Food History of Napa County, California

My second book, Lost Restaurants of Napa Valley and their Recipes, was published. six months ago today! Like my first book, Hidden History of Napa Valley, it looks the history of marginalized communities in Napa County. However, Lost Restaurants focuses on food history. As I wrote in the preface, this book is concerned with “the people who grew and harvested the ingredients, the cooks who prepared it, the staff who served it, the restaurateur who manages the business, the first people who invented with the original dish, and the people who appropriated it into something else.”

In honor of the six month publication anniversary, I thought I’d post a few excerpts from Lost Restaurants.

Chapter 1

Empire Saloon

Nineteen-year-old Nathan Coombs arrived in Napa in 1845. At the time, what is now Napa City was divided between three Californio (Mexican citizens born and living in the Alta California region of Mexican territory) rancho owners: Nicolás Higuera, Cayetano Juárez, and Colonel Salvador Vallejo, brother of General Mariano Vallejo. Wappo and Southern Patwin people labored on the ranchos that had been their ancestral lands. Coombs was one of an increasing number of American and British immigrants encroaching on Mexican territory. He and other men who would later become prominent Napans launched the Bear Flag Revolt in June 1846 when they imprisoned the Vallejos and claimed California for the United States. 

Tensions were high between Mexicans and American as their soldiers fought in the southwest during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). But in Napa, Californios and the Americans trying to take over their land found ways to work together. When Higuera needed a new adobe on his rancho, he hired Coombs and John Grigsby, another Bear Flagger, to build it. In lieu of cash, Coombs and Grigsby requested a plot of land planted in beans by the river just north of Higuera’s embarcadero. Grigsby sold Coombs his share and left his partner to his own devices. In fall 1847, Coombs cleared the land and laid out eight square blocks – Main Street from First to Fifth – and shortly thereafter founded the city of Napa.

One of the men from the revolt was Harrison Pierce, a Pennsylvanian not much older than Coombs who came to the area in 1843 after ditching a whaling ship in Oregon. After the Revolt, he went north toward Rancho Carne Humana (near St. Helena), owned by a cantankerous English doctor named Edward Bale. There Pierce got a job overseeing a saw mill belonging to another Bear Flagger named Ralph Kilburn.

In spring 1848, Harrison Pierce decided what Napa really needed was a saloon. Pierce, Kilburn, and William Nash, a travelers in the wagon train that split from the Donner Party before their luck went bad, milled the lumber at Kilburn’s mill and carted it down to Napa. George Cornwell, a ship captain who came to Napa in 1848, told a slightly different version of this story. He claimed Pierce merely commissioned the construction and that the real work was actually done by two men known only as Southard and Sweezy. They, Cornwell said, built the first permanent structure in town, and Pierce’s saloon was constructed behind it.

Either way, construction moved along at a hasty pace until Pierce hit a snag. He had everything but the rafters completed on the one and a half story, 18×24 foot building before realizing he had accidentally erected it in the center of Main Street. The error seems egregious, but it was an easy one to make. When Coombs surveyed the townsite, he marked the divisions between the roads and lots with small stakes in the ground. But in the year between surveying and Pierce’s construction, a thick layer of wild oats sprouted up and buried the stakes. The plants were mowed down, the stakes uncovered, and Pierce, with Higuera’s help, pushed the frame to the south side of Third Street between Main Street and the river. 

Pierce completed construction in early May, but almost immediately abandoned the saloon. A few days before, Sam Brannan, California’s first millionaire and the eventual founder of Calistoga Hot Springs, stood in Portsmouth Square in San Francisco and announced the discovery of gold. Before the saloon even opened its doors, Pierce, Kilburn, six other white Americans, and an Indigenous woman and her Californio husband left together to seek their fortune. They were the first of many Napans who deserted the valley for the mountains. 

Like most miners, Pierce was unsuccessful in his ventures. He returned to Napa in the fall, stocked up on liquor, and finally opened his saloon. By the following summer, he had expanded operations to include lodging and $1 meals of beef, hard bread, and coffee. The Empire Saloon was the site of Napa’s first election in 1849 and was a well-known drinking and dining establishment for several years. 

How long Pierce operated the Empire Saloon is a mystery. The sign hung at least until 1857, but the structure cycled through other uses. At some point it was converted to a private home. The building stood as of 1881. Even after leaving the saloon business, Pierce remained in town, doing who knows what. It seems he never married or had children; he died in 1870.

