The Homestead Blog

Eat Your Way Through California History!

Food lovers will most definitely want to pay the Homestead Museum a visit on Saturday, August 29, when we host our first Taste of California event! Using chiles as his inspiration, chef, historian, and educator Ernest Miller, in partnership with the Montebello Applied Technology Center, will create an unforgettable, uniquely Californian menu showcasing how chiles have been used from the days of the missions through today (we’re talking tamales, chiliburgers, shrimp cocktails, spicy tuna rolls, and much more!).

Anyone who has encountered Chef Miller knows how enthusiastic he is about food, education, and California. If you have not had the pleasure of meeting him, you can get a feel for his passion by reading the Q & A below and watching him talk about history of chiles in California on his YouTube channel.

Ernest Miller

Ernest Miller doing what he does best: getting people fired up about food and California!

How did the Homestead come on your radar?

Many years ago I noticed the sign for the Homestead Museum at the exit from the 60 freeway on Hacienda Boulevard. Always being curious about California history, I decided to go take a look one day. When I arrived I was amazed at this incredible historic treasure.

Did you always know that you were going to do something with food in your life, or did you have an epiphany?

It was an epiphany. I’ve always loved food and trying different cuisines and dishes. When I was growing up in Southern California in the 1970s, my uncle used to take my brother, my cousins and myself to Little Tokyo for sushi and Chinatown for Chinese dishes, which got my interest in food started. As an officer in the US Navy I always would try the local dishes and specialties whenever we made a port call. I also started cooking these dishes for friends and family and really enjoyed it. I would throw elaborate dinner parties for friends when I was attending law school. Eventually, I said to myself that if I ever won the lottery I would go to cooking school. Then I realized that I never buy lottery tickets and that you only live once, so I switched careers to culinary.

You make a point of explaining that you are a California chef. What makes California food and its history so unique?

I’ve traveled the world and sampled some of the greatest cuisine that there is, but I remain convinced that California is the greatest food region in the world. The bounty of our great state was such that our native American tribes had the greatest population density in North America outside the Aztec Empire and they achieved this without any traditional agriculture. Some of the greatest and most important crops in the world were developed in California. Furthermore, because of the great ethnic diversity and inventiveness of Californians, we’ve developed and popularized some amazing cuisines. Even with the drought, California still is the most productive agricultural state in the Union, responsible for 2/3 of our fruits and nuts, 1/3 of our vegetables, 21% of our dairy, and the list goes on and on.

What are some interesting things you learned while researching menu options for A Taste of California? 

The hamburger originates, according to many, at Louis’ Lunch in New Haven, CT. As I was a student at Yale Law School, I ate there many times. I didn’t realize until I started the research that although the hamburger has its origins on the East Coast, two significant improvements originated in California – the cheeseburger at “The Rite Spot” in Pasadena and the chiliburger at Ptomaine Tommy’s in Lincoln Heights.

In the early 20th century, Los Angeles was a hotbed of chile innovation, from the first jarred salsa (La Victoria), the first canned salsa (El Pato) and taco sauce, such as Pico Pica. Decades later, Los Angeles is still innovating with the advent of such amazingly popular condiments as Tapatio and Sriracha.

Students from the Applied Technology Center in Montebello will be playing an important role in this event. What has it been like working with them?  

The students are enthusiastic, knowledgeable and a lot of fun to work with. I am very impressed.

Why do you think understanding the history behind food is important?

“Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are.” Brillat-Savarin. There are many ways that we get culture: art, science, literature, music. But there is only one type of culture that we get everyday, and that is food culture. Understanding where our food comes from is to understand where we come from. When we know the stories behind our food, the food tastes better but, more importantly, we feed our bodies, our minds and our souls. Luckily, here in California, we have some of the tastiest history there is.

Tickets for A Taste of California are on sale now. We hope you can join us!  

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