Kat Anderson. USDA NRCS NPDC.
See USDA website for Usage Guidelines.
Keepers Newsletter Vol. 2, No. 1
Dorothy Ramon Learning Center
— The California Indian staff of life
By Michael K. Lerch
perhaps the single most important food item in Native Southern California,
as well as throughout the state. The practice of acorn eating, or balanophagy
as it is called in a classic 1936 article on the topic, allowed for the
development of large, settled populations with complex social systems
in and around California’s foothills and mountains. Some scholars
have suggested that the only reason California Indians did not adopt agriculture
on a large scale was because acorns provided such a reliable and nutritious
staple food that there was no need for agriculture. Indeed, the only parts
of California where agriculture was known, the eastern deserts and Colorado
River area, are outside the range of oaks.
Acorns are produced by oak trees, botanically known as the genus Quercus.
More than two dozen Quercus species and hybrids grow in the state,
and several of these are found in Southern California. Oak groves can
produce acorn yields that are comparable to yields from cultivated grains.
Individual trees of the most favored species can provide as much as 200–300
pounds of acorns per tree, and mature groves can produce more than 6,000
pounds per acre. A single person can collect from 50 to 300 pounds of
acorns per hour. With an entire group of men, women, and children working
together, enough acorns can be collected and stored in large, basket-like
granaries to provide food for a village through an entire winter season.
Many studies have shown that acorns, in addition to being plentiful, are
highly nutritious. The species most often used for food contain 9 percent
water, from 4 to 6 percent protein, from 8 to 18 percent fat, and from
55 to 69 percent carbohydrates. In these days of dietary awareness, we
should also note that acorns are a good source of dietary fiber, with
about 12 percent. Altogether, acorns compare favorably with grains such
as corn, wheat, and barley in nutritive value, while their higher fat
content makes them better than most grains in caloric value.
Of the eight or more species of oak that grow in Serrano territory and
surrounding areas, all were named and used to some degree. At least one
other species, Q. lobata, which does not grow in Serrano territory,
also was known, indicating that people were well aware of species differences
even in distant places. The oak species that produced the best tasting
and most desired acorns was the black oak, Q. kelloggii, known
to the Serrano as kwiich. Other species that were used
included the coast live oak, Q. agrifolia, or wihuuch,
and the canyon live oak, Q. chrysolepis, called wi'aht.
Another species called towi'aht was described to J. P.
Harrington by Santos Manuel as “an oak species resembling wi'aht
but smaller.” With the exception of this single instance where the
name for one species is a modification of the name for another, the Serrano
do not seem to have used any generic name for oak trees, nor did they
have a general term for acorns.
Acorns were collected in the fall, just before the first rains. Entire
Serrano village groups moved to collecting areas in Running Springs, Rock
Camp, Seven Oaks along the upper Santa Ana River, and Oak Glen. Men and
boys with long, straight poles climbed the trees to knock the acorns down,
while women collected them in large baskets and — in historical
times — gunny sacks. During the collecting season, people had to
be constantly on guard for bears, which also frequented the oak groves
when acorns were ripe.
were pounded up in a pahats, or mortar. In 1924, Ruth
Benedict reported that the Serrano of Mission Creek used both bedrock
mortars and wooden ones made of hollowed tree trunks, probably cottonwoods
(Populus fremontii). The mortar was cleaned using a brush called
a wurqihwa't, made of the fibers of Chlorogalum pomeridianum.
Archaeological evidence in the form of mortars and pestles used to process
acorns into meal indicates that acorns have been used in California for
5,000 years or more.
Howard recalled that the acorns were dried, cracked and shelled, and then
dried again. The skin surrounding the acorn meat inside the shell was
also removed because it would impart a bitter taste to the resulting meal.
After the acorns had been ground in a mortar, they were leached to remove
the tannic acid they contain. This was accomplished by placing the ground
acorn meal in a nest-like bowl made of a plant known as kiaht,
lined with cloth. The resulting sieve was placed directly on the ground
and water was poured through. Although some published accounts note that
hot water was used in the leaching process, Katherine did not feel that
it made a difference.
Once the bitterness had been leached out of the acorn meal, it was cooked.
According to Katherine, it was heated to a boil with very little water,
and then let cool to the consistency of a thick pudding. While the acorns
dish was heating, it had to be stirred constantly. Dorothy Ramon remembered
that the stirring had be in a counterclockwise direction.
The Serrano name for the cooked acorns was wiich. This
same name was used in historic times to apply to similar preparations
such as oatmeal or any mush-like dish made of grains. Acorns from different
species of oak made wiich that varied in color, taste, and consistency.
Each type of wiich could be named according to the species of acorn from
which it was made by adding a prefix to -wiich. For example,
the meal made from black-oak acorns (kwiich) was known
as kwiwiich; the dish made from paitsh
acorns was called pawiich.
The term wiich is the root for another word, witc'at,
which was the custom of ceremonial food-sharing described in the article
about pinyons in the Fall 2004 issue of Heritage Keepers. Another
ceremonial use for acorns recalled by Katherine Howard was that acorns
were strung into necklaces at feast times.
acorns are still a highly esteemed food among Southern California Indians.
In another article in this issue (See Acorns: wiwish), June Siva shares
details of how they are prepared by Corinne Siva.
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