Photo By: Niuniu Teo / Town Crier
Jacqueline Higuera McMahan’s books on local food history inspired the menu for this weekend’s “Fandango” fundraiser at the Los Altos History Museum.
Californians don’t look back often.
Silicon Valley is famous for its thriving start-up culture, technological innovation and progressive thinking – not for ruminating on its historical roots.
Two centuries ago, ranchos covered California’s sprawling, fertile land. Today, it is difficult to recognize the remnants of rancho culture in Los Altos’ paved streets and groomed lawns. But the land that now sits beneath the glass and steel buildings of Arastradero Road once anchored Californian ranchos. Two large land grants from California’s pastoral era covered what is now Los Altos Hills – Rancho La Purisima Concepcion and Rancho San Antonio.
Their history is scheduled to come back to life for a night of music, food and dance 5-9 p.m. Sunday at “Fandango! An Evening in Old California,” a fundraiser at the Los Altos History Museum, 51 S. San Antonio Road.
In addition to feasting on dishes of the area’s agricultural past, participants are encouraged to kit-out in period costume, turning to historical landowners like Juana Briones and Juan Prado Mesa for inspiration.
The History Museum hosts a themed benefit every year – previous themes include a Hawaiian luau and a German Oktoberfest. This year’s theme is based on the history of Los Altos’ own community.
“We’re especially happy about this (event) because it ties to the museum and what the museum is about,” said event co-organizer Diane Claypool.
Claypool’s menu, currently being taste-tested before making its grand debut at the event, includes barbecued beef, grilled vegetables, tortillas and wedding cookies.
The “Fandango” menu draws on recipes from Los Altos resident Jacqueline Higuera McMahan’s cookbook, “California Rancho Cooking” (Olive Press, 1983). McMahan plans to attend the event with her husband.
“It was great to find out that they were going to re-create a fandango in Los Altos, because that’s the biggest celebration,” McMahan said. “A fandango is like pulling out all the stops.”
Memories of rancho life
McMahan’s book mixes personal memoir with cookbook, recounting family meals at Los Tularcitos, their 4,000-acre rancho, as well as traditional recipes. As illustrated in her book, the food-making process and the meals were central components of “Californio” tradition and culture. Recipes were passed along, from mothers to daughters, grandmothers to granddaughters, in a predominantly oral tradition. McMahan’s book is a rare documentation of rancho dining and food culture.
When McMahan interviewed other rancho families about their traditional food, she often received as many as 10 different versions of one recipe.
“Each family adds its own little style,” she said. “It was all by word-of-mouth, and they didn’t write everything down. I found myself re-creating a lot of the stuff they remembered, just from memories.”
Before she settled in Los Altos, McMahan lived with her family on their rancho, in what is today central and northern Milpitas. The rancho was granted to Jose Loreto Higuera, McMahan’s great-great grandfather, in 1821. Members of the Higuera family lived on the ranch for 150 years. Then, when she was approximately 5 years old, the family lost the ranch.
“Ranchos are usually lost because, for (the Californios), the land was endless, so they would sell parts of the land off to get money,” McMahan said. “So they finally sold off too much. It was a family argument, and the rancho was lost, as most of them were.”
An eighth-generation Californian, McMahan hails from a family of culinary aficionados. Despite the loss of her family’s rancho, their recipes continue to make their way down the generations.
“We lost the rancho but kept the food,” she said with a laugh.
The Los Tularcitos adobe is now part of a city park. In “California Rancho Cooking,” McMahan describes a quiet pathway of olive trees – a remnant of what was once paradise for the Californios.
“Long before the turn of the twentieth century, the great days of the California rancho had ended,” she writes. “And we have taken our children into the Lane, the long grove of olive trees planted in 1830, quieted them as we stood on the mulch of twenty years’ carpet of leaves, and told them to listen, as Grandpa told us. And if you listen, there is more than the breeze and the distant sound of a freeway.”
The Californio in us
According to Laura Bajuk, executive director of the Los Altos History Museum, the “Fandango” event aligns with the museum’s new focus on exploring its “impact on the community.”
“Recently, we re-evaluated our mission statement,” she said. “We believe that history inspires imagination and creativity. Our old mission statement was more about collecting and preserving – it was pretty dull.”
The Los Altos History Museum now focuses on its impact on the community it serves – thus, the purpose behind this year’s Fandango is partly to re-familiarize Los Altos area residents with their forgotten heritage.
“We’re trying to teach people about a history of a time period a lot of people don’t really understand,” Bajuk said. “Unless they grew up here, nobody learned about that time period. And a lot of people who are here didn’t grow up here.”
Although few physical traces remain of the once-flourishing ranchos, the legacy of the Californios is sifted, often unrecognized, into the names of local streets, the ingredients in food and the ways the community comes together.
“I really think (rancho culture is) part of our whole California barbecue outdoor dining lifestyle,” McMahan said. “It’s also in the kind of food we like – for example, we all love olive oil, and that’s about as linked to our past as you can get.”
Tickets for the “Fandango” event are $95 members, $115 nonmembers and $40 youth.
For tickets and more information, call Aja Sorensen at 948-9427, ext. 14, or visit www.losaltoshistory.org.