California Culinary History

 

 

It’s estimated that by the time that Europeans first visited California in the 16th Century there were roughly 300,000 indigenous people living in California dispersed broadly throughout the regon in small villages and speaking over 60 different languages. When the the Spanish began to chronicle their observations in 1769 they noted the locals enjoying a wide-ranging diet that took full advantage of California’s extraordinary ecological diversity.

Among the foods eaten by the Chumash, whose villages were around modern-day Santa Barbara, the Costanoans along the Central Coast, the Ohlone who had villages on either side of the Bay, and the Miwok, who lived both along the north coast and in the Sierra foothils were: acorns, pine nuts, cherries, berries, grapes, honey, nuts, sprouts, roots, grasshoppers, birds eggs, snails, trout, salmon, shellfish. deer, elk, bear, ground squirrels, woodrats and waterfowl.

The Pomo, who lived in the Russian River Valley area, were wont to munch on roasted moth caterpillars and salty palm kelp. Seasonality was such a core orientation for all indigenous cpeople that it needed no particular cultural commemoration. The Miwok , for example, would collect clover in the spring, seeds in the summer, bulbs and mushrooms in the winter, and any number of flowers and fruits throughout the spring and summer.

If there was one dominant staple food popular throughout what is now California it was acorns. While oaks did not grow in the higher mountains, in the desert, or on the shoreline, they did range widely throughout the hill country. Though once an abundant resource, acorns were notoriously difficult to prepare. Untreated the acorns contain astringents and toxins that demand a complex process involving burying the nuts in a sandy ditch along with grass, charcoal and ashes to leach out the acids. Only afterwards could they be soaked in fresh water until they were sweet and edible.

The Pomo had an even more sophisticated method for preparing acorns that is almost identical to the one used by early Sardinians. They first ground the acorn into a meal, then mixed it with clay to reduce the toxins and then, after careful soaking and rinsing they would mold the moistened meal into a flat cake to be baked in an earthen oven.

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