L.A. Cooks Itself: On Aleksandra Crapanzano’s “EAT. COOK. L.A.” and Elisa Callow’s “The Urban Forager”

By India MandelkernJune 25, 2019

L.A. Cooks Itself: On Aleksandra Crapanzano’s “EAT. COOK. L.A.” and Elisa Callow’s “The Urban Forager”

EAT. COOK. L.A. by Aleksandra Crapanzano
The Urban Forager by Elisa Callow

LOS ANGELES’S FIRST COOKBOOKS were published in the late 1800s, when the valley was covered in wheat and citrus farms, and vineyards still stretched across downtown. Compiled by local church groups, partially for pride and mostly for fundraising, these books lauded the perennial sunshine, allowing homesteaders to dry raisins, brine olives, grow berries, and make jam. Seeing Southern California as something of a melting pot, they culled recipes from Spanish, German, French, and Russian sources (“a thing unusual,” one preface proclaimed). Even then, dining was theater. You can see it in the effusive tips for decorating tables with orchids, ribbons, and delicate crepe butterflies, or the nostalgic essays about the old-time hospitality enjoyed in cities back east. There’s an earnestness to these notes, as if the authors needed to convince themselves of their European decorum in what was still a frontier town.

It wasn’t until 1971 that we got The L.A. Gourmet, a published compilation of Angeleno restaurant recipes, and since then, we haven’t looked back. The popularity of the city’s cooking, claimed The Los Angeles Times California Cookbook (1981), was a natural extension of its carefree, sun-soaked, wellness-obsessed lifestyle; just think of all the Angeleno-born salads — Cobb, stuffed avocado, alfalfa ’n’ sunflower seed — that went viral. “Skillful sautés, crisp, colorful stir-fries, and perfect mixed grills smoldering over Southwestern mesquite” typified the cosmopolitan Angeleno chef, claimed the authors of LA Cuisine: The New Culinary Spirit (1985). Still, the majority of cookbooks about renowned Los Angeles restaurants had little to say about their own city. The Spago and Patina cookbooks celebrated the genius of their respective European-born chefs; the only mentions of Los Angeles in The Food of Campanile: Recipes from the Famed Los Angeles Restaurant (1997) boil down to a few words on the weather.

Around the same time that gourmet food trucks during the late aughts began to tweet their locations from far-flung strip malls and parking lots, a number of cookbook writers began to talk about Los Angeles differently, abandoning truisms about wellness and cocktail spreads in favor of candid tales of self-making and reinvention. You heard less about assimilation and more about wedding imported traditions to the sunny and sprawling new digs. “The result was a Thai guy doing an impression of the beef salad you’d find at most American Thai restaurants, but filtered through the lens of the LA summer backyard barbecue,” Kris Yenbamroong observes of himself in Night + Market: Delicious Thai Food to Facilitate Drinking and Fun-Having Amongst Friends (2017). Inspiration came from sources high and low, processed and homemade, corporate chains and mom-and-pops, ice cream trucks, taco stands, burger joints, and c-stores. The youthful food memories described in Roy Choi’s L.A. Son: My Life, My City, My Food (2013) span Chinatown bakeries, the Cheesecake Factory, and carne asada grilled in the park. The Grand Central Market Cookbook: Cuisine and Culture from Downtown Los Angeles (2017) celebrates the historic market as a multicultural and multigenerational microcosm of the city: “[A] rare public venue where Angelenos climb out of their cars and literally rub shoulders.”

The Los Angeles portrayed in today’s cookbooks is swollen with creative vitality. It pulses through the scrappy jam operation that launched a nationwide mania for Kokuho Rose crispy rice salads, and the rogue food stand started with $167 and no permit that transformed LA’s gourmet taco scene. “In Los Angeles, no door is ever closed,” claims Victor Garnier Astorino, the (French) author of Los Angeles Cult Recipes (2017): “Once you throw yourself (or lose yourself) in something that makes you happy, people don’t judge you, whatever it is.” Nowhere else might a chef take a chance on a dilapidated building on the edge of Skid Row, or a used-needle-and-condom-strewn alley so devoid of foot traffic that only a fool would open a restaurant there. “Let’s retire those old L.A. jabs about new-age cafes serving alfalfa and plates of mashed yeast,” Alison Clare Steingold, a self-styled “lifestyle editor,” wrote in the introduction to The L.A. Cookbook (2018): “Los Angeles has arrived.”

