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UC Berkeley Press Release

New UC Berkeley book a first on California Indian cuisine

– Mention California cuisine and celebrity chefs probably pop to mind. But a University of California, Berkeley, research anthropologist says Native Californians were the original dietary trailblazers for fresh, organic and locally produced foods.

In "Food in California Indian Culture," Ira Jacknis of UC Berkeley's Phoebe Hearst Museum of Anthropology sets the Native American gastronomic table of 100 to 200 years ago.

It seems appropriate that the museum published the book, as it's home to the world's largest and best collection of California Indian artifacts, and about two-thirds of those 250,000 catalogued items are food-related. In 1997, Jacknis curated the nation's first extensive exhibit on the food and food customs of the California Indians. The exhibit was on display at the museum for over a year.

In his book that is part of the museum's "Classics in California Anthropology" series, Jacknis draws on this ethnography in the out-of-print publications of some of UC Berkeley's premiere anthropologists such as Alfred Kroeber, Samuel Barrett, Julian Steward and Cora du Bois.

He also relies on the voices of Kayasha Pomo prophet Essie Parrish; Dugan Aguilar of the Paiute, Pit River and Maidu tribes; Kathleen R. Smith of the Bodega Miwok/Dry Creek Pomo; and many others who recall - or at least remember stories about - the old foods, customs and methods of preparation. Jacknis also includes photos like the one showing Ishi, a well-known California Indian, skinning a deer; Pomo preparations for roasting moth caterpillars; and the gathering of salty palm kelp.

Anxious to correct a common misconception, Jacknis stresses that Native Californians didn't and don't live by acorns alone. A sample of their diets shows a wide variety of foods found in their diverse environments and ecologies.

For example, the Sierra Miwok collected clover in the spring, seeds in the summer and mushrooms in the winter, with fruits and bulbs serving as their secondary foods. The Yurok fed largely on fresh salmon. Shellfish and sea mammals were popular with coastal dwellers, who harvested salt from seaweed. Grass seeds, grasshoppers, bees and worms were part of the regular Indian diet throughout much of the region. Delicacies included wood rat meat for the Cahuilla, salmon flies for the Wintu and Pandora moth chrysalises for the Northfork Mono.

"Most of this has not disappeared," said Jacknis in an interview. "Actually, the foods are in better shape than some of the (Native Californian) languages. The thing that has changed is that they used to do this all the time; it used to be their whole world. Now it's a small - but important - part of their world."

Today, the traditional foods are often reserved for so-called "Big Time" celebrations like puberty ceremonies, dances and native religious ceremonies, he said.

The book even includes a few recipes like peppernut balls (to be eaten inside a thick bunch of sweet clover), mashed buckeyes and venison marinade.

Jacknis said he began developing an appetite for the book because he is an anthropologist, he loves food and loves to cook, and has access to a treasure trove of materials from anthropologists and other researchers who at least partially documented the now little known Native American eating habits of long ago.

"And to understand the culture of the hunter-gatherer, the most important thing is their food," he said. "If you know what they eat, you know much of what they do with their lives."

When the Spanish arrived in 1769, they derided Native Californians for their lack of a cultural taste for big game and often for small game as well, said Jacknis. They labeled the people with a strong reliance on plants "diggers."

California Indian food "basically got no respect then and gets little respect today," said Jacknis. Yet, the Native American food model connects people to nature, improves the health of humans and their environment, and offers a new vantage point for understanding culture, he said.

"I'm very thankful that this book fills a need. There's nothing else like this in existence," said Jacknis.

Some of the book's most intriguing reading comes in essays about food traditions and attitudes.

Take this recollection transcribed from a conversation with Essie Parish about how Native Californians responded when introduced to the new settlers' foods: "Never having seen white men's food before, they thought that they were being given poison. Having given (the Indians) their food, they left and returned home but (the Indians) threw it in a ditch. Some they buried when they poured it out. They were afraid to eat that, not knowing anything about it - all they knew was their own food, wild food."

In her essay, Kathleen R. Smith, a Bodego Miwok/Dry Creek Pomo and a former food writer for the News from Native California magazine, described the bounty of native foods: "Mamma taught me that we would never starve because our food, the food that God gave us, is all around; all we need to know is how and when to gather it, how to prepare it. The teaching included going to the hills and valleys where these foods grow."

Wayne Marufo, a Kashaya Pomo, told writer Beverly Ortiz about preparations for the hunt that preceded pit barbeques.

"Usually the old-timers were pretty serious and there's a lot of things that . they couldn't do . if they were going fishing, the night before they couldn't sleep with their wives," Marufo said. "And they used to have songs that they prepared themselves with . They sing the song the night before and they sing it in the morning before they're leaving."

When Alice Waters, the queen of California cuisine, began promoting fresh, local foodstuffs about 30 years ago, Jacknis said, she credited the French instead of California Indians for her inspiration. "When she was starting," he said, "how could she know about Native California foods? There was nowhere to go to learn either."

Now there is.

The book is available at the Hearst Museum gift shop for $34.95. The museum is on campus at 103 Kroeber Hall, near the intersection of Bancroft Way and College Avenue.