One salient public health fact about indigenous people of California before colonization is that they rarely experienced food shortages or malnutrition. A temperate climate; bountiful fruits and vegetables; game and fish resources; and the especially abundant acorns derived from many oak varieties ensured a nutritious and varied food supply for all. Foodways, the cultural knowledge about how to grow, gather, forage, hunt, prepare, serve, celebrate and dispose of foods, is one aspect of the traditional ecological knowledge that native Californians possessed.
Indigenous oak and acorn wisdom
Beverly Ortiz, an anthropologist, and Julia Parker, acorn aficionado, storyteller and renowned basket-weaver artist, have focused their work on California indigenous people and their deep relationship with oaks and acorns. The two women co-wrote “It Will Live Forever: Traditional Yosemite Indian Acorn Preparation.” Parker, a Kashaya Pomo/Coast Miwok native, learned from her husband’s Yosemite Miwok/Paiute people. Ortiz quotes Parker, “The elders told me when it comes, get out and pick and gather, even if it’s one basketful, so the acorn spirit will know you’re happy for the acorn, and next year the acorn will come.” She adds, “When the acorn does come, there’s dances and songs. Take from the earth and say please. Give back to the earth and say thank you.”
Californian Indian acorn cultures
Different acorn varieties, a staple food for California Indians for more than 4,000 years, contain high levels of fat, protein and carbohydrates, as well as an abundance of phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals. It is estimated that those adults who lived in the Sutter Buttes region — the northern part of the Central Valley of California — consumed the equivalent of a ton of acorns per year. Gathering acorns from field to table required a substantial amount of time, a practice understood and carried out predominantly by women. An excellent online source for historical photographs of the acorn processing can be found in the National Archives.
Facts about gathering and processing acorns
- Collection normally occurs in the fall, but gatherers must make sure to head out before small animals steal the cache.
- Sprouted acorns can also be collected in the early spring.
- Check that there are no small holes in the acorns; this usually indicates an infestation of larvae.
- After collection, the acorns are dried in the sun to decrease the potential for spoilage and mold.
- What was not stored in elevated granaries for later use was shelled and winnowed in handwoven baskets with appropriate tools.
- With a mortar and pestle, nuts were pounded into a meal or flour and sifted accordingly.
- Different species contain varying amounts of tannic acid, which make the nut astringent and bitter. Depending on the species picked, the acorns required leeching, traditionally in running water.
- Today, the acorns can be ground, soaked and rinsed repeatedly until the tannic acid-laden brown water runs clear. The sweet nutty flour, now properly prepared, is ready to cook, like most carbohydrate-rich foods, to accompany meat, fish or fowl as a mush or baked into breads.
- Cooking tools created from maple bark, leaves and dogwood branches such as an acorn flour knocker, soup whip and dough carrier all aided the production of acorn mush and dough.
Today, some California Indians still gather and cook acorns, though not in the same quantities. These days a flour grinder might be used instead of a mortar and pestle to process the nuts. There are no grocery stores or online sources for acorn flour, except a finely ground and highly refined acorn starch found in Korean-centered food stores. Koreans make an acorn jelly called dotorimuk.
Part 1 of the acorn series:
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Sunhui Chang, chef of Fusebox restaurant in Oakland, Calif., noted that when he grew up the elders loved the bland dotorimuk mainly because of the seasoning of soy sauce, sweet wine vinegar, scallions, garlic, sugar, sesame sauce and chili powder. If you would like to make your own unrefined acorn flour, the best way to begin is by gathering acorns from oak trees. Ortiz and Parker in their book provide a glimpse into the nuanced, sophisticated and cultural context that results in nourishing a community and culture. Pick it up and read it, then gather local acorns, make your own flour and participate in reviving a native food. This way you can be a part of the resilience and hope.
Signs of resilience, signs of hope
Here are some other efforts under way to revive native oaks and their habitats in California. In one instance, Californians are working with the California Academy of Sciences on a reoaking project to remedy the serious dilemma of sudden oak death; with others they are collaborating with a local land trust to buy back indigenous lands for stewardship by California Indians; with cartographers they are mapping Winnemem Winto sacred sites; with arts organizations they are undoing the desecrations of the past with ceremony, dance and song; and with the support of their tribes and other organizations, they are working with land managers to bring back prescribed burning of the landscape for cultural purposes and for the health of the environment.
As we inch forward, perhaps we should keep in the forefront that the mind, hand and environment are inexorably intertwined. Pay tribute to those who carry the knowledge. Work with nature and the knowledge holders to invigorate traditions. Either way, we run the wonderful risk of regaining some lost cultural and biological diversity and reviving a slice of the lost landscapes, cultures, and the original people who managed it.
This article was partially underwritten by the The Christensen Fund, a nonprofit organization, dedicated to biocultural and agricultural diversity of marginalized people and landscapes globally.
Top photo: An acorn sits on a leaf. Credit: iStockPhoto