No one tells the story of Los Angeles’s great culinary awakening with more verve than Aleksandra Crapanzano. EAT. COOK. L.A.: Notes and Recipes from the City of Angels (2019) surveys the restaurants, cafés, ice creameries, and coffee shops that represent the zeitgeist of the new, culturally ambitious Los Angeles. Culling 100 recipes from our hottest eateries (from Kismet to Petit Trois, Moon Juice to Guerrilla Tacos), accompanied by snappy profiles of the city’s hottest chefs (Nancy Silverton and Suzanne Goin, Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo), Crapanzano attempts to capture the “culinary stardust” with which the city now seems to sparkle.

After all, she tells us, Angeleno food wasn’t always worth writing about. Until quite recently, the city suffered from “a bad case of culinary insecurity.” People went to restaurants not so much to eat well as for the magnificent stage sets against which to strut and hustle. Then the 2008 recession hit, and everything changed. Internet startups decentralized the restaurant-scape. Farmers markets became de rigueur. And juicing — juicing! — “fired up long dormant or virginal taste buds with hits of fiery ginger, floral turmeric root, red hot cayenne pepper, energizing green jalapeño, stimulating cardamom, woody nutmeg, and flirtatious pink peppercorns.” A door opened, evidently. A new kind of Angeleno cooking was born.

If you can’t tell, I’m skeptical. The Hollywood Farmers’ Market has been thriving since 1991. The Santa Monica Farmers Market began a decade earlier. From 2007 to 2012, farmers market revenues actually dropped in Southern California — local food didn’t escape the recession. Likewise, restaurants have always been places to see and strut: Can we really assume that everyone who shells out the money for dinner at Urasawa or Providence isn’t doing so for the social capital? And if Los Angeles has been spawning new health fads since the 1930s, why was juicing the trigger? Los Angeles’s love affair with juicing got started in the ’70s, but we universalize our own addictions, I guess.

But I digress; let’s keep rolling with Crapanzano’s story. Gluten phobia spawned grain bowls and a predilection for hummus. Construction of museums and galleries primed our faculties of taste. (She tries very hard to convince us of the synergies between aesthetic and gustatory appreciation, which I’d have an easier time buying without having endured so many team meals at Marie Callender’s at my old museum job.) Before you knew it, “[g]ood restaurants, really good restaurants, seemed literally to pop up across L.A. as if armies of underground chefs were tunneling under the canyons and tar pits, the freeways and valleys.” Contrary to white tablecloth getups like Musso and Frank, “[y]ou could show up at their doors in flip-flops, laptop in hand, and eat beautiful, healthy food in a casual sunny space.” It wasn’t long before Crapanzano started hearing an inimitable “hungry chatter” at all her favorite places: “[A]n appetite for culinary pleasure and satisfaction […] that triggers desire, longing, and a determination to re-create the contours of such inexpressible joy.” Not exactly the words I’d use to describe the line at Howlin’ Rays.

The compendium of quintessential Angeleno recipes is nothing new; we’ve been publishing them for decades. Back then, that meant creamed spinach from Lawry’s, chopped salad from La Scala, and scampi imperial from the Beverly Hills Hotel. Today, it means turmeric grilled sea bass from Cassia, charred cucumber gazpacho from Charcoal, and Gjelina’s carrot top pistou. Many of her recipes have a Middle Eastern spin, like cucumber salad with rose labneh and za’atar (Kismet), beet muhammara (Botanica), pomegranate couscous (Manhattan Beach Post), and hummus “bling bling” (Mh Zh), even if we never hear about restaurants in Middle Eastern neighborhoods such as Glendale or Tehrangeles. It only took minutes, however, to recreate the avocado hummus from the “eclectic New American” Studio City restaurant The Bellwether, topped with a lemony crown of coarsely chopped parsley, spangled with sumac and toasted sesame seeds. Tangy, nutritious, and effortlessly uncomplicated, I get why she calls it “the taste of Los Angeles today.”

