When I first heard that a group called the Santa Cruz Heritage Food Project was researching stories about the food history of Santa Cruz County, I was instantly excited—and jealous. Excited because learning about the agricultural products that have shaped this community sounded absolutely fascinating to me, and jealous because, as a history major, I wish I could have been there, slowly uncovering the recipes and stories of the past.
The journey to uncover the ag history of the area started when Live Oak native Sierra Ryan discovered her great-grandmother’s recipe book, which dated back to when she and her husband moved to Santa Cruz in 1911. Four years of dusty archives and glowing microfilm later, Ryan and fellow amateur historians Liz Birnbaum, Jody Biergiel Colclough and Katie Hansen—who playfully refer to their collective as “the Heritagistas”—are releasing their findings in Harvesting Our Heritage: Bite-Sized Stories from Santa Cruz County History through the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. Underneath the beautifully designed cover, reminiscent of a vintage almanac, lies chapters on wine, wheat, potatoes, beer, dairy, sugar beets, apples, artichokes, berries, poultry, Pismo clams and dry-farmed tomatoes—all of which left a distinct mark on Santa Cruz County. At the end of each chapter are local recipes from when each crop was in its heyday, allowing readers to experience the flavors of local history in their own kitchens. Although most of the agricultural products discussed in the book are no longer produced locally, readers learn how each has left a geographic and cultural mark on local communities.
Ryan hopes that the Heritage Food Project will connect people living and eating in Santa Cruz County today with the history of the region, and inspire an appreciation for the events that took place to make Santa Cruz the foodie hub we know today. “We think it’s important because it brings the reader a fresh new understanding of the place they care about, the foods [previous residents] loved, and the relationship between the two,” says Ryan. “We hope people experience a few ‘aha’ moments as they read about their neighborhood, or their favorite local produce.”
Available at the MAH, Bookshop Santa Cruz, and local museums. More info at scheritagefood.wordpress.com.