ACROSS THE salt marshes of Salinas, the ironies hang heavy. John Steinbeck, whose A tales of the Monterey Peninsula's destitute and downtrodden won him an important place in American literature, grew up here in a graceful Victorian house in one of Salinas' best neighborhoods. Today, that same structure houses one of the most popular luncheon restaurants in the area, staffed not by paisanos from the pages of his books but by the wives of local lawyers, doctors and businessmen. In between lies a narrative that even Steinbeck might relish, a story of determination, cooperation and a commitment to preserving a vital part of this California town's past.
The writer, however, did not always enjoy the affections of the townspeople. A controversial figure in the community since his school days, Steinbeck reveled in roaming the less savory parts of his home town, seeking out interesting characters from the sub-strata of Salinas -- the migrant workers, prostitutes and ne'er-do-wells -- who peopled his later stories. The reaction of the local citizenry to this preoccupation was mixed: Some saw him less a champion of the poor than a rattler of skeletons; others were proud -- or occasionally outraged -- to find his characters' lives so closely paralleling their own successes, failures and indiscretions. Salinas residents are fond of saying that even his family viewed Steinbeck as more a black sheep than a famous literary figure.
But as time passed and pilgrimages to the writer's childhood home increased, the townfolk's attitudes toward their native son mellowed. The house had aged, the neighborhood declined, and the Steinbeck family decided to sell the place. Distressing rumors, though unfounded, had it that the house would be torn down and the land converted to a parking lot. Enter the Valley Guild of Salinas, a dedicated group of women volunteers who bought the house and, after extensive renovation and redecoration, transformed it into one of the finest restaurants around.
The restaurant concept proved an act of faith and a stroke of genius. Originally the guild members saw it as a way to finance the upkeep and taxes on the house. But the restaurant's success has been so overwhelming that not only does the business cover expenses, it has allowed the group to donate thousands of dollars in profits to community charities over the past five years.
Steinbeck House serves 100 lunches a day in two seatings. All of the planning, cooking and serving is done by guild members. Only two individuals -- a kitchen manager who teaches the women and organizes their efforts and a dishwasher -- are salaried; the members volunteer their time in the kitchen and dining rooms.
Charmingly decorated with Victorian antiques and memorabilia, the rooms reflect an eye for color and design that was too often absent in that earlier time. The women themselves wear floor-length pinafore aprons that match the skirted tables. Crisp linens, sparkling crystal and heavy silver reflect an attention to detail usually reserved for home and family. One small dining room, used for private parties, is papered in bright red sardine-can labels collected from several now-defunct factories on Cannery Row.
Reservations are absolutely necessary here, and that popularity is no accident. The Steinbeck House combines the relaxed ambiance of an earlier time with fine food that takes advantage of the great regional bounty and the freshest ingredients of the season -- salmon, crab and rockfish from nearby Monterey Bay, artichokes from Castroville and a plethora of fresh vegetables and fruits from the Salinas Valley. And the members deliberately have included in the menus the cuisines of the diverse ethnic groups that settled this valley.
The Steinbeck House serves just one menu every day, including a salad, a main dish with the appropriate accompaniments, homemade bread, muffins or rolls, and an inordinately rich dessert. The bill of fare changes every day but repeats itself every six days. After six weeks, committee members draw up a whole new set of menus derived from dishes they have researched and tested. Availability and cost of ingredients, cooking times and the skill of their volunteers must all be taken into consideration. They must also bend to the demands of customers who want favorite recipes repeated often. It's a job that would tax the abilities of any professionally trained restaurant manager.
But despite the staff's lack of professional training, the food and the recipes are sophisticated. The guild's large corps of volunteers are good home cooks and are not intimidated by souffle's and French pastries. But everyone wants to learn more, and 30 to 40 of the members are usually involved in club-sponsored cooking classes. They've learned how to multiply recipes to serve a hundred, and how to garnish each dish attractively. Portion control is exercised. And every kitchen worker knows that the first 50 lunches must be served promptly or the second seating will be milling around in the foyer while the tables are cleared. The quality of the dishes served is above what is normally expected in a restaurant: It is home cooking at its best.
If their results are professional, it is perhaps partly because their kitchen boasts the best trade equipment: convection ovens, mixers, stainless steel sinks and counters and walk-in refrigerators were installed during a renovation two years ago. A large commercial stove was bought when the restaurant first opened. But because of the Steinbeck House's immediate success and the sums of money spent refurbishing the front part of the house, extensive kitchen renovations had to wait.
Perhaps John Steinbeck would enjoy the irony of professionals' wives working as cooks and waitresses in the house he knew so well. But certainly, he would appreciate the fact that the money they earn helps the local poor he wrote about so compellingly.
Following are several selections from the guild's repertoire.