Yes, that carrot top pistou — brightened with toasted coriander, orange zest, salty pecorino, and toasted pepitas — was dazzling. Yes, the meyer lemon–olive oil ice cream was custardy and tart. Crapanzano’s recipes, with lashings of this and lavishings of that, and names like “love sauce” and “morning sex,” feel a little like living in a suspended state of tantric euphoria that wouldn’t feel off-brand for Goop. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. How many cocktails have I rationalized because they had saffron in them? How many organic grain bowls have I consumed in the retinoid glow of a MacBook Pro?

Still, there’s something vaguely off-putting about this book. It’s a little too triumphant, a little too glib, and a little too exultant of the fragrant herbs and the tender pea shoots and the delightfully sun-dappled tables. Maybe it’s because her tale of Los Angeles’s culinary rise is seen through a klieg light gel (her book begins by recalling being “wined and dined” by a powerful Hollywood agent). Maybe it’s because she’s a New Yorker and I grew up here. Maybe because she’s an uber-connected insider (her mother is Jane Kramer, The New Yorker’s longtime European correspondent) and her lilting and sensuous prose sometimes comes off as a little tone-deaf. “Who really needs groceries when [chef Josef Centeno of Orsa & Winston] now has most every hankering covered?” she asks.

Cookbooks have always sold us fantasies tricked out as self-help — a glimpse of a royal larder, a dish from a special banquet, a tip from a domestic goddess who seems to have it all. EAT. COOK. L.A. is of that ilk. It’s an alluring portrait of how we’d like to eat if we were always on vacation, where languid weekday breakfasts pour into the early afternoon, and “a plate of crudo at midnight sounds like just the thing.” This is cuisine for the leisure class. The “hungry chatter” that enchants her is that of a well heeled and moneyed crowd: the kind that buys charcoal-activated doodads and Moon Juice beauty dusts before lapping up Eater heatmaps and snarky reviews on The Infatuation. Few of the restaurants in her book are over 10 years old (Wolfgang Puck’s Chinois on Main, which opened in 1983, is the most geriatric inclusion). Her haunts cluster around the Westside, Hollywood, Silver Lake, and the Arts District, with nods to Pasadena (ice cream!) and Studio City. What’s missing (save for La Casita Mexicana, the lone outlier in Bell) are the restaurants supposedly “beyond the studios”: the dumpling houses in San Gabriel, the barbecue joints in Koreatown, the mercados and taquerias dotting City Terrace and Boyle Heights, the Armenian food shops stretching along Washington Boulevard against the San Gabriel mountains; in short, places that have been around long before L.A. restaurants started scooping up James Beard Awards and the Michelin Guide — for better or worse — decided to come back.

To Crapanzano’s credit, she does acknowledge the omission. “But that’s another story,” she confesses, “and not the one I’m writing.” Luckily, Elisa Callow’s The Urban Forager: Culinary Exploring & Cooking on L.A.’s Eastside fills that gap.

Callow, the founder and former executive director of an arts education nonprofit in Pasadena, draws from a patchwork of experiences: teenage memories of wandering Malaysian market stalls during her father’s tour in the Peace Corps, Armenian dives in East Hollywood, and poking into tortillerias and butchers to watch the shopkeepers do their work. The foods she found there weren’t exactly “wild,” but their novelty was enlivening (urban exploring and primordial gathering, both requiring curiosity and resourcefulness, may not be as different as we think). There’s something deeply satisfying about expanding our search for provisions beyond the one-stop shopping center. There’s a lot right under our noses if we take the time to look. But it was only later, Callow acknowledges in her blog promoting the book, “that I realized my near compulsion to stop, sniff, taste and ask — what is this, what is it for, how do you use it — could be described as Urban Foraging.”

