.Santa Cruz Heritage Food Project Tracks Local Culinary Traditions

It was almost a hundred years after her family came to Santa Cruz that Live Oak native Sierra Ryan first held her great-grandmother’s recipe book in her hands. The worn, tattered book bore her great-grandmother’s maiden name, Libbie Gilmour, and a handwritten date: 1908. In addition to the delight of holding a physical piece of family history, Ryan’s interest was piqued by the food they were eating and the references to friends and neighbors.

“There are all these recipes from when my grandmother was small that refer to other people, like ‘Mrs. Thompson’s Chili Sauce Recipe,’ and other friends and neighbors. I loved that there were so many people from the community featured in this book.”

Ryan had co-authored Lime Kiln Legacies, about another major industry that helped shape the region, and was inspired to explore Santa Cruz’s agricultural history more deeply. She and fellow amateur historians Liz Birnbaum, Jody Biergiel Colclough and Katie Hansen formed the Santa Cruz Heritage Food Project and began combing local archives. Over the last three years, the self-proclaimed “Heritagistas” have explored how local foods came to Santa Cruz County, who cultivated them, how they were used and how they were grown through the extensive archives available at the Agricultural History Project in Watsonville, the Pajaro Valley Historical Association, the Museum of Art & History, the history museums of Capitola, San Lorenzo Valley and Soquel, the public library and the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.

Santa Cruz Food Heritage Project - Santa Cruz Jane
Santa Cruz held the National Egg Laying Contest from 1918-1931 to promote the local poultry industry. In 1924, winner Santa Cruz Jane laid 303 eggs in 365 days. The back of this photo claims that, “Little Nancy feeds Santa Cruz Jane daily.” PHOTO: COURTESY OF SIERRA RYAN

This summer, the Santa Cruz Heritage Food Project will release a cookbook filled with agricultural history and 25 historical recipes. They will be celebrating the release with a series of events over the summer, including at the Third Friday event “History Jam,” on Friday, May 19 at the MAH.

The book includes chapters on wine, wheat and potatoes, hops and beer, dairy, sugar beets, apples, artichokes and Brussels sprouts, berries, poultry and eggs, Pismo clams and dry-farmed tomatoes—all of which left a unique historical mark on Santa Cruz County. At the onset, the team wasn’t sure what sorts of stories would emerge from the dusty pages of notebooks and farming records, and many of their findings surprised them. Birnbaum, who works in the ecological agricultural industry, didn’t expect to learn that potatoes were grown in the San Lorenzo river floodplain, in what today is downtown Santa Cruz.

“It was the first thing that put Santa Cruz on the map as an agricultural hub in the 1860s and it coincided with the Gold Rush,” she explains. “A local historian has deemed it the ‘Spud Rush.’ It was a huge deal for three years, and then nothing. There was a boom and total bust.”

Although most of the agricultural products they discuss in the book are no longer produced locally, they have left a geographic mark on the local communities, if you know where to look. For example, the long, narrow lots used for poultry during the turn of the century influenced the layout of Live Oak, and are referenced in street names like Chanticleer Avenue, which is named after a rooster. Brown Ranch Marketplace in Capitola sits on the site of the former site of Brown Ranch, whose pioneering founder James Brown was an international producer of begonia bulbs in the 1920s and the inspiration for the Begonia Festival. While researching the chapter on sugar beets, Colclough was amazed to discover that the Watsonville city seal bears a sugar beet to this day.

“I was amazed that Santa Cruz county residents had the foresight to save, organize and archive fun tidbits of news articles, brochures and ephemera that we could just easily access and enjoy decades later. I truly appreciate all of the people who work in our local history venues who preserve the past just in case anyone is curious in the future,” says Colclough.

Santa Cruz Food Heritage Project recipe book
The recipe book kept by Sierra Ryan’s great-grandmother.

For Ryan, learning about the history of recreational clamming in the area was the most astonishing revelation. Combing local beaches for Pismo clams and enjoying huge clambakes was a popular recreational activity for more than a hundred years in Santa Cruz until the 1970s, when more than a century of over-foraging—the legal limit was an astounding 200 clams per person per day—precipitated a steep decline, and the activity was banned.

“The history of clamming was the most shocking thing I uncovered. I was at least aware of a history of the other crops,” says Ryan. “I wanted to include a fishery, and was researching things to consider. I thought about abalone, but that was really more Monterey, and whaling, but that wasn’t really for food, it was for other resources. Somebody was talking to me about one of the other chapters and it just came up. I had never heard of it, and as soon as I started looking I was blown away. As soon as we started talking to some of the older generation of Santa Cruz, everyone had stories.”

Covering sensitive topics related to agricultural history, like labor and social justice issues, was a challenge for the Heritagistas. While these stories are intertwined with the history of the area, they weren’t necessarily the stories they set out to tell. While researching the chapter on the local berry industry, Hansen uncovered that the berry farmers of Japanese descent were sent to internment camps during World War II. “I agonized over every word on that part because I was so concerned about doing right by those who had been imprisoned,” says Hansen. They were forced to ask questions about how to portray history gleaned from racist and sexist quotes. “How do you handle an account like one we have about hops pickers, where they say they didn’t want to use ‘these people,’ so they used ‘those people’? Finding the balance of ‘this is what happened,’ but not condoning it was hard to grapple and frame,” says Birnbaum. Ultimately, the team tried to strike a balance of acknowledging the stories while not deviating from the side of agricultural history they were trying to reveal.

Ryan hopes that the Santa Cruz Heritage Food Project cookbook will help readers understand the role they play in determining how the current chapter of Santa Cruz food history is written. “Santa Cruz has a really rich history that I think both people who did and didn’t grow up here might not know. People connect to where they live on a deeper level if they know about the history,” she says. “There’s a story of food in Santa Cruz and it’s an ongoing story. We’re all a part of it. There’s a history of people who came and shaped what we’re now experiencing through their innovations and interests, but we have the capability of shaping the future of food history in Santa Cruz. That will reverberate across social aspects, the economy and environment.”


This recipe came from the Baldwin Collection at the MAH and was in the home economics notebook of a student at Santa Cruz High in 1911. I love it not just because it’s one of the more delicious recipes that we’ve tried, but because it also listed all of the pricing associated with each of the ingredients. Because it was part of a home economics class, it wasn’t just how you cooked but how much it cost—that was the job of a homemaker at the time. The total cost for this recipe was about 8.7 cents.— Sierra Ryan, Santa Cruz Heritage Food Project

For the shortcake:

2 cups flour

4 tsp baking powder

1 tbsp sugar

½ tsp salt

¼ cup butter

¾ cup milk


For the filling:

2 tbsp sugar

2 pints of strawberries

Macerate the strawberries and sugar for 15 minutes.

Sift dry ingredients, cut with butter or mix it with fingertips. Add milk to make a soft dough. Divide into two parts. Roll each to fit pan or roll and cut into eight individual cakes. Brush the lower cake with melted butter. Bake about 20 minutes at 375. Serve with strawberries. Cut and let stand in sugar of other fruits. Sift powdered sugar on the top cake.



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