While San Francisco isn’t typically considered the center of exotic foreignness, after a day there walking the streets of the Mission District, Noe Valley, and Chinatown I have to say that I feel as though I’ve been to a foreign place.
San Francisco didn’t feel foreign because I’ve lived in France for nearly twenty years. It felt foreign because it is. It’s filled with people and influences from everywhere. I was stopped by a couple, one of whom was from Rwanda, the other from Ireland, who asked me to take their picture. Meandering down a street I came across a bevy of elderly women sitting on upturned buckets selling freshly toasted cashews (yum), squash shoots and caramel popcorn balls, each item sealed with a knotted plastic bag, a la Chiang Mai street food. None of the women spoke enough English to even tell me the price of their wares – they waved over a nephew or a grandson to do so.
Further down that street was a hearty young man newly arrived from the Dominican Republic, delicately sizzling bacon-wrapped hot dogs and freshly cut onions on a big baking sheet set over a flame. Had I not just had a taco at Taqueria La Cumbre, where Spanish supersedes English and little girls look up with soulful eyes to say “Ola,” and been on my way to dessert at Bombay Ice Cream where flavors run from black sesame seed to rose flower water, I would have purchased one – they smelled scrumptious.
Murals on the walls throughout the Mission District were reminiscent of Central America and, surprisingly, Sardegna; carp, tilapia, salmon heads, and pounded sheafs of beef tallow marked the beginning of Chinatown. I stopped for a tea tasting and found myself next to a young Asian man with a tony British accent – he works in the family restaurant in a small village just outside Leeds. This doesn’t take into the account the swirl of Eastern European languages from crowds of tourists, the high-pitched tones of Chinese vendors, the sing-song of Japanese restaurateurs.
Omnivore Books (omnivorebooks.com), a white, bright jewel of a cooking and food bookstore in Noe Valley owned by Celia Sack, tells another story. Ms. Sack offers every cookbook you can imagine, from Nuts in the Kitchen (Yay!) to La Cuisini re de la Campagne et de la Ville (published in 1859). Her selection is immensely complete; her success astonishing, even to her. Ms. Sack represents a whole other San Franciscan “ethnicity,” with her pristine shop catering to the cooking foodivore, the passionate pastry chef, the ingredient obsessed.
I’ll admit that a one-day roam is hardly enough in this beautiful city of which Mark Twain said the coldest winter he ever spent was August in San Francisco. He was right, it was freezing, which made a martini at the Cliff house – while not an”ethnically foreign” experience was certainly a “generationally foreign” one with its delightful cocktails and fifties menu – a perfect antidote to summer chill.
San Francisco is a delicous melting pot where every bite you eat, every sight you see, every cocktail you sip is a fine and simple celebration.