It’s not the kind of foraging that helps you find horehound and chickweed in the cracks between sidewalks, or lemons and figs from your neighbor’s trees. Callow’s book addresses the average person wandering aisles lined with heaping buckets of unfamiliar ingredients belonging to a culture distant from one’s own. To forage, for her, is to navigate the city with the eager curiosity of a child. Pull over somewhere unexpected. Ask for some help. Tinker with ingredients. Eventually become a regular.

The Urban Forager began as a guide to Callow’s favorite haunts in Altadena that she created for her kids. Before long, her wanderings bled into the scattered patchwork of neighborhoods extending toward Arcadia in the east, Hollywood in the west, and Arlington Heights in the south. Hence the subtitle: "Culinary Exploring & Cooking on L.A.’s Eastside." This might raise some eyebrows, since few people agree where the eastside actually is. Historically speaking, it lies east of the Los Angeles River. The Eastsider, a local news blog, covers Silver Lake, Glendale, Eagle Rock, and Highland Park. Some sources include Koreatown. I’ve come to think of the eastside as a “vibe” or a figure of speech, having less to do with any definitive geographical boundary rather than simply not being on the westside, with its higher rents, better weather, cultural homogeneity, and closeness to the beach — a point that film producer Lynda Obst illustrates in her foreword to Jessica Koslow’s 2016 Everything I Want to Eat: Sqirl and the New California Cooking. Sqirl, Obst maintains, “retains the things we east-siders love about the east side: Funkiness, a downtown NYC urban decay mixed with haute cuisine you don’t have to dress for.”

Callow’s eastside couldn’t look more different. Unlike Crapanzano’s recipes, which are drawn solely from restaurants, Callow crowdsources recipes from her personal life as well as five culinary collaborators enlisted to help unpack these far-flung enclaves. Best known of them is Minh Phan, Los Angeles’s Vietnamese-born, Wisconsin-bred porridge maven; Jonathan Gold once lauded her spin on the dish — laced with aromatics, chile, and lacto-fermented mustard greens — as dazzling in its complexity as anything coming out of the most famous kitchens in town. Second best known is Sumi Chang, the baker behind Pasadena’s beloved neighborhood institution Euro Pane, where Gold used to enjoy a coffee and croissant. The other three are home cooks with day jobs outside the culinary world: Jack Aghoian, a child of Armenian refugees with deep ties to Syria and Cuba; Rumi Mahmood, a Bangladeshi native with a man crush on Jacques Pépin; and Mario Rodriguez, a Boyle Heights–based social worker with roots in rural Mexico and the American Southwest.

Little wonder that the recipes in The Urban Forager are all over the map. You have the very basic (boiling pasta, poaching eggs), the more involved (pozole, fresh tortellini), pantry items (jam, pickles), family favorites (shrimp dopiaza, madzooneh shorba — a delightfully simple Armenian yogurt soup from a now-defunct restaurant owned by one of her collaborators), desserts (lemon squares, polvorones), and copious tips for using leftovers (“refrigerator foraging,” in Callow’s words).

Her book doesn’t align with stereotypical notions of Southern California dining, for good reason. “California cuisine,” as chef and writer Joyce Goldstein once argued, was invented in restaurants and not in private homes. Callow’s recipes, frequently credited to their sources — “Mario’s Queso Fundido,” “Peggy’s Pavlova,” “Aunt Mini’s Butter Cookies,” and “Pâté Maison in Memory of my Dad” — give The Urban Forager a sentimental quality more reminiscent of spiral-bound church cookbooks and tea-stained notecards stuffed in recipe boxes than the glossy, full-bleed, uber-designed volumes in bookstores today. That’s exactly the point. It showcases the heterogeneity of these neighborhoods while reflecting the ways that most home cooks actually cook. Most of us don’t specialize in one kind of cuisine. Our recipes come from dozens of sources: websites, cookbooks, friends, spouses, and co-workers. We swap ingredients and make adjustments. Nothing is too precious to be tinkered with.

