I can still remember the moment I truly arrived in California. It was August of 1990, and I was fresh out of college and ready to start a life here. I’d never been further west than Minneapolis, never seen fresh lemons dangling over the sidewalk or palm trees flanking a city block. I sat down a stool at It’s Tops Coffee Shop and looked up at the board of daily specials. Avocado omelet! Avocado & Jack cheese burger! BLT with avocado!
Avocados, at a diner! I marveled. Where I came from, diners counted parsley as a vegetable. Fruit was cherry Jell-O, piled in cubes and topped with a squirt of cream from a can. The golden West, I thought. I’m really here!
As you might expect, there are plenty of avocado recipes (22, in fact, including Coconut-Avocado Ice Cream and Sake-Soy Guacomole) in The Sunset Cookbook, a five-pound, 800-page compilation of the best of Sunset. Margo True, the magazine’s food editor since 2006, stopped by Omnivore Books last week to talk about the history of Sunset and the creation of the book.
Turns out my 21-year-old self was hardly the first to be stunned by the glories of California living. Lured by the promise of everything from gold and orange groves to movie stardom and high-tech promise, newcomers have been flooding westward for decades on end–and since 1898, Sunset magazine has been there to tell them how to live. According to True, it began as a promotional pamphlet for Southern Pacific’s luxurious Sunset Limited rail line, which curved like a smile from New Orleans through Texas and Arizona and up to Los Angeles and San Francisco. (Under the same name, the route remains as part of Amtrak’s Western service.)
As one of the largest landowners in the West, Southern Pacific wanted to promote not just Western travel but Western living, hoping to entice restless Midwesterners and Easterners into buying property and putting down new roots. That first issue, a 16-page pamphlet touting the glories of Yosemite and the charms of Los Angeles, is still on file in Sunset’s archives.
The magazine later developed into a more serious, stand-alone publication, focusing on economics, politics, and fiction and featuring the writing of Sinclair Lewis, Dashiell Hammett, Jack London, even Herbert Hoover. Bought by an Iowan insurance salesman just before the Depression, it dropped the highbrow essays in favor of gardening, food, travel, and home tips, a format that continues today.
The magazine really found its niche during WWII’s victory-gardening movement. The federal government had plenty of gardening advice to share with homeowners, but little of it applied to the unique climates and landscapes west of the Continental Divide. So brothers Bill and Mel Lane, sons of the magazine’s original owner, started their own Western test garden on a one-acre plot near U.C. Berkeley, sharing their findings with the magazine’s growing readership. (Their experiences would lead to the development of Sunset’s Western Garden Book, now the must-have reference for anyone with a garden from Seattle to Tuscon.)
By the early fifties, the brothers had a mission to turn the Sunset offices into a laboratory for Western living, a place where everything from party recipes to garden design could be tested and experienced. To that end, they moved the business from downtown San Francisco to a seven-acre spread in Menlo Park, where it remains today. Architect Clifford May, dubbed “the father of the ranch house,” built a sprawling, single-level structure that looked more like an inn than an office.
True, who had been working as an editor at Saveur magazine in New York City, still remembers how stunned she was upon arrival for her first interview. Where the Saveur offices were located on a particularly gritty urban block, Sunset’s building had floor-to-ceiling windows and glass doors that slid open onto courtyards filled with benches and tables and shaded with pergolas twined with flowering vines. Cool terra-cotta tiles flowed seamlessly from indoors to out. A series of test gardens were arranged to mimic the distinct natural landscapes of the West; the desert cacti of the Southwest, the redwoods of the Central California coast, the cloud forests of the Pacific Northwest. (When she related all this to a colleague back in New York, her friend replied dryly, “Sure makes you miss the methadone clinic on the first floor, doesn’t it?”)
By the late 60s and early 70s, when the glamor of the sun-and-surf California lifestyle was at its peak, Sunset “was like Vogue,” said True. “Each issue was 300, 350 pages. It was huge!”
And food, of course, was a big part of both Western living and the magazine itself. Cooking and entertaining meant different flavors, done with a different sort of flair than elsewhere in the country. There was the emphasis on year-round, casual outdoor dining, the everyday influence of Mexican and Asian cuisines. Artichokes, abalone, avocados, dates and citrus fresh from the tree, chile peppers, Alaskan salmon, Dungeness crab–all kinds of things counted as exotic elsewhere in the country were common here.
And Sunset garnered a lot of firsts, promoting woks and Chinese cooking in the early 50s, guacamole in the 60s, farmers’ markets in the 70s, even publishing the first American recipe for pesto in 1946. The magazine built an outdoor adobe oven (and published a wildly popular how-to), set up beehives and chicken coops, even pit-roasted an entire pig on the company volleyball court (much to the distress of the local fire department).
In planning the cookbook, True and her staff knew they had to create a big, general-interest book that would nonetheless be uniquely Western. The introduction features “24 Iconic Western Dishes” that are “inextricably embedded in Western cooking and eating,” from date shakes and mai tais to cioppino, pho, crab Louis, barbecued oysters, plank-roasted salmon, tamales, fish tacos, Caesar salad, and California-style pizza. There are instructions for shucking oysters and making dim sum, sushi, and Vietnamese spring rolls at home; guides to craft beers and Asian greens; and short histories of the places and people behind the kitchen staples we take for granted, from the artichoke growers of Castroville and the oyster farmers of Tomales Bay to the pepper growers of New Mexico and the discoverers of the navel orange, Meyer lemon, Hass avocado, and more.
Naturally, there’s an extensive section on the wines of California, Oregon, and Washington (with brief mentions of the wine-growing regions of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, and British Columbia), along with detailed recipe-pairing suggestions.
For Bay Area readers, it’s particularly fun to see our local heroes called out. Delfina‘s Carbonara Pizza and Pizzetta 211‘s Margherita Pizza both make an appearance, as do Elizabeth Falkner’s Chocolate Chiffon Cupcakes, Bay Wolf‘s Pinot-braised Duck with Spicy Greens, Bradley Ogden’s Soft Overnight Herb Rolls, and the Steamed Halibut on Soft Tofu with Black Bean Sauce from Heaven’s Dog.
Just like the original Sunset Limited pamphlet, The Sunset Cookbook is an irresistible come-on for the joys of living out here in the land of salads, grilling, and avocado fries (really–see page 275). Want to move all your favorite people out West? Put this book on their holiday list. They’ll be here.
Farmer John’s Favorite Pumpkin Bread
A lovely nibble for Thanksgiving breakfast, courtesy of Farmer John’s Pumpkin Farm in Half Moon Bay. Adapted from The Sunset Cookbook.
Makes: 2 loaves
2 cups flour
1 1/4 cups dark brown sugar, packed
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup coarsely chopped walnuts or pecans
1/2 cup raisins
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
1 1/4 tsp nutmeg
3/4 tsp ground cloves
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp ground ginger
1 3/4 cups canned pumpkin or mashed roasted pumpkin or winter squash
3/4 cup vegetable oil
1. Preheat oven to 350F. Lightly grease 2 8 1/2-inch by 4 1/2-inch loaf pans. In a large bowl, mix flour, sugars, nuts, raisins, baking soda, spices, and salt.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, pumpkin, and oil until well blended.
3. Add wet ingredients to dry and stir just until well blended. Divide between 2 pans.
4. Bake until bread pulls away from pan sides and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, 50 to 60 minutes. Let bread cool in pans on a rack fro about 15 minutes. Loosen bread from the pans with a knife and invert onto rack. Cool thoroughly before slicing.