Chapter Four

Homemade Tamales

For many nineteenth century Americans, Mexican food was exotic and a little dangerous. Doctors warned patients against the hazards of spicy foods. Women who sold chili from stands in a plaza in San Antonio were derided as “chili queens,” seductive and coarse women who used sexual appeal to entice strangers to purchase their wares. A Napan with the initials T. D. S. had a poem published in the Napa Daily Journal a woman who was temerarious and romantically picky; because she did not secure a respectable man when she was young, she had to settle for “A peon from Autlan [Autlán de Navarro, a city in Jalisco, Mexico]…A bold tamale man.” 

Of the people who sold Mexican food in Napa County, the women were not wanton sirens nor the men uneducated ruffians. But the idea that Mexican food was cheap and easy rather than fine dining was not so easily quashed. Home cooks and small parlors cropped up at the tail end of the nineteenth century, but restaurants were few and far between. Tamale vendors were not as prevalent in Napa County as they were in other parts of the country, but they were fairly common. Even if a Napan had not personally frequented a tamale parlor or had tamales delivered to their home, they were at least familiar with the concept. 

The local newspapers contain scattered references to pushcarts and door-to-door tamale sellers, but few include names, addresses, or other vital details. However, there is information on one: George Fimby. Born to parents descended from Californios, he lived in Napa with his wife Trinidad and their nine children. Trinidad was one of at least nine children born to a laborer-turned-farmer from Mexico, and his Californiana wife who had moved to the Yountville and Capelle Valley regions. Nearly everyone in the family worked to make ends meet. The Fimby children worked at a millinery shop, at a tannery and glove factory, at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, as laborers on farms and ranches. George worked for a time as a deputy marshal and at the Napa Woolen Mills while Trinidad took care of the house on Pearl Street. To earn extra money, she made chicken tamales and he delivered them around town six evenings a week. 

Grocery stores supplied canned chili con carne, frijoles, tamales, and tortillas, but discerning diners knew fresh was always best. Some local cooks went beyond home delivery and sold their tamales in shops, saloons, delicatessens, and bakeries. Some of these cooks were Mexican American, while others were working class Americans and European immigrants. 

German-Swiss immigrant John Stuky moved to Napa not long after arriving in the United States in 1890. In 1903 he married Martha Sciligo, the daughter of an Italian-Swiss farmer who had settled in Carneros. For a few years in the early 1900s he operated a saloon on Brown Street opposite of the old Courthouse. There for a few months in 1908 he hired another Swiss immigrant to cook for him. William Wehrli was so well-known for his Mexican food talents that he earned the moniker “Tamale Bill.” Men visiting Stuky’s saloon could gorge on chicken tamales for $0.15, or frijoles and clam chowder for $0.10. For whatever reason, the relationship did not last. Tamale Bill moved on to Fort Bragg and operated a few tamale parlors. In January 1909  he died by suicide after jumping out of a second story window.

Two stores on Brown Street, Hunter’s Fruit Depot and the Godwin brothers grocery, sold tamales made by two different cooks, Kapp and Street and Juana Garcia. Kapp and Street are unknown entities. Juana, however, did more than sell just to local grocers. In 1897 her tamales appeared on the menu of the Napa Cafe alongside oysters, oyster cocktails, ice cream, cake, and other short orders. Her tamales were also featured at the short-lived Spanish-American Chop House, run by her daughter’s Mexican American husband Peter Feliz. And she sold out of her home on Stewart Street (now called Clinton Street) that she shared with her husband Ruperto and their children. In 1902 Ruperto and Juana opened Delmonico Spanish Chop House where they offered oysters and tamales, among other dishes. The chop house did not last long, and by 1904 it had been replaced by the Chicago Meat Market butcher shop. 

According to census records, both Juana and Ruperto were originally from Mexico; Ruperto immigrated into the US in 1850 and brought his wife and her two children (Ruperto was her second husband) over in 1865, five years after their marriage. Once in California they had three more children. It appears the Garcias never opened another restaurant, but they remained part of the fabric of Napa’s Mexican community.

Manull Silkes was born on Samos, a Greek island not far from Turkey. After immigrating in 1910, Manuel, as he was known in the states, made his way to the North Bay. He married Anastacia “Annie” Higuera, and by 1923 they and their children had relocated to Napa. Manuel opened a tamale parlor out of their single story home at 1020 Vallejo Street. The recipes and most of the cooking were probably handled by Annie. She was a descendant of Nicolás Higuera, the owner of Rancho Rincón de los Carneros and Rancho Entré Napa. 

