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

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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