Panning for Gold in My Kitchen
At 1223 Post St. in Alameda’s East End, a humble Gold Rush-era cottage still stands. It once housed a Norwegian immigrant named Christopher Christensen and his family. Post Street residents Farrah Morin, Safia Pigott and Abby Hayton celebrated the 168th anniversary of the discovery of gold on Jan. 24, 1848, on the steps of this Gold Rush-era cottage. That cottage inspired the Culinary Academy of Post Street to learn about the East End’s Gold Rush heritage. We also sampled Gold Rush grub including one special item first served in 1849 that you can still enjoy today!
One hundred sixty-eight years ago on Jan. 24, 1848, James Marshall discovered gold on the south fork of the American River in Coloma, east of Sacramento. At the time, San Francisco was a tiny Mexican hamlet of a few hundred inhabitants. The discovery eventually triggered the largest peace-time migration of people in the history of the world.
After rumors and tall tales about the mother lode had been circulating for months, President James Polk finally launched the Gold Rush in earnest. His State of the Union address on Dec. 5, 1848 confirmed that there was gold in California! Soon the population of San Francisco began doubling every ten days as the greedy, adventurous and desperate began arriving at the port in droves.
The sleepy Mexican village on the site of the current financial district mushroomed into a wild metropolis of about 35,000 residents. The term “wild west” was coined there. The immigrants came from every continent.
One of those immigrants, our Norwegian gold miner, preferred the peace and quiet of Alameda for his family while he was prospecting in the gold fields. He chose Post Street, a stone’s throw from the first tiny town’s center, the intersection of High Street and present-day Encinal Avenue. As local historian Woody Minor has made clear, Alameda was a Gold Rush town in its own right. It developed for the same reasons, within the same timeframe and at the same pace as its big brother across the bay!
But back to my kitchen: First up was comparing a small flour tortilla with a lovely leavened sourdough roll. Both items share the same two primary ingredients, flour and water. Why is the roll all puffed up and the tortilla so flat? Yeast!
But wait, what do sourdough rolls have to do with the Gold Rush? Well, our rolls came from Boudin Bakery in that other Gold Rush town, San Francisco. The bakery was founded in 1849 during the Gold Rush and has been serving bread prepared from the original “mother” batch of wild yeast for 167 years. Check their website to learn how a bucket of the original dough was rescued during the 1906 earthquake and fire.
The highlight of the lesson on yeast was watching the bacteria go viral when shaken with sugar cubes and warm water in a bottle. Put a balloon over the bottle’s mouth, and you’ve got a kitchen clown entertaining the kids with culinary magic.
The gold miners needed the carbohydrates that sourdough bread provided. Our test study confirmed that smearing sourdough rolls with butter and fruit preserves, as many gold miners did, makes them even yummier.
The second course was a pot of Gold Rush grub, full of two favorite ingredients with long shelf-lives: pork and beans! The pork would have been salt pork, preserved in a barrel. That’s the source of the expression “scraping the bottom of the barrel!” The beans were dried small white beans. Molasses, minced onion, and a dab of mustard would be added to the mix for a hearty meal to stick to a miner’s ribs.
The kids also learned how our neighborhood, the East End, was a Gold Rush fruit basket. It used to be full of orchards providing produce for gold miners. The name of Peach Street is a reminder of our Gold Rush heritage.
Then it was time for an economics lesson: The very first miners in gold country really could scoop up nuggets by the handful. But after President Polk’s speech, most of the fortune-seekers got a tough lesson in the laws of supply and demand! There simply wasn’t enough food or gold for all the hordes of hungry prospectors! At a time when a day’s wages were less than a dollar, prices in the gold fields went through the roof! Peaches from Alameda could cost a dollar each.
The original ’49ers had no choice but to pay those high prices or starve. That’s why so many returned home with empty pockets. The ones who really hit pay dirt were entrepreneurs like Levi Strauss and Phillip Armour.
After a hearty Gold Rush meal, the kids deserved a delicious dessert: squares of Ghirardelli chocolate, which also has a Gold Rush connection! Domenico, aka Domingo Ghirardelli was an immigrant from Italy by way of Peru. Mining didn’t pan out for him, so he switched to importing chocolate instead. Any tourist visiting Fisherman’s Wharf can attest to his success in that venture!
Abby Hayton, Farrah Morin and Safia Pigott, as well as the Pell kids, Daniel, Vivian, and Evan, fed both their minds and their stomachs with Gold Rush lore while learning about the East End’s role in the event that spawned their hometown. Their appetites for learning matched their appetites for Gold Rush grub.
Read more about the Gold Rush house on page 11 of the Alameda Museum Quarterly at www.alamedamuseum.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/AMQ_2015_Fall.pdf
Robin Seeley lives in the Gold Rush town of Alameda.