There were hardly any settlers in California in 1848 when a young carpenter named James Marshall stumbled across the first few sparkling nuggets in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. For over a century, a smattering of ranchers in the soon-to-be Golden State had survived in splendid isolation, quietly trading cowhides and eating their beef and frijoles. That changed, of course, as soon as word got out that there was gold in them thar hills. Within a matter of months, fortune-seekers from all over the world began descending on San Francisco, clogging the Bay with their ships, filling the Sierra rivers with their pans--and peppering the state, from the very beginning, with all manner of international cuisine. In the first three years of the rush, 200,000 people poured into California from all points of the globe. At a time when even New York City was relatively homogenous--the Irish were exotic new arrivals--California's diversity was, to put it mildly, exceptional.
Especially early in the rush, when it wasn't uncommon for a '49er to fish $2,000 in a day out of a Sierra stream (around $48,000 in today's dollars), these nouveaux riches demanded their own cuisine. San Francisco consumed more champagne than anywhere else in the country besides New York. The recently moneyed had such an appetite for oysters, the beds off the coast were exhausted by 1851, and new ones had to be found.
Campfire champagne. Haute cuisine soon made its way out to the gold fields, where miners surviving on bacon and beans (and, of course, California sourdough bread) added such delicacies as galantine truffles to their diet. Prices skyrocketed. A slice of bread could cost $1; with butter, it might cost $2. "It was no unusual thing," wrote one magazine in 1850, "to see a company of these men, who had never before thought of luxury beyond a good beefsteak and a glass of whiskey, drinking their champagne at $10 a bottle, and eating their tongue and sardines, or warming in the smoky campfire their tin canisters of turtle soup and lobster salad."
Few Americans elsewhere in the 19th century ate out, but the first group of historians to describe San Francisco in 1855 found Spanish fondas, German saloons , and Chinese chowchows. Recent arrivals like William Tecumseh Sherman sweated through their first Mexican red peppers. "Liquid fire," the scourge of Atlanta called the dish. By 1853, some 28,000 Frenchmen had arrived as well, and entrees at the St. George Hotel in Sacramento soon included pigeon a la crapaudine in a sauce tartare and calf's head a la financi e re.
Businessmen thrived. Philip Danforth Armour cut meat in Placerville before heading to Chicago, where he and his family went on to found the biggest meatpacking business in the world. James Folger, a teenager from Nantucket, discovered miners would line up for coffee they didn't have to roast and grind themselves.
As the rush faded, miners found there was food in them thar hills, too. By the 1880s, refrigeration and the intercontinental railroad would bring California produce to the rest of the country. Without gold, though, the state might never have had its international flavor. Indeed, says H. W. Brands, author of The Age of Gold , "it probably would have taken 50 years to populate California." Imagine: all of those oysters gone to waste.
Long before Jackie Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson was importing all things French to the White House, including the dessert blancmange. His recipe: "4 ounces sweet almonds with 5 or 6 bitter almonds; pour boiling water on them to take off the skin. Put them in a mortar and beat them with a little cream. Take them out of the mortar and liquefy them with cream, little by little stirring them; 4 ounces of sugar to be put in. Have ready some isinglass [gelatin], say 1 oz dissolved in boiling water, and pour it into the preceding mixture, stirring them well together. Strain it thro' a napkin, put it into a mould, and it is done."
This story appears in the August 15, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.