by Susannah Spengler
Long ago, the land we now call California was home to more than 310,000 Native Americans who foraged, living off the land and its native plants and animals.
John Farais, a local chef, cooks with the same ingredients that the Native Americans relied on, but uses modern kitchen technology to create contemporary dishes.
In honor of Native American Heritage Month, Farais came to the Anza Branch Library on Nov. 14 to discuss the diet of Native Americans and California’s food history. Casual and at ease, wearing a plant-patterned Hawaiian shirt and jeans, Farais displayed numerous books about native life and cooking, from which he gets inspiration for his dishes.
He holds fond memories of his days attending City College of San Francisco, where he obtained his culinary degree in the ’90s. Since then, he has cooked for the founder of Slow Food International, Carlo Petrini, and former U.S. Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, among others. He has also worked as a freelance chef touting the slogan, “What’s more local than native?”
His business, Indigenous Edibles, is based in San Rafael and focuses on the medicinal values of native plants. Farais also started Heritage Foodways, a non-profit foundation promoting native agriculture, native plant restoration and plant education for children and he offers classes and private dinners, in which he focuses on California foods.
Although the diets of the regional tribes of California varied, Farais said they all had similar staples. As hunters and gatherers, each tribe worked with the topography and climate in which it lived in order to obtain what it needed to thrive. Farais said the land in San Francisco and Marin counties was once populated by Pomo, Owone and Miwok.
The Miwok, living on the coast, built small boats for fishing and transportation by binding stalks of dried tule plants. The Native Americans would catch sturgeon and salmon traveling in the rivers during their migrations, making sure to leave enough fish to reproduce the following year. After being dried on poles around a fire, the fish could last the tribe throughout the winter.
The main staple of the Native American diet was acorns. According to Farais, acorns were so important that they were the second most traded item among natives, after salt. He went on to explain the lengthy process used by Native Americans to make acorn flour.
The acorns were gathered during the autumn. Some 1,300 to 1,750 pounds could be gathered per acre of oak trees. The village women shelled, then pounded the acorns into pulp on rocks near their camp. Farris explained that when crushing the acorns, the women worked together, often singing in time with the rhythmic pounding.
Several village grinding mortars remain in California, rocks, marked by deep circular holes from repeated use. Indian Grinding Rock California State Park, located in the Sierra Nevada foothills, holds the largest collection of bedrock mortars in North America, with some 1,185 mortar holes.
After the women ground the acorns, they began a complex process of “leeching” to remove tannic acid, which is potentially harmful and distinctly bitter. A hole was dug in the earth and lined with mud and leaves. The acorn pulp was spread on the leaves and then soaked in water for several days.
Farais said the acorn meal is edible after leeching, with a mild starchy flavor. When dried, the meal crumbles into flour, which was used by Native Americans to make soups and breads.
Farais showed the audience a picture of his own leeching bucket, which he uses to soak whole shelled acorns. He reg larly drains the tainted water and refreshes it.
In addition to acorns, Native Americans also consumed many other plants and animals. They ate insects, such as grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars, flies, locusts, worms and bee larvae.
Farais brought and passed around a basket of roasted, seasoned mealworms for the audience to sample. He also passed around a California native pine cone, complete with “pine nuts” that the natives would remove and roast.
During the presentation, Farais allowed the audience to ask questions. A district resident asked Farais if there were any edible uses for redwood trees. He said bright green new growth trees can be boiled to make a tea.
After Farais concluded, members were encouraged to handle the various jars of flours and meals the chef had brought with him, as well as a bowl of native nuts.
The SF Public Library offers many free events, classes and exhibits. Its event calendar can be found onl one at https://sfpl.org.