Within a few months the Salikeses had relocated the parlor to 1143 Main Street (today the parking lot on Main near Pearl Street) and given the business a formal name: Imperial Tamale Parlor. They likely resided on the second floor with the ground floor dedicated to the restaurant and kitchen. They produced homemade beef and chicken tamales, enchiladas, and other Mexican dishes. In 1926, Annie took full ownership of the parlor, perhaps in preparation for filing for divorce in 1927. A year later she won full custody of their children. Manuel left Napa but continued to work as a cook in restaurants throughout California. He finally settled in San Joaquin County and remained there the rest of his days. 

Freed from an unpleasant marriage, Annie kept up the Imperial Tamale Parlor. About the same time she was ditching Manuel, a painter at Mare Island named Walter Olds lost his wife Laura to a brief illness. Who knows how the widower and divorcée met, but the two did not stay single for very long. Almost a year to the day after her divorce, Annie and Walter got hitched in Reno, Nevada. He moved in and helped her run the restaurant until about 1930 when they sold the joint and later moved to Vallejo. Walter died in 1949; Annie survived him another four decades and never remarried.

Chapter Five

Lai Hing Company

While specifics about Chinese-owned businesses that operated in Napa County’s Chinese communities are hard to come by, there is some information. A 1889 article in the Napa Register wrote about one restaurant in Napa’s Chinatown that was next door to a gambling hall and temple. Although the racist terminology does the author no favors, this is also one of the only descriptions of an early Chinese restaurant in Napa: “The Chinese restaurant is a place of interest. The heathen are called to their meals, cooked in two large kettles over a brick furnace, by the banging together of cymbals. A large and small table occupy the dining room and the patrons of the restaurant sit on stools and boxes.”

Chinese food was also available in boarding houses. Made with imported and locally grown ingredients, these boarding facilities provided a wide range of regionally specific meals. Of the early Chinese-run dining facilities in Napa County, the one we have the most detail on belonged to the Chan family.

Chan Wah Jack arrived in Napa in 1860 to work in a store run by his older brothers. He, his second wife, and their children left Napa for a few years to raise their children in China but returned in 1893 with their young son Shuck in tow. After a devastating fire in the Napa Chinatown 1902, the family picked up the pieces and purchased Kay Toy’s Lai Hing Company. Besides selling goods from China, the Chans also sold medicinal herbs, provided banking services, let out rooms for lodgers, and operated a restaurant.

When meals were ready, Kin Lim, Shuck’s mother, rang a bell, summoning her family and their six to twelve boarders to gather around the dining table. During Lunar New Year, Kin Lim whipped up a traditional feast for family and friends that included “dishes like Tung Gwa Chung (steamed whole winter melon), bok Chit Gai (steamed whole chicken), Fou Opp (roast duck, Cantonese style), Hoi Tom, Bow Yee (seasoned cucumber and abalone), Jing Lo Yee (steamed whole stripped [sic] bass)…Jing Horn Yee (steamed pork with salted fish).”

Shuck often provided the meat for his mother’s meals, usually fish caught in the Napa River or roasted duck or pig. Roasting a pig was an exhausting process that required training from an expert. After butchering the pig, it was lowered into an underground brick stove through a system of pulleys and ropes. When fully cooked, the pig was hung up in front of Lai Hing, its meat sliced off on-demand for each customer. Shuck roasted a pig every day – two on weekends – and got so good at it that a man from Sacramento came down specifically to have Shuck train him in the art. 

When he was out on his own, Shuck took all the cooking skills he learned from his mother and opened and worked in restaurants in San Francisco, Worcester, Massachusetts, Portland, Maine, and Bangkok. He returned to Napa in the 1920s to help his mother run Lai Hing. Not until 1955 did he finally go back to the restaurant business. By that point he and his wife, Lee Kum, had been married for 25 years and had six children. They had watched the city raze Chinatown under the pretense of beautifying the area for a yacht club that was never built. The Chans relocated to Placerville and ran a restaurant there for the next 12 years that featured decorations like an old wooden wheelbarrow used by Chinese miners. Shuck and Lee eventually returned to Napa and and dedicated the rest of their lives to preserving and promoting Chinese history in California.

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