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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Skewered skunk, coyote on menu

Jerry Bowen

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Grasshoppers, acorns, clover also part of Indians’ diet

Have you ever wondered what the Indians in the Solano area used as their daily food and how they prepared it?

Of course there were no supermarkets, modern transport or conveniences available to them such as we have today.

They were not into agriculture or herding animals before the arrival of the Europeans, so they had to rely on the environment for their daily supplies. This means they had to rely mostly on edible wild plants and animals they could capture.

Vegetables included Manzanita berries, bulbs, mushrooms, corn, and seeds with Black Oak acorns regarded as the best of the lot to prepare and eat.

The principal natural crops were mushrooms in winter, clover in spring, seeds in summer, acorns in fall. Plums and cherries were gathered between the seed harvest and the acorn harvest and bulbs were gathered in the spring.

In winter the diet consisted of more meat than at any other time of the year. Meats included were birds, reptiles, fish, and several kinds of insects. The carrion-feeding turkey vulture was the only bird specifically designated as not edible.

Bears were not normally included in the diet because the bear’s foot looked too human. However, other meat included mountain lions, wildcats, coyotes, dogs, skunks, gopher snakes, frogs, and lizards. Birds’ eggs were not ordinarily eaten, but occasionally duck or quail eggs were roasted in ashes.

By now I’m sure that everyone reading this is becoming ravenously hungry, so let’s see how the local aboriginals prepared these delectable delicacies.

When it came to everyday eating, breakfast was eaten at sunrise but other meals weren’t consumed on a regular schedule; they simply ate whenever they were hungry. It was also the custom to feed visitors immediately upon their arrival.

They had no regular eating utensils although river mussel shells were used as a form of spoon.

When it came to cooking the food, methods included: stone boiling in baskets, boiling in rock vessels, baking or steaming in an earth oven, parching with hot coals in a basket, broiling over coals, and roasting in hot ashes and coals.

Larger animals were skinned and sliced with an obsidian knife, broiled on the coals of an open fire and sometimes boiled. Smaller animals sometimes were roasted directly on coals or in hot ashes, either whole or skinned and gutted. In the latter case, coals were placed inside to make the cooking more rapid and even.

The fresh skins of various animals were singed, then cooked in hot coals, which caused them to pop open. Tidbits were then nibbled from the crackling.

Birds and fish were roasted whole in ashes, and picked or skinned after cooking. Sometimes they were opened first and live coals placed inside to assist the cooking.

A method of cooking fish that had been dried was to coat them with acorn mush and broil them on sticks over a fire. Acorn “biscuits” were eaten with the broiled fish.

Turtles were roasted in ashes until they split open. Lizards were gutted and also roasted in hot ashes.

River mussels were cooked by partially sticking them in sand and covering them with grass and brush, which was then ignited.

Grasshoppers, bulbs and greens were cooked in a pit in the ground that was thoroughly heated and lined with a layer of hot stones, over which was placed a layer of green leaves or green tule. Then a thin layer of the food was spread. followed by more leaves and a layer of hot stones.

This process was repeated until the pit was filled. Finally a layer of earth was heaped over the pit and often a fire built on top. This “earth oven” was then allowed to cook for up to 24 hours.

The Indians preserved and stored large quantities of food. Acorns and seeds were stored without special preparation. Greens and grasshoppers were steamed and dried before packing away, and meat and fish were dried and stored. Large, flat-bottomed, twined baskets were used as containers for foods other than acorns.

The meat of the large mammals, especially deer, was dried in long, thin strips hung on trees or bushes or by curing over a small fire (We call it jerky today).

Care was taken to remove all fat, which was kept in a small basket and eaten raw. It seems doubtful the use of salt as a preservative was used. For temporary preservation between meals, meat was sometimes covered with earth, then cleaned up and eaten later.

In my next column I’ll continue enticing you readers with a few more delicious details of the aboriginal diet . In the meantime, I think I’ll pass on the skewered skunk.