared: “America’s Mean Cuisine: More Like It Hot–from junk food to ethnic dishes, spicy flavors are the rage.” Californians were the first to give up blandness to savor the pungent lemongrass in our soup, and to develop that penchant for that tangy burnt of spicy chili. It came as no surprise to Californians that Cheez-Its came out with “Hot & Spicy” crackers flavored with Tabasco sauce and Kettle’s potato chips has that “Spicy Thai” flavor.
“There are 15.1 million more Hispanics living in the United States than there were 10 years ago, and 3.2 million more Asians and Pacific Islanders,” noted San Francisco’s newspaper of record. “And the foods of those countries—longtime favorites with Californians—are now the nation’s most popular.” Long before Webster acknowledged the word, globalization had already swept over California. Latin and Anglo America came to an epic collision here, then gold made the state famous around the world, and the rest of the world rushed in and created, perhaps for the first time, a prototypical global village. Since then layers upon layers of complexity–tastes, architecture, religions, animals, vegetables, fruits, stories, music, languages–have been piling onto the place, making it in many ways postmodern even before the rest of the world struggled to enter the modern era.