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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Necessity planted seeds of diet

Jerry Bowen

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In my last article we took a look at the mostly meat part of the diet of the Indians in our area.

Now we will dive into the vegetarian side. First off, the Miwok were not agriculturists, other than they may have grown a little tobacco, and made attempts at controlling vegetation by attempting to burn off dry grass about August when Mother Nature failed to do it by lightning or spontaneous combustion.

Underbrush was less abundant than now, perhaps due to this periodic burning. What means, if any, were taken to prevent the spread of fire to trees is not known. This may account for the exceptionally verdant growth of the valley grains and fewer young trees than one might expect in the surrounding mountains, as the early pioneers observed on their arrival in the 1840s.

Most of their edibles in plant form came from the natural surroundings.

Meals made from seeds were called tu-yu and eaten as dry meal, in the form of cakes, and in a form of mush.

Seeds from grasses, other small plants, and shrubs were gathered in conical baskets. Seed beaters with handles were used in gathering the seeds. Sifting, winnowing, and pulverizing in rock mortars followed the harvesting.

In some cases the Indians parched the seeds before pulverizing, by shaking them in a shallow parching basket with live coals. The natural oil in some seeds made the forming of meal cakes, cones, and balls easy to make.
In addition to seeds, bulbs, tubers, and roots occasionally referred to as “Indian potatoes” were eaten. They used a digging stick for harvesting and the tubers were usually baked or steamed in an earth oven, or roasted in the ashes of the open fire. If there was only a small amount, they occasionally prepared the food by stone-boiling it in baskets.

Once roasted in open fires, the ashes were sifted from them by means of an ordinary winnowing basket. After oven baking, prepared food was also dried for winter use and stored in baskets in the lodges.

Occasionally, stored foods of this type were pulverized and cooked as mush or porridge

Mushrooms were also harvested, shredded and dried and were boiled and eaten with salt, or were ground in a mortar and cooked as soup.

Greens usually were eaten after boiling. The surplus was steamed in an earth oven, dried, and stored for winter use. To eat the stored greens, they were soaked in cold water and either boiled again or eaten without further cooking.

In the long run, of the many vegetable foods used, acorns were the most preferred. They would keep for months and were stored whole in outdoor granaries or in small quantities in baskets indoors.

They graded the various varieties of oak nuts and acorns according to quality, with the poorest used as watery soups and a poor grade of bread or biscuits that fell to pieces. The Black Oak variety was considered the best quality

Acorns were gathered in baskets after they fell from the trees in the late autumn and early winter. When the harvest was small, they checked woodpecker-drilled holes for stored acorns and pried out the fresh ones with a pointed deer-antler tool.

The shelled meats of the acorns were placed in a basket and later ground into meal, usually on bedrock mortars, and sometimes in the portable mortar.

Sometimes the women congregated in numbers to do their grinding and to chat. A peck or two of shelled acorn meats was placed on the mortar and the woman sat with her legs spread out straight on either side of the grinding area.

As the grinding progressed and the acorns were reduced to coarse meal, it was kept in a ring, and then placed in a basket and later ground into meal. The meal was sifted in a basket and leached. The leached meal was cooked as soup, mush, biscuits, or bread.

Mush was cooked to a thick glutinous state by adding a greater amount of meal to a given quantity of water and was eaten by dipping with the first and second fingers.

As you can see, a good portion of an Indian’s life was centered on the gathering and preparation of food in order to stay alive.

I often wonder if we would be able to survive as well as the Indians did before the arrival of the Europeans.

Take away all our modern conveniences and supermarkets and my guess is there would be far fewer humans around to complain about how tough things are for them to survive. Perhaps there is something to learn here from the past.