Growing up in the Pasadena/Altadena area, I had the regular opportunity to hike these mountains of my “backyard.”
By Christopher Nyerges
I had a great interest in the Native American culture, and foods. What did our ancestors eat for centuries if they did not practice agriculture and had no Vons for shopping? I wondered if I could find the food plants that the natives regularly used.
We see a modern city, and little of what was here in the pre-Mission days. There is barely an awareness that native peoples exclusively lived here, residing along the banks of the Arroyo Seco. When we see the denuding of the Hahamongna basin that the County Flood Control is now wastefully doing in the name of “flood control,” there is little sense that this is the land that fed, clothed, and housed our geographical ancestors.
When I was growing up, in Pasadena, I was first interested in getting to know and taste the foods that had sustained my geographical ancestors. Such personal experience would be invaluable if I ever got lost while hiking. These plants still grow all around us, in the canyons, river beds, vacant lots, and in the chaparral and mountains.
In July 1769, Father Junipero Serra, writing of the areas near Pasadena, said, “We found vines (wild) of a large size and in some cases quite loaded with grapes. We have seen Indians in immense numbers…. They continue to make a good subsistence from various seeds and by fishing.” Wild oats (Avena fatua) and various other grasses were harvested for their grain. And the wild grape vines can still be found in some of the foothill canyons, though they rarely produce fruit today.
The main plant staple was the acorn which falls from the oak trees every fall. Acorns are edible, but very bitter when raw due to the presence of tannic acid. To remove the bitterness, the Native Americans first shelled the acorns and ground them in stone mortars. The meal was then put in a shallow basket and hot water was poured over it so that the tannin would wash out. The processed acorn meal was then made into bread, or boiled into a mush-like soup and eaten cold.
Prickly Pear Cactus
The Indian residents of this area ate the young succulent pads and the sweet fruits of the prickly pear cactus. Stands of the prickly pear cactus are still common. I eat the raw pads in salads, or peeled, diced, and cooked in omelettes. The fruits are tasty raw, or made into juice, pie, jam, and even ice cream.
The yucca plant, the most important fibre plant for all the Southwestern Indians, was also a source of food. Both the green and ripened fruits were roasted or boiled, and the newly-emerging yucca flower stalks were cut down and cooked like a giant asparagus, peeled, and eaten.
The leaves of yucca were one of the most important fibre sources. Once processed to get just the hardy fibre, the leaves were made into rope or braids, which were then used to weave sandals, construct shelters, make packs, bow strings, nets, etc.
Berries and cherries
The Gabrielinos ate the native wild berries, such as wild grapes, elderberries, blackberries, currants, gooseberries, and manzanitas (“little apple” in Spanish). Another common food was the wild or holly-leaf cherry (Prunus ilicifolia). The fruit consists of a large stone wrapped by a thin layer of pulp. These wild cherry pits were dried, ground, and leached in much the same way as acorns, and mixed with other ingredients into a “soup.” All of these berries and fruits can still be found throughout the foothills, making good trail snacks for hikers.
Though cranberries don’t grow here in the wild, we do have the common native toyon tree. These are perhaps the closest you’ll get to cranberries out west. The fruits are dry and astringent when picked off the tree, but when boiled and sweetened, can be used in a variety of dishes.
Live lightly on the earth
Learning the skills and specialized knowledge of our ancestors provides us with one tool to break our unnecessary dependence upon others. Learning these skills instills a deep desire to “live lightly on the earth” as much as possible. Knowing these basic survival skills enhances our day-to-day life, and certainly increases our safety.
And even more, when so much is lost today, when we discover the vast richness of our wild lands, we should do everything possible to see that it remains as pure and native as possible, in perpetuity, so that we and our children can continue to learn the lessons that we can only gain in the wild places.
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