By Richard Foss, Dining and Cuisine Writer
On March 16, the Palos Verdes Art Center hosted an examination of the natural environment of its Peninsula by artists of two unrelated disciplines. One was visual art: the opening of a show of plein air works painted amid nature, tranquil landscapes that are sometimes sun-drenched, sometimes brooding. These are exhibited near technical drawings by the Olmsted brothers, the property developers who shaped the peninsula into the place we know. Together they highlight the way a rugged, treeless hill was sculpted into a Mediterranean fantasy, an overlay of one continent on another.
The other element was food: a dinner utilizing both foraged and farmed items from the same neighborhoods in the paintings. To Chef Paul Buchanan, who consulted Tongva tribal culinary historian Craig Torres, the pairing makes perfect sense.
“The style of plein air is about a sense of place. You’re painting something in its own location… As plein air involves capturing the sense of a place with paint, we’re doing it with food.”
For Buchanan, the foraged ingredients are the elements of his art, while to Torres they are connections to his culture. The Spanish systematically broke the links between native peoples and their traditional foods to make them dependent. The farmed vegetables and proteins supplanted a culture of sustainable harvesting. Torres is lyrical when he reflects on his people’s traditional practices.
“Our life cycle was dictated by the seasons, what we harvested and gathered. The Los Angeles basin was our world. We had variety because the area probably has the most diverse flora of any place in California. You can go ten miles in any direction and end up in a different environment. Our culture was based on alliances, intermarriage, and trade, and there was something in every ecology [to barter].”
The flavors of California native plants weren’t as varied as the crops that were brought by the conquerors, he admitted.
“My ancestors’ diet would be regarded as pretty bland today. We didn’t have a lot of ways to spice our food, or any items that had much sweetness. It wasn’t part of our culture, so we savored the simple, natural goodness of what we foraged and grew. To introduce people to traditional foods we come up with recipes that mix them with familiar things, but we focus on the simple flavors in their basic form. We want people to transition to rediscovering things that are usually covered up. It’s almost like developing a relationship with your food, because you learn about those flavors over time.”
Striking a balance between the simplicity of the native diet and our modern cravings was Buchanan’s job, and he is particularly qualified to do it. He met Torres at a native cooking event in downtown Los Angeles about a decade ago, and the two developed mutual respect.
Buchanan is the founder and chef of Primal Alchemy catering, based in Long Beach. As he describes it, “We were local, seasonal, and sustainable before it was a fad.” The chef, who spent his youth in Thailand, trained in San Francisco along with a cohort of chefs who explored the flavors of foraged items and neglected crops; Buchanan adopted and extended their ideas. In the case of Palos Verdes, that involves highlighting the flavors of ingredients that most people don’t consider to be food.
“The prickly pear is everywhere, and we made a vinegar out of it for the ceviche. The stinging nettle is delicious in soup and there is a local guy here who brings them to the farmer’s market when we ask for them,” Buchanan said. “He may regard me as the guy who buys weeds, but he’s happy to sell them and I’m happy to buy.”
Those crops are generally available, though obscure, but there are problems with trying to present wild foods in a commercial setting. A sudden cold snap or unexpected rain can shift what is available, scrambling the plans of a chef who has a particular dish in mind.
It’s a problem Torres knows well, as he has sometimes had to improvise when presenting programs about the indigenous diet. He is a member of a Tongva tribal group called the Chia Café Collective that started as a seed and food bank for tribal elders. The workers talked and traded recipes, learning so much that they eventually collaborated on a cookbook called Cooking The Native Way. Despite the name the group doesn’t own a restaurant, or want one, both for practical and ideological reasons.
“We don’t have enough of our traditional foods to supply our own communities, much less start a food business. I tell people that we aren’t caterers or cooks, we’re not a nonprofit; we’re a philosophy. We’re trying to get people to refocus their cultural lens on some questions. What is their relationship to their environment, to the indigenous here that have survived for thousands of generations? We’re asking people to renegotiate their relationships with nature. We want them to eat things from here instead of thousands of miles away. We encourage people to rip out their lawns and put native plants there, and then they can eat from the land. It looks like it’s about food, but it’s about your relationship with the world.”
Interviewed separately, Buchanan echoed some of the same themes in equally passionate language.
“We want to remind people that there is food right at their feet, and most of us don’t open our eyes and look at it. There’s mallow growing everywhere and it’s a great green, less bitter than arugula. I’ve got kids in my Days of Taste class that I teach every year, and when they find that this weed is edible they eat it by the handful. It’s a great resource, one of many that we don’t use. That’s what this PV Wild event is, a look at the resources that were historically there and how they were used.”
The painters, chef and cultural historian all had things to say about the natural landscape of the Peninsula, and each hopes to continue the dialog in their own way. The plein air exhibit runs through April 22. Chia Café Collective events may be found on their Facebook page.