The Original California Cuisine, Courtesy of Sunset MagazineBEFORE Alice Waters picked her first Little Gem lettuce and Wolfgang Puck draped smoked salmon across a pizza, California cuisine meant something else.
The other California cuisine was being served on a million patios in the Golden State by relaxed cooks who grilled thick cuts of beef called tri-tip and built salads from avocado and oranges. They used red chili sauce like roux, ate abalone and oysters, and whipped sticky dates into milkshakes. It was the food of the gold rush and of immigrants, of orchards and sunshine.
And always, there was young, easy-to-drink wine that could be paired with salad or Mexican food, two staples of the patio table.
“It was California cooking before chefs got ahold of it,” said John Carroll, a West Coast food writer.
There to chronicle it — and help create it — was Sunset magazine, the stalwart regional publication that Southern Pacific Railroad executives began in 1898 to lure Easterners to the untamed West. Next week, Sunset has issued a collection of a thousand recipes, many of which helped define that other California cuisine. Although the magazine is Californian to its core, some of the recipes in “The Sunset Cookbook” (Oxmoor House, $34.95) are drawn from the other parts of the West that Sunset covers, like Hawaii and the Southwest. And any state in America might claim zucchini pickles. But laced throughout are some old-school California dishes like guacamole, grilled turkey, cioppino, barbecued oysters, Crab Louis and fish tacos.
Collectively, they summon a way of life that flourished in the postwar boom, when Sunset was a coffee-table staple. In those years the magazine articulated for aspirational newcomers the relaxed, open way people on the West Coast gardened, traveled and ate.
“Instead of being formal like it was back East, where they were worried about china service and having all the right silver, here you could put your bread in a basket and you could eat food outside and you didn’t have to have a maid,” said Linda Anusasananan, who spent 34 years developing recipes for the magazine before she left it in 2005.
“Anyone could be a Californian if they read Sunset,” said Gingi Kinninger, a longtime reader who makes the occasional pilgrimage to the Cliff May-designed ranch house that anchors the Sunset compound in Menlo Park, Calif.
The book comes at a period in which Sunset is getting something of a new life. With the ascent of celebrity chefs, flashy cooking shows on television and online food media, the appeal of Sunset faded — especially among younger readers, according to several chefs and food editors in California.
But its extreme dedication to regional food, its reputation among readers for reliable recipes honed in a skilled test kitchen and its forays into the D.I.Y. ethos of backyard beekeeping and home vinegar making has helped with a rehabilitation. It is, in some ways, the Betty White of food magazines.
Since 2006, Sunset has experienced a 62 percent increase in readers between ages 18 and 34, according to GfK MRI, a media research company. Chefs who typically snap to attention when magazines like Food & Wine call say they are now hearing from customers when a recipe of theirs appears in Sunset, too.
“I think it is hip again,” said Suzanne Goin, the Los Angeles chef whose restaurants include A.O.C., Lucques and the Hungry Cat. “People talk about it with a different tone in their voice now.”
Ms. Goin’s parents subscribed to Sunset for years, she said, and it influenced her childhood in Los Angeles, which subsequently influenced the way she cooks now.
Her cookbook “Sunday Suppers at Lucques” has a recipe for date shakes that is based on the rich, sweet drinks she used to have during pit stops on the highway to Palm Springs. She also substitutes tri-tip for a T-bone in a steak Florentine recipe. The tri-tip, a triangular cut from the bottom of the sirloin, can be hard to find outside California.
In the Sunset book, a recipe for barbecued tri-tip comes straight out of the traditional preparation found in the Santa Maria Valley, down to a suggestion to cook it over burning red oak.
“It’s very simply seasoned,” said Margo True, Sunset’s food editor. “They use garlic powder, for God’s sake, and dehydrated parsley. But it doesn’t taste right unless you use it.”
The book, like the magazine, tries to stay true to the origins of its recipes. It is by no means a historical book, although it does draw on the vast Sunset archives. (The magazine’s first enchilada recipe? A stacked New Mexican version in 1922.)
“The Sunset Cookbook” also reflects California’s changing demographics. Mexico is well represented, of course, and so is Vietnam and, to a lesser degree, the Philippines. Pho and the California roll even made it onto the list of 24 iconic Western dishes in Ms. True’s introduction to the book. It’s very much in keeping with the sensibility of Sunset and its longtime publisher, the late Lawrence Lane. He figured if you were adventurous enough to move west, you were adventurous enough to experiment and explore new foods — even if you needed a little encouragement.
“The first time they would ever see an artichoke was when they moved west,” said Ms. True, who noted that the magazine pushed readers toward new foods with a decidedly gentle hand. “There was this sweetness of tone, like don’t be afraid,” she said.
Still, the magazine and many of its earlier cookbooks were edited from a decidedly Caucasian — or at least well-assimilated immigrant — point of view.
“It was sort of Anglicized California,” said Jacqueline Higuera McMahan, who writes a long-running column for The San Francisco Chronicle about California rancho cooking. Rancho cuisine comes from the estates, or ranchos, of California’s early Spanish settlers, and is characterized by chilies and a perfectionist’s approach to barbecuing meat.
“That’s kind of what people wanted in many ways, and still do,” she said. “How can I make the real cooking of California but not go too deep into one culture or another?”
Of course, she subscribes.
“What Sunset has done really well is reflect the changes in the way people in the West live,” said Barbara Fairchild, who will retire as editor in chief of Bon Appétit in November. “It’s a style of living and cooking that really is different.” She moved from the East Coast to Los Angeles with her family in the 1960s. It was the first time she had ever seen an artichoke or an avocado. Her father began grilling over the big built-in brick barbecue while the children cooled off in the above-ground pool.
Dinners, especially in the summer, were salads. Red meat gave way to chicken or fish — quite a radical departure for many family menus then.
Today, if you were to go to Ms. Fairchild’s house for dinner looking for a quintessential California meal, she would serve chili-rubbed grilled chicken, a pot of long-simmered pinto beans and a large green salad shot through with avocado and orange, and seasoned with red wine vinaigrette. There would be a pitcher of from-scratch margaritas. For dessert, fresh fruit and a lemon bar or maybe a brownie.
“The fresh with the indulgence — that’s very California,” she said.
What would Ms. True serve you if you wanted a quintessential old California meal? She would start with guacamole, move onto a Santa Maria tri-tip barbecue and end with a mini-date shake and either sopapillas or fortune cookies — a California invention and, she said, the most challenging recipe in the book.
But then again, it could be warm soba noodles, grilled ahi citrus salad and Mexican chocolate ice cream.
Sunset is now less for the wide-eyed newcomer and more for people who embrace cooking in a state varied enough to put kimchi in a taco or chorizo on a pizza.
“The whole point was to help people figure out how to live here, because everyone came from somewhere else,” Ms. True said. “Now it’s to remind them how lucky they are to live here.”