Friday, March 15, 2013

Native American Cooking: "Indian Potatoes" (Jepsonia)

My Kumeyaay traditional foods class just keeps getting better and better. Last night, we had planned to cook up a wild mushroom and some mustard greens and to eat them as burritos. That plan fell through. The mushroom dried up before we could get it. The mustard greens, a ubiquitous invasive all over San Diego, were available - but I don't like them.

Instead, our instructor taught us to dig up "Indian potatoes," the corms of Jepsonia parryi. The Kumeyaay name for them is Halpap. We also gathered up three different species of Dudleya, and I brought refried beans and masa to make tortillas. Another classmate brought the most special food of all: honey gathered from feral bees on the Sycuan reservation.

In the past, California Indians were called "Digger Indians" as a racial slur. But, as last night's class proved, it should have been a compliment. Because the indigenous people are smart enough to recognize food when it's staring them in the face. The jerks who made fun of them by calling them "diggers" would have walked past the plants without ever knowing that there was free food just two inches below the soil.

The class started with a classmate holding something to my nose and saying "What's that smell like?" After a confused moment, I said, "Chamomile?" I was very close. It was pineapple weed (Matricaria discoidea, a.k.a. wild chamomile. It's in the same genus as the chamomile we drink as tea, and it was growing just outside the classroom door. It looks so unimpressive that I would have never noticed it if he hadn't pointed it out.

Various indigenous peoples have used it for gastrointestinal complaints, as a perfume, or as an insect repellant.

Looks like nothing, huh? The pineapple weed flowers are the little yellow balls you see.

Once the class was assembled, we set off to find "Indian potatoes." As we arrived at our destination, I spotted a gorgeous Indian paintbrush:

Indian paintbrush, Castilleja sp.

Our instructor pointed out the tiny little Jepsonia plants, the source of our "Indian potatoes." The so-called potatoes are actually corms, not tubers. Jepsonia is an odd little plant that produces just one leaf, or rarely two. When it does, in the spring, the Kumeyaay would come and gather the corms. In the fall, Jepsonia flowers.

Jepsonia parryi

Some people used sticks or trowels. I tended to just use my fingers since the soil was wet and soft. The trick was to trace the root down about two inches to get the corm. Sometimes, the root would break off and you'd be left with a useless leaf and no corm to eat.

Corm connected to a root

Intact root, leaf, and corm

Our class, hard at work, gathering dinner

I think the corms were got were mostly pretty small. Ideally, they would grow to about the size of olives or grapes. In the end, after an awful lot of work, we didn't have much to show for it.

Once we finished gathering Jepsonia corms, we gathered up a few Dudleya too. Dudleya are in the Stonecrop family, and there are four species that grow on the Sycuan reservation. We managed to find and gather up three, Lady Fingers (Dudleya edulis), Chalk Dudleya (D. pulverulenta), and I think Lance-Leaf Dudleya (D. lanceolata). The photos below are of the latter.

While we were gathering them, we came across a few clematis vines. One had buds and last year's seeds but no flowers, and the other was in bloom.

Clematis vine with seeds and lots of fluff

Flowering clematis. No scent that I could detect, unfortunately.

Then we headed back to the classroom to build our fire and begin cooking.

We put the food we gathered on the table and our instructor showed us how to peel the little corms.

A bunch of Jepsonia corms, plus dirt and leaves

Peeled corms.

Our entire harvest, peeled and in the pot with water and salt.

Our instructor also showed us how to peel and eat the Dudleya. She recommends adding salt. I tasted the chalk dudleya and found it very astringent. So bad that I didn't even bother putting salt on it and tasting it again. I'm grateful I know I can eat it in case I'm ever lost in the wilderness, but I don't think there are any other circumstances in which I'd choose to eat this stuff.

However, I might have just picked the wrong Dudleya to taste. The Latin name of Lady Fingers is "edulis," which means edible.

Our three varieties of Dudleya. From left to right: Lance-leaf, Lady Fingers, and Chalk Dudleya.

Peeling a chalk dudleya leaf.

With the food prepped, we headed outside to our campfire. I taught everyone to make tortillas with the masa and tortilla press I brought, and I shared the refried beans too. But the beans were not half as good as the other food we ate with the tortillas:

The story behind the honey is that the reservation was having a tree removed (an invasive species, so don't feel bad for it), but there was a beehive in the tree. Before the tree removal, the staff convinced the bees to find a new home... and then helped themselves to the honey the bees left behind. And one heavenly little jar of the stuff made its way to our class. Just think, this was made with the nectar of all of the many native plants growing on the Sycuan reservation. It's one special jar of honey!

The Jepsonia corms took a while to cook. Before they were ready, the class had polished off all of the tortillas and beans. (By the way, you can eat the corms raw, so the cooking wasn't entirely necessary.) Once the corms were soft, we took them off the fire and ate them. They didn't need any seasonings besides salt, and they tasted mild and very pleasant.

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