The Urban Forager cookbook feels worlds apart from EAT. COOK. L.A. even though the two authors describe the same city, many of the same neighborhoods, and often the same dishes (meatballs, pavlova, queso fundido, roast chicken). That’s not necessarily a bad thing — Los Angeles is a large and inscrutable place. “We live our lives in parallel with few intersections,” recently wrote Frank Shyong in his column for the Los Angeles Times, “each of us experiencing a different city with its own culinary hallmarks.”

But different sources yield different explanations of Los Angeles’s rise as a Great Food City. When you cherry-pick the young and trendy restaurants, as Crapanzano does, you end up with a played-out story: Angeleno food once was bad but now is good thanks to creative chefs, discerning consumers, and the so-called cultural renaissance. But when you focus on small legacy grocers like Los Cinco Puntos in Boyle Heights or the Armenian-owned Aladdin Nuthouse in Pasadena, as Callow does, you start to realize that Los Angeles has always been a food city, even if mainstream audiences, for racism or whatever reason, didn’t pay attention.

The latter narrative feels more comfortable, but I still feel a little torn. Cookbooks, historically, have been designed to instruct and inspire. Who am I to fixate on the stage and background lighting rather than the merits of the recipes? After all, I greatly enjoyed the dishes in Crapanzano’s book. Her acids are bright. Her spices are vivid. Her abundance of creative toppings — fresh mint and feta, sprinkles of dried rose petals, a dollop of salsa verde or a shimmer of romesco sauce — give the recipes a clearer and more contemporary point of view than those in The Urban Forager.

But to use The Urban Forager solely as a recipe manual deflates Callow’s intention. Urban foraging, I’ve come to realize, is a venture in community building: compelling us to surrender to the unfamiliar and start talking to strangers. It can take a little courage, but within the discomfort, we forge new connections. “My puzzled face becomes an invitation for acts of kindness and welcome in the stores I enter,” Callow writes. “Without fail, I am approached by a variation on the nonna/grandma/bà nội, whose knowledge of a particular cuisine is as deep as her desire to teach.”

It’s this vulnerability that draws me to The Urban Forager. “Before I remarried, money was scarce, but that didn’t stop my daughter, Nori, and me from enjoying our meals,” Callow tells us, introducing a recipe for roasted turkey breast with fennel. The dish is disarmingly simple, requiring very little technique. But in just a few words, Callow captures the rituality that gives cooking its anthropological power. Endlessly divisible, the dish stirred deep and primal kinship bonds. It marked and concretized a moment in time. It metamorphosed into a dozen forms of sustenance that lasted an entire week: a Waldorf salad, enchiladas, quesadillas, and sandwiches prepared for lunch.

In Los Angeles Plays Itself, Thom Andersen pointed out the irony of dissecting movies for their supposed “documentary revelations.” Get too bogged down in the landscape and the architecture, and then you aren’t really watching the movie. You could say the same of cookbooks. Aren’t they here to inspire us? To help get dinner on the table? To envision a lifestyle we’d like to lead? Yet localized cookbooks do have an impact on the cities that they seek to represent. They can sway who goes out of business and who rolls out three more locations. They affect where people travel and how they spend their money — all the more important given Los Angeles’s rash of hotel construction and the Olympics looming on the horizon.

Every cookbook about Los Angeles has its own telos, but they ultimately fall into two camps. There’s the culinary bildungsroman — scrappy tales of dreamers who rise from humble beginnings to march by the beat of their own drum. And then there are the ones that provide jasmine-scented possibilities of what that the L.A. lifestyle can look like, if you can put aside the rising rents, the squeeze on older communities, and the growing number of signs for grocers and restaurants that have long since shut their doors. Those things should matter more; they’re part of our prandial history. But they’re less romantic, less sensuous, and less transportive than the fragrant herbs, the cooling breezes, and the fragile sun-ripened fruit.


India Mandelkern is a historian and writer. She lives in Los Angeles.

LARB Contributor

India Mandelkern is a historian and writer based in Los Angeles. More of her work can be found here. She is writing a book about the history of street lighting for Angel City Press.


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