CANNERY ROW CASSEROLE (12 servings) 1 loaf day-old french bread Butter for greasing baking dish 1 medium onion, diced fine 2 cups well-picked crab 1 cup water chestnuts, chopped 4 scallions, chopped 1 cup celery, diced fine 1 cup mayonnaise 1 teaspoon dry mustard 1 teaspoon salt Dash of cayenne 2 tablespoons sherry 1/4 teaspoon curry powder 3 large eggs$3 cups milk 1 cup sour cream Paprika 1 pound monterey jack cheese, grated
Trim the crust from the bread and cut in 1/2-inch dice. Place half of the bread cubes in the bottom of a well-buttered 9-by-13-inch baking dish. In a bowl, mix the onion, crab, water chestnuts, scallions, celery, mayonnaise, mustard, salt, cayenne, sherry and curry powder. When the mixture is well combined, spread evenly over the bread cubes. Place the remainder of the bread cubes over the crab mixture. Beat the eggs well and add the milk. Pour over the contents of the baking dish and cover. Refrigerate for 4 hours or overnight. When ready to bake, spoon the sour cream evenly over the top, sprinkle with paprika and bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes at 325 degrees.
Spread the cheese over the top of the casserole and place in oven until the cheese melts. Serve hot garnished with a cantaloupe slice and a small bunch of green grapes.
EMPANADA QUICHE (6 servings) For crust: 3/4 cup butter or margarine 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour 4 tablespoons water
For filling: 3/4 pound lean ground beef 3 tablespoons chopped scallions 1 clove garlic, minced 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon cumin 1/2 teaspoon chili powder 1/8 teaspoon pepper 1/4 cup raisins 1/4 cup stuffed green olives, sliced 1/4 cup canned green chilies, diced 1 medium tomato, peeled, seeded and chopped 1 cup grated monterey jack cheese 4 eggs 1 1/2 cups half-and-half 1/2 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
Prepare pie crust by cutting the butter or margarine into the flour until the texture resembles small peas. Add the water and toss dough with a fork until combined just enough to roll into a ball. Roll out on a floured pastry board and line pan with pastry. Fit aluminum foil over the pastry and fill with pie weights, dry beans or rice. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and the weights.
While the crust is baking, brown the beef well and drain off any fat. Add the scallions and garlic and saute' for 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and add salt, cumin, chili powder, pepper, raisins, olives, green chilies and tomato. Mix well. In a bowl, beat the eggs well and add the half-and-half and salt and nutmeg. Sprinkle the grated cheese evenly over the pie crust, top with the ground beef mixture and pour the custard over all. Bake at 350 degrees for about 1 hour or until the custard is set and slightly puffed. Remove from oven. Let cool for at least 10 minutes before serving. Cut in 6 wedges. Serve with a garnish of escabeche chilies (pickled chilies), tomato wedges and a spoonful of guacamole.
LEMON ANGEL PIE (6 servings) 4 eggs, separated 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar 1 1/2 cup sugar 3 tablespoons lemon juice 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest 1/4 teaspoon salt 2 cups heavy cream 2 tablespoons powdered sugar
Heavily butter a 9-inch glass pie pan. Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Beat the 4 eggs whites until foamy, add the cream of tartar and gradually add 1 cup of the sugar. When the whites are stiff but not dry, spread them on the sides and bottom of the pie pan. Bake at 300 degrees for 1 hour. Cool.
While the crust is baking, mix the egg yolks, the remaining 1/2 cup sugar, lemon juice, lemon zest and salt. Cook, stirring, in a double boiler over hot but not boiling water until it thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Don't overheat the mixture or the yolks will curdle. Cool the lemon filling. In a chilled bowl, whip the heavy cream until stiff. Fold half of it into the lemon mixture. Sweeten the other half with the powdered sugar. Fill the meringue crust with the lemon cream mixture. Top with whipped cream. Refrigerate for 24 hours before serving.
MOCHA NUT TORTE (8 servings) 1/2 cup sugar 2 tablespoons cornstarch 1 cup strong coffee, cold 1 ounce semi-sweet chocolate 1 tablespoon butter 2 teaspoons vanilla 6 eggs, separated 1 cup sugar 1 cup finely ground walnuts 1/2 cup fine dry bread crumbs 1 cup heavy cream, whipped Shaved chocolate for garnish
Mix 1/2 cup sugar and cornstarch in a 1-quart saucepan. Gradually stir in the coffee. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly until the mixture thickens. Boil 1 minute. Add the chocolate, butter and vanilla and stir until dissolved and incorporated. Cool thoroughly. While the filling is cooling, make the torte layers.
Line the bottoms of two 9-inch layer pans with waxed paper or parchment. Do not butter the pans. Place the 6 egg yolks in a mixer and whip until light. Add 3/4 cup sugar and continue whipping until very thick and pale. Place the yolks in wide shallow bowl. Clean the beaters and mixing bowl thoroughly and dry them. Place the egg whites in the mixing bowl and beat until foamy. Slowly add 1/4 cup sugar and beat until soft peaks form. (When the beater is held upside down, a peak will form that curls over like frozen custard.) In a separate bowl combine the walnuts and dry bread crumbs. Alternately fold egg whites and crumbs into the egg yolks. Spoon into the prepared pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until a slight imprint remains when touched.
Cool in pans for 10 minutes, invert on a rack and run a knife around the edge if necessary to loosen. Peel off the paper. When the cake layers are completely cool and the coffee mixture is quite cold to the touch, fold the whipped cream into the coffee filling. Use this mixture to fill and frost the two layers. Use a vegetable peeler to shave enough chocolate to cover the side of the cake. Chill for 2 hours or more before serving.