The Homestead Blog

Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.

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!  

One comment on “Eat Your Way Through California History!

  1. Leroy Craven
    May 23, 2017

    Ptomaine Tommy’s at 2420 N. Broadway,
    As I remember it, in 1956, was just down the street from the Starland walk in theater, on Saturdays we would go to Ptomaine Tommy’s before the kids matinee at the Starland. According to an old newspaper article from the Los Angeles times View part four Thursday, December 26, 1974 I have Tommy De forest came from the Midwest. De Forest had been a law student at a Midwestern University, but came to Los Angeles about 1912 and opened a six stool lunch station that stood in the street on North Broadway near 22nd. When World War I broke out he joined the Navy and after the war he came home to Los Angeles and started a hamburger and chili stand a block from where his wagon and stood a few years before. He prospered at that location and a few years later opened what became ptomaine Tommy’s on Broadway near Daly St.
    I had somewhat of an inside source of information my uncle, a young high school student attending Lincoln high school, worked there early in the morning, before going to school. Unfortunately, he was a teenager and never paid much attention to the recipe for Tommy’s chili or steak size.
    With my uncle told me was that Tommy hired a lot of off-duty Los Angeles policeman who worked there as waiters and cooks. Things that I remember there are in fact that in the front window, was a miniature lunch wagon that De forest had started his business with. Further, as you walked in on the west side there was a bar that as long as I can remember was never open. On the wall inside the bar and in the eating area were photographs of movie stars and famous athletes, boxers and race horses.
    The floor was always covered with sawdust and there were no tables or chairs just a long fountain type U-shaped arrangement with barstools one went to the left the other went to the right in the middle in the front as you came in was the cash register where you paid. Above where you were eating you can see where they were cooking the beans, in large cauldrons just above into the rear of where you were eating. The cauldrons were stainless steel and look like the style used in the military to hold large quantities of food my guess was about 300, two 500 pounds each. There may have been more but only two were visible patrons from the service floor. My uncle told me that the restaurant opened around three in the morning to the workers, who came in and started cooking beans in those large cauldrons.
    I remember that the restaurant always had male waiters, in white aprons and hats, each waiter was assigned a certain number of patrons stools at their station. Each station had a large bowl of chopped onions, the bowls were about 1 ½ to 2 feet wide and were always ceramic, I remember the color being light green. The bowls sat in a large chrome ring that was bolted to the service area at that station. Each bowl had a metal cup and when you were served your size you would ask if you wanted onions? If you said yes he would turn around grab the cup fill it with chopped onions and immediately turned back to you and pour them all over your size.
    According to my uncle, the restaurant was patronized by workers from the nearby General Hospital, the after theater crowd from downtown and the fight crowd, some of them coming in in suits, tuxedos and evening gowns.
    On August 10, 1958 ptomaine Tommy’s closes doors, forced to sell the property to satisfy creditors and a week later he died. Many people said he died of a broken heart.
    I’ve read a lot of the purported recipes for ptomaine Tommy’s chili size, all I can tell you is that he did use beans, I don’t remember any kind of sauce being on them, of course I always ate the hamburger size, which was served on an oval plate not round, and you could not see the hamburger patty, because of the mounds of beans covering it.
    I know that the beans were dry, when they first started cooking them early in the morning, and I surmised that the cauldrons were filled with hot water, salt, and any secret ingredient that De forest may have put in cauldrons. It was my understanding he was the only one who had the recipe and closely guarded it.
    The only thing I can assume is that, while in the Navy during World War I, he perfected his recipes and brought them back to Los Angeles after leaving the service. Cooking cauldrons look similar to those on naval ships,, and would cook all day long.
    Further, I know initially he started off with a steak size which was made just like a chili size – hamburger size, by using a oval dish and covering the steak with a large quantity of beans, and onions if you want them. From what I understand the chili size – hamburger size was more popular than the steak size and so he was noted for the chili size – hamburger size.
    I don’t know if there is a difference between the chili size and hamburger size, I always thought they were the same, but I was young at the time and didn’t pay a lot of attention to that. So, I have nothing to add to the recipe of the fact he did use dry beans, cooking and large cauldrons and added salt in his seasoning to the mix which cooked all day.
    I don’t remember anything else being on the chili size – hamburger size other than beans and meat.
    Yes, I can truly say I was born in East LA
    I lived on Johnston St., Lincoln Heights

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