“Seaweed, Salmon, and Manzanita Cider: 
  A California Indian Feast”

by Kate Marianchild

“My mother told me this when I was young. I didn’t understand what she meant then, but I do now. She said we had many relatives and we all had to live together; so we’d better learn how to get along with each other. She said it wasn’t too hard to do. It was just like taking care of your younger brother or sister. You got to know them, find out what they like and what made them cry, so you’d know what to do. If you took good care of them you didn’t have to work as hard. Sounds like it’s not true, but it is. When that baby gets to be a man or woman they’re going to help you out.


Julia Parker (Coast Miwok/Kashaya Pomo) winnowing black oak acorns. Photo by Beverly R. Ortiz.

You know, I thought she was talking about us Indians and how we are supposed to get along. I found out later by my older sister that mother wasn’t just talking about Indians, but the plants, animals, birds – everything on this earth. They are our relatives and we better know how to act around them or they’ll get after us.”    —  Lucy Lozinto Smith, Dry Creek Pomo

Before the coming of the Europeans, the land now known as California supported more than 1000 independent bands, tribes, and nations. Many of these peoples lived in the same small areas for thousands of years without feeling the need to move on. Such long-term rootedness was possible due to the knowledge, respect, and restraint with which Native Californians approached the plants and animals that sustained them. Strict rules governed their interactions with the environment: they gathered plants only at certain times; they burned, pruned, and dug in prescribed ways and at carefully calculated times; they gave something back every time they took something. The “untrammeled wilderness” that the Europeans “discovered” was in fact a carefully managed ecosystem.

Modern California Indians have retained much of the precious plant and animal knowledge of their ancestors, and are in a process of recovering even more. “Despite missionization, Mexican land grants, the Russian quest for sea otters, and American expansionism, we are still here,” states Kathleen Rose Smith, a California Indian artist and a member of the Coast Miwok and Dry Creek Pomo tribes. “We knew (and still know) the land with an intimacy that results from countless interactions.”

Smith, daughter of Lucy Smith (quoted above), credits her mother and her father, Steven Smith, Jr. (Bodega Miwok) with her knowledge and love of native California foods. She was a major contributor to “Seaweed, Salmon, and Manzanita Cider: A California Indian Feast,” by Margaret Dubin and Sara-Larus Tolley, (Heyday Institute, 2008). A delightful and sometimes startling compendium of Native American cuisine (the most authentic local food around), the book is also the blueprint for a museum exhibition of the same name that will open at Grace Hudson Museum in Ukiah on Sunday, July 11 at 1 p.m. Filled with historic and contemporary photographs, baskets and other artifacts, food specimens, memoirs, and recipes, the exhibit features eight categories of food important in the lives of Native Californians: Fish; Shellfish and Seaweed; Meat; Vegetables; Berries, Fruits, and Flowers; Nuts and Seeds; and Salt. The free exhibit opening will include several demonstrations, including one by Kathleen Smith, showing methods of preparing some of these foods and offering opportunities to sample them.

“Our foods were (and still are) as varied as the landscape, as are our methods of preparing them,” states Smith. “We ate them raw. We roasted, boiled, baked, leached, steeped, dried, and stored them, and, after contact, we fried, and canned them.” The book and the exhibit contain harvesting instructions and recipes for many delicious foods including Huckleberry Bread, Pine Nut Soup, Rose Hip or Elderberry Syrup, Peppernut Balls, Roasted Wood Rats, and Ingeniously Roasted Barnacles. Barnacles were roasted by the Pomo by building a fire on top of a bed of barnacles at low tide. The barnacles would cook until the incoming tide would extinguish the fire and cool the meal. The barnacles would be eaten the next day.

Ripe native grapes were used to bait bird traps and to attract fresh- and salt-water fish, according to David W. Peri of the Bodega Bay Miwok tribe. Sometimes a whole cluster of grapes was tied to a string and thrown into the ocean to attract crabs. The crabs would grasp the cluster and they could be pulled in without any falling off. Octopus traps were made from the vines of the wild grape, and the largest of the green grape leaves were used in cooking meat, fish, shellfish, and fowl.

Kathleen Rose Smith gaqthering seaweed, 1991. Photo by Beverly R. Ortiz.

“Seaweed, Salmon, and Manzanita Cider” avoids romanticizing the “good old days” by comfortably and sometimes humorously weaving in the realities of modern times. After giving a richly detailed description of her family’s traditional and extremely labor-intensive methods of gathering, storing, hulling, pounding, leaching, and cooking acorn, Kimberly Stevenot (Northern Sierra Mewuk) reminds her readers, “But let’s face it folks, this is now. Today, (you can grind) small batches (using) an electric coffee grinder, and a mill and juicer work wonders for medium batches. For large batches like my sister and I make, we use an electric flour mill.”

Stevenot’s grandmother once felt a desire to eat acorn when she was hospitalized at Oak Knoll Naval Hospital. The doctors demanded laboratory testing of the acorn before they would grant her request. Amazed to find it was high in protein and contained almost every essential vitamin, the doctors concluded that a person could survive on acorn soup and water. “As if we weren’t aware of this already…” says Stevenot.

Sherrie Smith-Ferri, Director of the Grace Hudson Museum, acted as curator for this exhibition in consultation with her aunt, Kathleen Rose Smith. Smith-Ferri notes that she had fun putting the exhibit together: “It brought back lots of good memories of spending time with the family at the coast harvesting abalone, mussels and seaweed, or going to pick berries. And of course it brought back recollections of some great meals eaten with my family. I got really hungry when I worked for long stretches of time on the exhibit.” The exhibit will be on display at the Grace Hudson Museum through November 4, 2010, and will then travel for more than three years to other museums throughout California.

The Grace Hudson Museum is at 431 S. Main St. in Ukiah. Funding for this exhibit was provided by the Dry Creek Rancheria Band of Pomo Indians, the Mendocino County Office of Education, the California Exhibition Resources Alliance, and the Sun House Guild. General admission to the Museum is $4, $10 per family, $3 for students and seniors, and free to members or on the first Friday of the month. For more information please go to www.gracehudsonmuseum.org or call 467-2836.