We’ve all taken a special bite of a particular food and felt as if we’ve been transported to a far away place. Often times, this happens with certain comfort foods which we grew up with as children. Imagine moving to a new area and not being able to find those special comfort foods that warm your heart and remind you of being a kid. Meet Kathleen Montgomery. Kat, a lifelong Californian (“So Cal,” at that) moved to Philadelphia about a dozen years ago. After getting acclimated to the east coast, Kat realized, to her chagrin, that she could not easily find the type of fresh California salsa that she ate her entire life. Kat, who had always made her on salsa, began sharing her sauce with new Philly friends, who all instantly fell in love with Kat’s condiment. After some encouragement, Kat took a brave leap approximately five years ago and began her own salsa company, Kat’s California Salsa. It was an instant hit. Philadelphians, some who, admittedly, are known to enjoy processed cheese on cheesesteaks, fell in love with the fresh attributes and flavors of Kat’s California Salsa. We caught up with Kat in her Fishtown (Philadelphia) neighborhood and munched on some chips and homemade salsa. With each bite, we could swear we heard the calming sounds of the Pacific Ocean. (It turned out it was the uncalming sounds of Frankford Avenue instead.) Kat shared plenty of (chocolate covered) memories with us, and all of them seem to run along the same theme: As Kat says, “Life’s too short to eat bad salsa.” …
What are your earliest childhood memories of food?
For all intents and purposes, I was raised by my nanny Catalina in a coastal suburb of Southern California called Palos Verdes Estates. Catalina was from Guadalajara and was really like my grandmother. So I spent a lot of time absorbing and learning all I could about the Mexican culture from Catalina. She taught me the language, stories, history, art, dances, games and, my “fav.” the food. I remember Catalina sitting me up on our blue Formica counter top and her dragging out the mortar and pestle to make guacamole. That pestle looked ginormous to me back then. Catalina would also throw meat and spices into a huge pot. Then she’d break out the “masa” (dough), and we would make, what seemed like, hundreds of handmade tortillas. She would fill them with the fragrant meat mixture and fry them up into the most unbelievable tacos you have ever tasted. I have never been able to duplicate them. I don’t know if I would want to because the memories are so great. I would be afraid to muck them up.
Where does your love of food stem from?
Mostly from my nanny Catalina, although my father made a mean pot roast. My mother could not even boil water. Another huge influence was my step-grandfather on my father’s side: an Italian baron named Guglielmo Sabatini. We called him Pop-Pop. He was a conductor, a concert pianist, an amazingly wonderful person and, boy, could he really cook. Their house always smelled of olive oil and garlic … and stinky cheese. Pop-Pop cooked a soup called stracciatella, which makes my mouth water just thinking about it. I would sit in the kitchen and talk with him while he cooked. When he was around, there was always tons of amazing food. I actually have a hundred year old, 500 pound butcher block from my grandfather’s boyhood estate in Italy. I have been dragging that thing around for 30 years and, frustratingly, have yet to have a kitchen cool enough to utilize it.
What foods remind you of childhood?
Obviously, any Mexican food, especially tacos. Baloney sandwiches on white bread with mayo. Bacon, preferably extra crispy, almost-burnt. Canlis salad (Seattle’s answer to the Caesar salad). Avocados: we had four mature avocado trees on our property growing up. We literally would have garbage bags full of avocados; so much so that we would bring sacks of them to school to give to our teachers. We also ate copious amounts of guacamole. Lemons and oranges: again, we had loads of trees; some, over the many years, had cross-pollinated. So we had lemon-oranges and orange-lemons. Some looked like lemons but were actually oranges inside, which always made for great fun to fool our friends! Crusty San Francisco sourdough bread with a big chunk of Monterrey Jack cheese. Scones from Irene’s Bakery (now defunct) in Malaga Cove Plaza.
Any food memories/stories that you want to share?
When I was little, we went to San Francisco quite a bit. On one particular trip, my father decided to take us to Cannery Row. He was big into John Steinbeck, Faulkner and Poe at the time and would tell me all about them. The place was really amazing. We would peek through the holes in the metal walls of the closed canneries. That was really creepy and cool. It smelled of fish and the ocean, and you could see the remnants of the canneries half way crumbled into the bay, hanging off the exposed pylons. We walked along for a bit, and we came to this door, a plain white door with a big metal knob and a very small window. My dad knocked, and a small Hispanic man with a huge smile opened up the door. We all walked in, and it was a really sterile looking room. The smiley man walked through some double doors and brought out this humongous wheel of Monterrey Jack cheese. My dad gave him some money, and we left, carrying this huge wheel of cheese all the way back to the hotel. All along, I was thinking that this day trip was some homage to the literary masters, but it really was all about the cheese. On the plane home, we had to buy the cheese its own seat because it was so huge. When we got home, I remember packing chunks of that stuff, some grapes and a Hi-C into my Monkees lunch box. Damn, that was good.
