Guests Ate Well in Presidio

Beginnings of San Diego regional cuisine

Artist's rendering of Presidio, 1874
  • Artist's rendering of Presidio, 1874
  • San Diego Historical Society photo
  • “Families of the California Presidios: 1769-1834”


Before a meal, the families of Alta California said grace:“Give us, my God, your Holy Blessing So many poor people are hungry, but me. Lord, you feed with such abundance. And give me such good gifts of food. Ave Maria.”

What struck visitors to the region was how freely families shared their plenty. Campbell writes,“Housewives felt that food should not be sold to neighbors or those in need and gave of their abundances anyone who was hungry. Lavish feasts were always prepared at presidios and missions for any traveler or visitor to the country.” Walter Colton, who spent three years in Alta California, noted this communal spirit: “Generous forbearing people.... There is more true hospitality in one throb of (their) heart than circulates for years through the courts and capitals of kings.” In 1780, 125 people lived “on the hill” at the Presidio. That their generosity became renowned is striking because they had so little. “Procurement of food,” Campbell writes, “was the most important problem to the Main Meal at Noon— “Typically, chapel bells would ring the‘Ave Maria,’ and all would kneel and pray or recite the Angelus. The meal was taken after.” People ate pozole (barley or other grain boiled with beans — and sometimes, stewlike, including maize, pig’s feet, pumpkin, and peppers) and puchero soups, made from available meats and vegetables (especially cabbage and squash). Another staple: potatoes mixed with chili and cheese. “Nearly all dishes were seasoned with peppers and garlic.”

They ate a lot of beef, often cut in strips, roasted on the open fire, and placed in tamales or enchiladas with beans.

“Alta Californians used their native fruit and vegetables to create a regional Mexican cuisine. Examples are: grapes (chicken with grapes), blackberries, black walnuts, pigweed, pine nuts, acorns, wild majoram, and anise (corn dough fritters flavored with anise), prickly pears (as a paste), and of course chilies, which went in everything. Even the flavor of their clay cooking pot would be conveyed to their frijoles.

The soldiers got rations of hard tack—“a rocklike biscuit edible only by soaking in drink.— but preferred pinole (cereal) bread.

“Evening Meal — served around 8:30 p.m. or 9:00 p.m. — consisted of beef, fat, and vegetables, much like the Noon Meal.”

Less affluent families ate less well. Breakfast: boiled cereal with milk; Noon Meal: a meat, beans, tortillas, and maybe a hard cheese; Supper: a meat, beans, gruel, or fried cornmeal crumbs. The to-die-for treats, for all Presidio families, were panocha (brown sugar loaves) or bits of chocolate. And a cup of hot chocolate was a “delight” for all.

For most meals, families drank water. Wine or brandy was rare, as was " milk, because dairy items required refrigeration.

Campbell notes that “women basically ran the activities of the home even though they lacked space, privacy, and many basic household items. Their life was far more arduous than the men’s.” Each day they hauled food from the pantry or storage cellar to the kitchen. “With three, sometimes four meals a day, food preparation over metates [a curved stone, resting on three feet, used for grinding maize for tortillas] and wood fires took much of their time.

“Similar to the problems the men faced when building the Presidio buildings, women’s chores were complicated because everything they did had many stages.” Meat had to be pickled or salted (then soaked, before serving, to remove the salt). “Chiles, used daily, first had to be roasted, steamed, peeled, and kneaded for a variety of sauces. Tamales took a long time to flavor, wrap, and steam.”

In 1828, Juan Bandini said the presidiarias (women of the Presidio) “are without doubt more active and industrious than the men...(they were) virtuous...and constantly devoted to the needs of their families, which they never neglected.”


  1. Water was supplied by streams and wells the Presidio soldiers dug. It seems the families were often content to live with brackish water from inadequate wells, when much better water might have been obtained by digging deeper wells.
  2. Tableware was scarce in the very early days of the frontier. If cajetas de barro (clay dishes) were not available, rolled-up tortillas made excellent substitutes.

The barren terrain offered few indigenous foods and no domestic animals (cattle, horses) for the settlers. Also, “The tools for farming required by Europeans were unobtainable. Everything had to be brought from without.”

Spain sent rations from Mexico City, via San Bias. In 1774, each soldier received one almud (13.6 lbs) of corn per week, a half almud of beans, one-eighth almud of chili, and three and a half pounds of dried beef. Married men got an extra almud of corn and a half pound of meat. Children got half an adult ration. Women made corn tortillas, often giving them to single men for extra rations for their families. “By 1778 the ration was slightly larger and garbanzos, flour, lard, and rice were added.

“The lieutenants gave their men extra powder and shot to supplement their limited rations.” They hunted quail, crow, domestic fowl, bobcat, ground squirrel. Families raised chickens and domestic pigs inside the fortress. “In keeping with their Catholic doctrine, there was fresh or dried fish on Fridays. Although the presidio was near the ocean, fish was not usually part of the daily diet.”

Breakfast — served at daybreak, after morning prayers: tortillas, or perhaps atole (“salted cornmeal gruel with an occasional touch of brown sugar and a pinch of chocolate”).

Breakfast II — served around 9:00 a.m.: roast beef and chili sauce and frijoles fried in fat.

  1. Excavations show that despite Spain’s discouragement of trade with other countries, the presidial families had tableware, porcelain dishes, bowls, cups, and saucers reflecting trade with Italy, France, England, Mexico, and the Orient.... Despite their humble furnishings, heirloom silver service was used in many of the officers’ homes.

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