The Roots of California Cuisine
Pea soup came in cans. I knew that as definitively as I knew that bread was sliced and that pepper was a fine gray powder. Pea soup was pale green, too, and as thick and murky as hot cereal; its faintly sour character was more underlined than alleviated by the tiny shreds of smoked ham that always lurked in it.
That's the kind of pea soup I thought I was ordering (it seemed safe) one evening—I was 16 and out to dinner with my parents—on my first visit to a restaurant called the Ranch House, in Southern California's Ojai Valley. What I got was something else entirely: It was green, of course, but it had an almost electric brightness; it was as thin as vichyssoise (the only "fancy" soup I'd tasted up to then); and, most remarkably of all, it tasted not of ham or something sour, but of fresh, sweet, faintly earthy peas. Oh, and it was so delicious that I would have happily consumed a second bowl if I'd had time before the veal scaloppine arrived.
I'm not quite prepared to say that my encounter with the pea soup at the Ranch House was my first food epiphany—but it's the first one I remember vividly, and the one that still stirs in me the strongest memory of delicious, out-of-nowhere gustatory surprise.
I was the first member of my family to move to Ojai, when I was sent off to board there at Villanova Preparatory School in the fall of 1962. About a year later, my parents sold our house in West Los Angeles and, with my sister Merry, moved north to join me. Ojai is said to be a Chumash Indian word for "the nest", and the town is inevitably said to be "nestled" in the Ojai Valley—about 90 miles north of Los Angeles and 35 miles southeast of Santa Barbara. Ringed by purple mountains and insulated with citrus groves, Ojai had a population of about 5,000 in those days (it's just over 8,000 now) and was famous for its annual tennis tournament and music festival, for being home to the Krotona Institute of Theosophy and a frequent retreat for the Indian religious teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti, and for such celebrated full- or part-time residents as Irene Dunne, Loretta Young, Anthony Quinn, and the artist and ceramicist Beatrice Wood—widely known as Beato. (Ojai also stood in for Shangri-la in the 1937 film version of Lost Horizon.)
Not counting the Frostie Freeze and a coffee shop or two, there were basically three places to eat in Ojai back then: the Ojai Valley Inn and Country Club, which offered monumental buffets and a rather pedestrian dining room menu; a dependable steak house called the Firebird; and, in the adjacent community of Meiners Oaks, the Ranch House—which was run by a charming, low-key couple named Alan and Helen Hooker and which was, I realized even then, in every way (design, decor, situation, attitude, and food) a quintessentially Californian restaurant. The Ranch House was something special—the place we went on birthdays and where we took out-of-town guests—and I must have found myself at the restaurant at least once a month for years. I tasted not just my first fresh pea soup there, but also my first liver pâté—creamy and sweet and (it seemed to me) very grown-up—and my first beef stroganoff, so memorable that, to this day, every time I sample another, doubtless more authentic version of the dish, I'm disappointed. I was introduced to limestone lettuce and spinach salad at the Ranch House, too, and to dozens of herbs. I'd known basil, oregano, and rosemary—but only as brownish green flecks in glass jars on the spice rack. Suddenly, I was tasting not only these in their fresh glory, but such exotica as lemon verbena, chervil, and salad burnet. At Alan Hooker's table, my palate almost literally blossomed.
And there were other pleasures: Though I'd certainly sampled wine surreptitiously before I ever visited the Ranch House, it was in some dark corner of the patio one night when I was 17 that my parents gave me their tacit blessing to imbibe—by letting me sip a bit of their Paul Masson cabernet. (In those days, the restaurant—now famous for its wine list—was a bring-your-own-bottle place; guests left their white wines to chill in the brook that runs through the garden.) It was at the Ranch House that I held hands and touched knees under the table with a girl for the first time. Her name was Julie Fowler, and she looked like Julie Christie in Billy Liar (but several years before that film came out). After dinner, her mother, who had been our hostess, told me discreetly that, whatever my feelings for her daughter might be, such intimate displays of affection were not appropriate at the dinner table. Lessons in romance and good manners in one sitting—no wonder I loved the Ranch House!
Someone, somewhere along the line, called Alan Hooker "the grandfather of California cuisine". Now let's be realistic. If anything, he was more of a wise but vaguely eccentric uncle. The Los Angeles Times was closer to the mark when, in its obituary of Hooker—who died on April 14, 1993—it described him as a man "who helped introduce the lighter fare that came to represent California cuisine". That's fair. The Ranch House certainly anticipated some aspects of the California culinary revolution, but it was not a direct antecedent of Michael's or Chez Panisse or Spago. Its menus have always looked more "continental" than regional American. The recipes that Hooker set down in his self-published Alan Hooker's New Approach to Cooking (1966) and in later cookbooks sometimes called for MSG (though he later renounced it), onion and garlic salts, canned vegetables, and meat substitutes (including something called Choplets; don't ask). Even that pea soup, I later learned, was often made with frozen peas.
But Hooker was undeniably ahead of his time. In an age of margarine and bottled salad dressings, he baked with real butter and dressed his herb-strewn salads with extra-virgin (the term still drew titters) olive oil. In a society that still equated fine food with French food, he served, with pride but also with a sense of fun and of experiment, elaborate Indian curries and dishes inspired by recipes from Puerto Rico, Indonesia, Hungary, and Japan. And in what was still largely a meat-and-potatoes dining culture, he appreciated, bought (or grew), and imaginatively cooked with fresh fruits and vegetables and, above all, those fresh herbs. Decades before restaurants hired foragers and contracted for baby lettuces from boutique farms, Hooker was buying Swiss chard, raspberries, and avocados from neighbors with tiny kitchen gardens or mini-orchards. (And in those brief months when such things wouldn't grow even in Southern California, he'd do a kind of foraging of his own: I used to see him at the Bayless Market in Ojai, wheeling a basket full of carefully chosen cabbages and lettuces.)