How did Kat’s California Salsa come about?
First, I started selling my salsa at Mandy’s Deli on Montgomery Street (Philadelphia) because my best friend was completely obsessed with my salsa and told me that “everyone needs to eat this stuff.” It started out in a “word of mouth” fashion and then exploded. Next, I was selling my salsa at Greensgrow Farm (Fishtown/Philadelphia) for a few seasons. I was selling about 50 pints a week and was supplying various local stores. After that, a lot of paperwork and, believe it or not, threats got in our way. We took a little “siesta,” you could say, but we’re getting ready to get back to producing our salsa again soon. Philadelphia makes it very hard to get these things legally off the (kitchen) road and running.
New business owners don’t always know what is required by Philadelphia, and the City will not help out with navigating this confusion whatsoever. We all understand rules which are meant to protect our health and safety, but the City doesn’t relay those rules to small businesses in a clear and concise manner. As you can tell, I’ve really found Philadelphia to have zero concern for small start-up businesses. All that said, we’ll be back soon enough, be that in Philadelphia or outside the City, if need be. Nothing can stop the power of good salsa. 😉
What do you think of big company salsas?
I cannot fault those companies for making salsa the way they do. They mass produce it, and, to mass produce it, you have to cook it. Eww. Most people that buy that stuff only know that kind of salsa. It’s soupy, mucky and preservative-laden with a shelf-life comparable to Twinkies. It’s cheap and easy. You know what to expect every single time. Coming from So Cal, I was exposed to so many fresh salsas that, admittedly, I am a salsa snob through and through. If salsa is not fresh, I am not eating it. And the salsa that you’ll find in the meat case areas are so filled with preservatives that I get an asthma attack every time I smell them. I don’t know what they use, but I certainly am not putting that stuff in my salsa.
What makes your salsa so unique?
I personally hand chop all my veggies. All of them. I don’t like the uniformity of using a food processor. I like having a big sprig of cilantro hanging off a chip when I dig into my salsa. I like the random big chunk of white onion that makes my eyes water. That is how I like it. Every bite is an adventure. Food should be fun, so my salsa is fun. It is labor intensive and a pain in the butt sometimes. Yet, when I get a comment like the one my friend Mike Geno made — “This is the crack of condiments” — I know I have a good product.
What are your thoughts on the modern food world?
Being a mom of three girls in three different schools (with all their extracurricular activities) and having an intense job with a long commute every day, I admit that I am very tempted to stop by Wegmans, Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s on my drive home. And, sometimes, I do. My kids are great at preheating ovens.
Really though, the modern, power supermarkets are brilliant in a marketing sense, because they cater to really busy people who want good food but don’t have the time to cook and don’t want (or feel too guilty) to stop at McDonalds all the time. Unfortunately, prepared foods, while usually pretty yummy, are filled with sodium and are super expensive.
I am not, by any means, a super mom, but cooking for my family is one of the greatest joys in my life. It is a pain in the butt, but it is what I do. I certainly wish I had more time to have us all sit down at the table together, but life does not let us do that right now. I am usually just dishing it out, and my kids eat it wherever. And that is probably the case for most families now unfortunately. I wish I had about five extra hours in the day just for cooking and eating purposes.
I love watching the Food Network yet rarely apply any of their cooking instructions to my real life cooking.
What family recipes do you want to share with us?
Stracciatella Soup by my Pop-Pop. You can only make this while listening to “La Traviata” really really loud. My Pop-Pop Guglielmo would have appreciated that, as it truly creates a moment.
Gather family and good friends, and serve it with crusty bread and good extra virgin olive oil for dipping. And wine, of course. This soup is amazing as leftovers, too. I have been known to eat it cold for breakfast. Don’t judge. 🙂
Kathleen Montgomery has brought her old home, Southern California, to her new home, Philadelphia, by way of Kat’s California Salsa. Kat began officially producing Kat’s California Salsa approximately five years ago. Since taking a minor “siesta” about one year ago, Kat is currently in discussions with various investors and hopes to have Kat’s California Salsa back in Philadelphia (and hopefully beyond) in the very near future. For more information, visit: www.KatsCaliforniaSalsa.com