Julian: This weekend I went on an herb walk in Ojai, led by a local forager and a Chumash elder. Wearing a Foo Fighters shirt, shorts, and high bro socks, I felt a little out of place surrounded by folks wearing shants and floppy UV protective hats. It was an interesting juxtaposition to Jesse’s butcher shop experience, for sure.
Despite the eccentric crowd, the herb walk was actually really informative and interesting. Julie Tumamait-Stenslie, the Chumash elder, greeted us with cookies that she made from acorn flour and chia seeds. Both of these foods were vital parts of the Chumash diet, supplying protein and essential fats. Leached of their tannins, the acorns have a nice nutty taste with a pleasant astringency that just slightly numbs the tongue. The chia seeds, which have to be harvested in the early spring, were a sort of superfood for the natives, with properties that facilitate satiety, digestion, blood sugar regulation, and pooping. This is good information to know.
After the cookies and intros, we hiked through the Ventura River Preserve, where edible plants pop up at every turn. White sage, used for relaxation and longevity; yucca whipplei, used for soap making, paintbrushes, and as torches; prickly pear cactus, used for sunscreen and healing; California sagebrush (aka Old Man’s Beard) used as a cologne/perfume; manzanita, used for smoking, cider-making, and for its beautiful wood; yerba santa, used as a holy ceremonial herb; toyon (aka California holly) which–I bet you didn’t know this about your hometown, Jesse–the city of Hollywood turns out to be named after…the list goes on. And, of most importance to me, all of these plants are not only edible, but also truly tasty.
Lanny, the organizer of the herb walk, explains the past uses of live oak
Seeing the abundance of edible plants that lined the trails got me thinking; people used to walk through the world and could identify more or less everything that was around them. I imagine walking through the foothills would have been a similar experience to walking around a Target all day long. Instead of Advil, Hot Pockets, Chapstick, and deodorant, however, they saw herbs, plants, rocks, and animals, all useful in some way. And, just as when you walk around Target, the compulsion to get more than you need is pretty strong. So the Chumash always made a sacrifice of some sort before harvesting anything. In the extreme case of yucca, this sacrifice entailed giving some of your blood. I guess it was sort of a form of commerce, but with the earth.
I’m sure all of this sounds like I’ve been converted to a pipe-smoking barefoot dirty hippy. But honestly, this is pretty important. These foods and cultural practices sustained the people of this area for so much longer than our modern-day society has even been around. Despite the time-honored value of these traditions, today we disregard and forget about them in favor of the conveniences of Target. We go on vacation in Europe and Asia, learning the histories of cultures that are halfway across the world–and this is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But it’s a little backwards that we don’t even know the history of our own backyard. We can’t identify the foods that grow all around us, which formed the basis of our region’s native cuisine. We don’t know why our streets and towns have the names that they have. And we don’t bat an eye at the fact that all of languages that were born here are now extinct.
By using some of the foods I learned about today in our cooking, we’ll be able to connect with a part our region’s history that is in danger of being forgotten. Learning that acorns are to be harvested after the fall’s first rain and that sage leaves are nasty during most of the year except in spring will definitely pose unique challenges that few cooks ever even consider. But this extra work will pay off in the rich stories and the significance that our cuisine will carry.
Sorry to get all philosophical on you, blog. I’ll post some food porn or something for you soon.
the tall pointy thing is yucca whipplei, or “Our Lord’s Candle”