Though he was a vegetarian for much of his life and had something of an ascetic, spiritual bearing—he was very quiet, very calm, and carried himself with what I always thought of as a kind of confident reluctance (as if he knew some great secret of the universe but was a bit embarrassed by it)—Hooker was passionate about food, and thought and wrote about it with as much relish as he cooked and ate it. It is said that when he was only 3, he'd stand outside his home in Carpentersville, Illinois, and (no doubt to his parents' dismay) invite passersby in for dinner—already playing innkeeper, as it were.
Hooker went on to study chemistry in college, then played piano in a touring jazz band (he cooked for his fellow musicians, noting his recipes in a diary) and later ran a bakery in Columbus, Ohio—famous for its pies. "They cost five cents more than anybody else's," his widow, Helen, told me, "but they were so good that people paid the difference." The Hookers married in Ohio and became disciples of Krishnamurti. In 1949, the Hookers gave away most of their possessions and moved to Ojai to be near Krishnamurti—who sometimes gave talks in an oak grove near the present Ranch House. With no idea how they were going to support themselves, they rented a crumbling old ranch house just outside Ojai. To make ends meet, they converted it into a boarding house, offering rooms and vegetarian meals to fellow Krishnamurti followers for $14 a week. In 1950, they opened their "Ranch House" to the public. Early in 1954, the house was sold, and the restaurant closed. In 1956, with the help of a retired career army officer named Frank Noyes—who had financed Hooker's Ohio bakery and owned property in Ojai himself (and who, at 101, still dines at the Ranch House)—the Hookers bought a plot down the hill from the original place and built the structure that is still the heart of the restaurant. Business was slow, however, and the new Ranch House closed after a few months. When it reopened in 1958, the Hookers decided to make a significant change to the menu: They added meat and poultry—specifically, at first, beef stroganoff, veal scaloppine, and chicken cacciatore. As Hooker recalled in his New Approach to Cooking, "As I began to investigate meat dishes, I came upon names which held a certain fascination for me but had no meaning as far as personal experience went.... I had no way of knowing how things should taste…so I had to depend upon my own palate and sensitivities." This approach obviously worked; Hooker's food was terrific, if sometimes unconventional—and at last the restaurant became an unqualified success.
Though they continued to come in to the restaurant, the Hookers officially retired in 1969, leaving David Skaggs (who'd joined the staff as a busboy in 1963) in charge as manager. Today, he and his wife, Edie (who started working at the Ranch House in 1979 and married Skaggs in 1990), run the place. "We're very much part of the community," says Helen Hooker, who is 95 and wheelchair-bound, but who still comes in occasionally, "and we have lots of longtime employees." Another is Stuart Farnham, who started in the kitchen making salads 22 years ago and has been executive chef since 1982. An easygoing but vigorous-looking young man, Farnham admits that he sometimes wishes he'd had wider kitchen experience. "And I'd like to do my own thing one day. This is Alan's thing." But meanwhile, he adds, "My philosophy of cooking is just to make things taste good."
When I went back to the Ranch House for dinner last year, it was the first time I'd set foot in the place for almost thirty years. If it had changed one whit in appearance, I didn't notice. The garden was still a California fantasy of redwood decks and latticework, brick, running water, live oak and eucalyptus trees, cannas, ferns, wisteria, and tall thickets of bamboo. The dining room still looked like a '50s California bungalow, its walls still covered with drawings and ceramic plaques by Beatrice Wood. Even in mid-December, we sat outdoors, beneath gas heaters. As we could have done decades ago, we ate pâté, scooped into limestone lettuce cups, garnished with caper berries, cucumber-chip pickles, and pimiento-stuffed olives, with thin slices of dense home-baked rye bread on the side; a subtly seasoned but intensely oniony cream of Spanish onion soup; and that emblematic (and still excellent) pea soup—and then chicken breast in a silky vermouth-based cream sauce fragrant with fresh tarragon; tender pork loin in pungent blue cheese sauce; perfectly cooked salmon broiled in a crust of celery, poppy, and sesame seeds (the Ranch House was serving salmon pink in the middle almost as early as the Frères Troisgros were in France); and a throwback to the restaurant's vegetarian days: intensely flavorful chopped mushroom cutlets garnished with garlic chives.
The next day, I came back to talk to David and Edie Skaggs and Stuart Farnham—and to walk slowly, by myself, through the Ranch House herb garden. There had been frost the last few mornings, and the plants showed it—but the garden was still a marvel. I stooped down to smell a whole confectionery of mint—Moroccan, Egyptian, Austrian; candy mint, eau de cologne mint, apple and grapefruit and chocolate mint, lavender mint, orange bergamot mint. Then I walked past lemon balm, bee balm, agrimony, yarrow, rue; creeping thyme and white moss thyme; wood rosemary, Tuscan blue rosemary, golden rain rosemary; Jerusalem, Mexican, and pineapple sage; a few thorny artichoke plants; some lacy fennel stalks; billows of chard.
I picked a piece of fruit from a Ranpoor lime tree—round, small as a Ping-Pong ball, and bright orange—and rubbed it between my hands. Backtracking, I broke off a sprig of golden rain rosemary and one of Jerusalem sage and crushed one in each hand. Then I brought my hands to my face in what may have looked like a Krishnamurtian gesture of prayer and inhaled the mingled fragrances, sharp and sweet and earthy. As I did, I thought about the Hookers, about my parents (both now gone for more than twenty years), about Beato (still receiving visitors at the age of 105), about Julie Fowler (wherever she may be), about myself at 16, 18, 20. About what the Ranch House meant to all of us. And about the way things grow.