Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Native American Cooking: We're Hunting Wabbit

Last week, I went to my Kumeyaay Traditional Foods class with some very mixed feelings. The Kumeyaay are the local Indian tribe, and our plan for class was going on a rabbit hunt. And, in case we didn't catch anything, a guy in the class was going to hunt a rabbit ahead of time so we'd have something to eat.

Did I want to see a rabbit die? Absolutely not. But I understand why the Kumeyaay included wild rabbit meat in their diets, and I want to learn about their culture. However, there are some parts of their culture (like the ritual eagle sacrifices they used to do way back when) that make me really squeamish, and this is one of them.

This week, I came across a fantastic Kumeyaay harvest calendar in the book The Early Ethnography of the Kumeyaay (p. 31). The calendar is divided into three different groups but for our purposes here (since we have cars nowadays and we can drive to where the food is), I'm gonna split them into two: This who farmed and those who didn't. The group that farmed lived further inland, closer to the Colorado River. The ones who lived near modern San Diego did not farm.

January/February: "Period of greatest shortage in all environments"
March: Agave, stone fruits
April: Agave, stone fruits, bighorn sheep, farmers start clearing their fields
May: Agave, bighorn sheep
June: Juniper, Manzanita
July: Manzanita, Mesquite beans, chia, farmers eat mesquite beans and start planting
August: "Misc. seeds," jojoba, farmers eat mesquite beans and weed fields
September: Pine nuts, farmers are "weeding, tending"
October: Mule deer, farmers harvest (corn, beans, squash)
November: Acorns, Deer, Farmers store harvest
December: Acorns

As you can see, we are coming out of the parts of the year where there's nothing to eat, and we are approaching agave - which I assume includes yucca - and stone fruits. But the yucca isn't ready yet, and I don't know about any stone fruits. I do know of some wild currants that are growing but not ripe yet. Either way, if you're a Native American and you are a hunter/gatherer in this environment, your food choices are pretty slim. Time to go on a rabbit hunt.

So off we went. Queue the Elmer Fudd impressions. Our instructor brought a traditional Kumeyaay "rabbit stick" that she made herself out of oak:

I've never been a gun lover, but this rabbit stick made me really appreciate them. To use a rabbit stick, you lob this thing at the rabbit's legs so that it can't hop away. Then you go get it and finish it off. Compared to the amount of pain and fear this would cause the poor bunny, shooting it with a gun would be almost kind. Our other weapon was a bow and arrow, which I hope causes a quicker and less painful death.

We went out and walked around, and I'm sure we weren't very quiet and weren't great at tracking the rabbits either. We walked over plenty of delicious-looking nettles and came upon a nice patch of miner's lettuce. It really drove home the trade-offs of hunting and gathering for me. I can give up the rabbit hunt to cash in on an assured food source of low calorie wild greens... or I can keep walking in hopes that I might bag a bunny.

In the end, we only saw one rabbit and it hopped away while the instructor called us over and asked which one of us wanted to try using the rabbit stick on it. I was relieved. Once it began getting dark, we gave up. Before going back to the classroom, we gathered up some miner's lettuce.

Miner's lettuce

Our appointed hunter failed to catch any rabbits this past week, but he did catch 2 squirrels. I did not take any photos of dead squirrels or squirrels being gutted. It was bad enough that I saw it myself, in my opinion. One of the squirrels was pregnant and about to give birth. I was pretty upset about that.

Our hunter gutted the squirrels outside, and I stayed indoors because I couldn't really deal with seeing it. Then we built a campfire and roasted the squirrels over it.

I've gotta give the guy who killed the squirrels a lot of credit. He fashioned 2 skewers from sticks that he whittled to a point, and arranged the squirrels over the fire. He put some sagebrush on them, and put some green stuff into the fire to give the squirrels a smokey flavor. He did a really great job cooking them. Again, I didn't take pictures (it was getting dark) but if you've seen The Hunger Games, I swear it looked like the scene where she roasts some game she killed in the beginning of the games.

After what seemed like too much time to cook such tiny little squirrels, we put the fire out and went inside to eat. I mostly stuck to the miner's lettuce but I had one tiny bite of squirrel. It was a dark meat and it tasted great, actually. But, unless I am starving to death, I can promise you that will be the last time I ever eat squirrel. I can't explain it but it's just not food in my book.

Next week, we're going back to eating food that doesn't have to be murdered prior to consumption: nettles and wild mushrooms.

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