Cultures / Acorns: the staff of life

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Plants & People

From Heritage Keepers Newsletter Vol. 2, No. 1
©2005 Dorothy Ramon Learning Center

Acorns — The California Indian staff of life
By Michael K. Lerch

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Acorns provided 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.

Acorns 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.

Katherine 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.

Today, 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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