The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1973, Volume 19, Number 3
James E. Moss, Editor

Book Review

From Fingers to Finger Bowls. By Helen Walker Linsenmeyer. San Diego: Copley Books, 1972. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. 142 pages. $9.50.

Reviewed by Sam’l P. Arnold, an historian of food and drink of the Trans-Mississippi West. Mr. Arnold is producer of the “Fryingpans West” television series, and author of Fryingpans West, a cookbook. He is also the builder/proprietor of THE FORT, a nationally famous restaurant in Morrison, Colorado, which features food and drink of the early West.

This writer avidly devours cookbooks. Often the taste is dull and the contents have been chewed over until the flavor is gone. When asked to review From Fingers to Finger Bowls, “a sprightly history of California cooking,” misgivings were strong for the bookstores are filled with compilations of recipes by so-called experts who purport to bring something new to light. More often they have failed to do their homework.

Helen Linsenmeyer delighted me with her book. Its large size and attractive dust cover spoke well of the contents inside. She starts with Indian foods and follows this with the Spanish influences both from the padres and the rancheros. The fourth chapter is devoted to the Gold Rush with the recipes brought west by the 49’ers and brought east by the Chinese to California.

She follows this with the logical growth of California’s cities and the sophisticated restaurants of San Francisco. The final sixth chapter brings one up to date with the growth of the wine, olive, date and citrus industry.

Just as one would imagine, California’s cuisine is a hodgepodge of all manner of ethnic influences. But the author has written in a lively style and compiled recipes which are not the re-hash of Betty Crocker.

Being a hair-splitting, captious critic of chile recipes, I was absolutely delighted to see that she did not fall into the ordinary Anglo trap of listing tomatoes as a vital ingredient for Chile Colorado. Her recipe was the authentic way and the reader is urged to discover this delicacy of the gods.

The book provides both essays on the different sections and recipes. She lists eight pages of source materials both for research in writing the essays and also the recipes. To have thoroughly culled through a bibliography of this size must have taken long hours of hard work.

I suspect that she enjoyed it too, for she has checked out the little vignettes and fragments of history which are a delight to run into in diaries and journals, and which the food historian relishes. My only possible criticism of the book might be that I would wish more detailed information and stories about the recipes than are given. The source is sometimes provided and sometimes not. I would like to know where each of them was found by the author and any story or history concerned. This type of footnoting, as found so beautifully done in The American Heritage Cookbook, would have delighted this reader.

One of the bonus features of the book is a sprinkling of recipes for other than food … i.e., making lavender sachets, old-fashioned rose jars, rose waters, orange flavor syrup, and cologne. A most valuable weights and measures table is reproduced. Also, recipes for rarely found items such as baking powder and a hangover remedy “with a bit of the hair of the dog.”

The varied illustrations were carefully chosen. There are marvelous full color illustrations by W. H. D. Koerner (1878-1937), an illustrator of the West whose work was well known in many publications such as the Saturday Evening Post and Colliers. Line drawings have been picked up from many sources and include those done by James M. Hutchings, a gold seeker whose California Magazine was published in 1856. Also found in this profusely illustrated book are drawings by James Ross Browne and Charles Nahl. If one could not read at all, the book would nonetheless tell the story of California by its illustrations alone.

Some cookbooks are meant primarily for kitchen use while others end up as good reading by the bed. This one will end up in both places. I can’t wait to try the hollowed out round loaf of bread filled with rich oyster stew. And the Ramona Sandwich made with all sorts of California fruits sounds like the epitome of delicious “she-food.” The Oysters Kirkpatrick makes my mouth water, but I can’t say the same for the boiled bear paws. The Chinese recipes are fun and different and I’m going to try her recipe for spiced tongue Chinese style with a buffalo tongue which I am fortunate to have in my freezer. She gives a sour dough starter recipe. I am delighted that the fraud of sour dough yeast as being a mysterious, hard to obtain culture is not offered by the author.

In toto, From Fingers to Finger Bowls is absolutely superb and worth every penny of its price.