Monday, June 3, 2013

Native American Cooking: Rabbit, Snake, and Woodrat

My Native American cooking class just wrapped up for the semester. In our last two classes, we had meat. Or rather, in the second to last class we didn't have meat and in our last class we did.

San Diego's an interesting environment to try to subsist in. Right now there are prickly pear cactus pads and not a whole lot else out there to eat. Elderberries will be ripe in a few weeks. Wild blackberries are ripe now - and while they are delicious, they are so tiny they almost aren't even worth bothering with. Sage seeds are available now, but I can hardly find any of the most nutritious variety - chia. I suppose one could also dig up mariposa lily bulbs and blue dicks corms. Let's just say I'm glad I'm not actually trying to live off wild foods right now.

Matilija Poppies are blooming now. Despite their nickname "Fried Eggs," you can't eat them. They are only a feast for the eyes.

Matilija Poppies

Mariposa Lily, with an edible bulb. Although it seems to me it would be a crime to kill such a beautiful flower unless you were really starving and had no choice.

Datura wrightii, a.k.a. Jimsonweed, a.k.a. Toloache. Historically used as a hallucinogen during initiation ceremonies of young Kumeyaay men. This is a dangerous drug to attempt, and even under the supervision of experienced elders, some Kumeyaay boys died when taking it. You don't have to ask around too much around here to find someone with a story about someone who tried it and died. Long story short: Definitely not food.

Another look at the Datura flower. Five fused petals, five fused sepals. It's in the Nightshade family.

Without too many edible plants around, our class decided to go hunting. In our second to last class, the instructor took us out to hunt woodrat. Also known as packrat, this tiny animal was a popular treat among the Kumeyaay. I wasn't eager to kill or eat one but I had a strong hunch I wouldn't have to.

In the class, we've got one guy who is a skilled hunter. He didn't come to class that week. The rest of us are novices. Our instructor, a woman, says she used to go out with her brothers when they hunted. But usually among the Kumeyaay, the men were the hunters, not the women. The odds that the bunch of us would be able to catch and kill a wild animal were just not good.

In the case of the woodrat, we actually got off to a decent start. We found the woodrat nest. So far so good.

Large woodrat nest

At this point, our teacher told everyone to grab a stick. One of us would poke into the nest with a stick. Everyone else was to stand ready to whack the woodrat with a stick when it ran out. I opted out of getting a stick and instead offered to take pictures.

We were all standing on one side of the nest when one classmate prodded the nest with a stick. "There he goes!" he exclaimed. The woodrat ran away.

Prodding the nest

Then somebody decided we'd do better if we surrounded the nest so that no matter where the rat ran out, someone could get it. So everyone did that. A few people continued poking into the nest. Nothing came out of the nest.

Finally, everyone admitted defeat. The rat was gone. There weren't more in there. Oops.

On the way back, someone found a Western Black-headed Snake. As you can see, it was pretty adorable. It was about the size of a large earthworm and apparently they don't get too much bigger than that. (No, you don't eat them.)

So that was our unsuccessful hunting expedition.

In our last class, our classmate the hunter finally caught a rabbit with a bow and arrow and he brought it to share - along with a rattlesnake he caught.

The bunny, with some sage leaves

Bunny and snake

I have to say, the snake was so small that I really thought to myself "Why'd you kill it?" There just wasn't going to be enough meat to make the poor little thing worthwhile. But as it cooked, it started looking more and more like a very lean slice of bacon. It got smoky and delicious and it actually tasted quite a bit like bacon too.

There wasn't too much meat on the tiny little thing, but if you just eat the little bones along with the meat, it was OK. And delicious.

The rabbit was more substantial, and rather delicious. There was hardly an ounce of fat on either animal. California Indians living on this meat really would have needed greens, nuts, and seeds to get enough fat in their diets.

A piece of rabbit

I made one last type of native (sort of) food: Mustard. Technically, the black mustard all over Southern California is mostly invasive (there are some native species). But it's all over the place, so why not eat it? Mustard is a distinctly European condiment. Indians from India (not Native Americans) use a lot of mustard seed but they cook it in oil, whereas Europeans grind the seeds and then mix them with cold water. At it's most basic, that's what mustard (the condiment) is.

Mixing ground mustard seed with cold water causes a chemical reaction to take place, leading to the formation of the chemicals that give it a spicy horse-radishy bite. Sources I checked out recommended preparing mustard a day before you plan to use it. The most mild mustard is white mustard (used in American yellow mustards), next is brown mustard (used in Dijon mustards), and spiciest is black mustard. And that's what grows in California.

Of course, besides mustard seed and water, you can add almost anything else to it. At the Mustard Museum (yes, there is one) I tried something crazy like a chocolate caramel mustard. My favorite mustard was a French one from Zingerman's in Michigan that was made with grape must.

Gathering and winnowing enough mustard seeds was a huge pain in the butt. I can't say I recommend doing it. With only a few tablespoons of mustard seeds, I ground them and added cold water. Then I let it sit for about 10 minutes. After that, I added salt, white wine vinegar, and nothing else. Some members of our class loved it. Not me. Too spicy.

So that was it, a full semester of traditional Kumeyaay foods. Now that this class is over, I'm going to miss it like crazy. Fortunately, two more classes start next week: Tools and Pottery. Most of my classmates from the food class are taking Tools together. And I'm going to continue trying out traditional Kumeyaay foods as they become available throughout the rest of the year. One classmate and I are going blackberry picking on Wednesday, and in a few weeks, I'll be all over the elderberries. I'd love to get mesquite beans and pine nuts this summer, although I'm a wuss about hot weather so we'll see if I actually make it out to the desert to collect them. And there's no way I'll miss gathering acorns in November.

I hope you enjoyed reading about our adventures, and I also hope that it's made you think about how a people could have subsisted off of the land where you live, and what they might have done to actively manage the landscape that perhaps we should continue doing today. If you are lucky, there are still Native Americans where you live.

Unfortunately, Native Americans - those that were not killed outright by epidemic disease, war, or even murder - were often forced to leave their homelands. If I wanted to take a class like this in Illinois, where I grew up, I couldn't. My first problem would be the lack of native prairie, which has been almost entirely wiped out. But an even bigger problem is that the Indians native to Illinois are now located in Oklahoma. And they weren't the only ones.

Knowing now how intimately the Kumeyaays' lives are intertwined with the plants, animals, and landscapes of their territory, I cannot imagine the consequences of forcing them to move to a foreign environment many states away. Unlike the Europeans and their descendants who came to this country, establishing farms and bringing their culture with them everywhere, the Kumeyaay's culture cannot just pick up and move like that. Places are sacred. Certain animals are sacred. Lives revolve around an annual rhythm of hunting and gathering that fed and nourished the people, the plants, the animals, and the land. This is not a lifestyle that can just pick up and move. And I doubt any of the other indigenous peoples who were forced to move to Oklahoma so many years ago had cultures that could simply pick up and move either. Forcing Indians to leave their land is more or less equivalent to robbing them of their cultures.


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