Article - Office of College Advancement

Students savor taste of Ohlone

College seminar explores wild edible plants still growing in Tri-City area

By Todd R. Brown, Staff writer.

Sunday, September 23, 2007—Reprinted from Inside Bay Area.

Fremont—Before the coming of Europeans, perhaps 10,000 Ohlone Indians lived off the land around the Bay.

Among other things, they ground acorns into meal, mixed in wild huckleberries and water, and let it dry into a cake.

Not like birthday cake, though. This concoction was dry and fibrous and looked not unlike dark tree bark.

Gessica Johnston, an Ohlone College biology professor, made a batch of the traditional food of the Tri-City area's indigenous residents for a seminar on wild edible plants last week at the college.

"It was flaky and earthy and dry," said Helen Yu, 23, of Fremont, an Ohlone sociology student who sampled the cake. "Kind of nutty, too."

It certainly wasn't bursting with flavor, although it did seem slightly sour. That's not surprising because the original East Bay inhabitants didn't use much seasoning in their cooking, Johnston said.

"The Ohlones did not spice their foods, except maybe with salt," she said. "They had a lot of salt."

Besides the salt, harvested from the Bay shore, the Ohlones gathered all sorts of plants for sustenance, as several dozen interested students learned at the talk.

"If you expect to go out into the woods and find enough to eat," Johnston said, "you're going to have to work very hard to get it."

As an example, the Walnut Creek resident held up a smallbag of wild oats she gathered by hand, the sort of thing she became familiar with as the former wife of a northern Sioux Indian and a docent at Tilden Regional Park.

For one Tilden group, she made a traditional bowl of oatmeal.

"It took me three or four days to process enough oats to make one bowl of oatmeal," she said of all the gathering, milling and refining. "And nobody wanted to eat it, because it was gritty."

Not everything the Ohlones ate was so challenging to a contemporary palate.

Big-leaf maple trees produced sap after a cold winter on Mount Diablo just like today's maple trees in Vermont.

Wild onions grew between patches of bunch grass on the very hill where Ohlone College now stands, Johnston said.

And the berries found on local juniper bushes are the same kind that provide the primary flavor of gin.

In an aside, Johnston said that as a biology undergrad at Cornell, she would liberate lab alcohol, dilute it, then add crushed juniper berries to make a frugal evening cocktail.

The Ohlones ate wild cherries and other berries, too, plus grapes that grew much smaller than today's juicy bunches. There also was miner's lettuce, which Johnston said tasted just like green lettuce.

For that, the Ohlones did indulge a flavor kick by laying the lettuce on an anthill for a day to collect vinegary formic acid secreted by the ants.

"They had their built-in salad dressing this way," she said.

California poppies had a medicinal use, being related to Afghan poppies, a source of opium. The Golden State variety is mellower, Johnston said, but was still used to make poppy seed tea to lull the little ones to sleep or for pain relief.

Francisco Ochoa, 20, of Fremont earned some chemistry extra credit from the talk but said he planned to come anyway, out of curiosity.

"I thought it was crazy how these people lived," he said. "They were so smart. Who would have known that all this food was here? I could have looked at the trees here and not seen anything."

Michelle Zimmerman, 19, of Fremont also got extra credit for her biology and biochemistry studies but said she got more than brownie points from the brown bag seminar.

"I thought it was really interesting," she said. "The things they ate are the same things you can walk around and see in Fremont."

On the other hand, after trying the acorn meal cake, she said: "I like box cake mixes. I'm not sure I'd make ground acorn meal. Then again, I'm not that patient."

To learn more about Ohlone eats, check out the books "Wild Edible Plants of Western North America" by Donald Kirk and "Tending the Wild" by Kat Anderson.

Staff writer Todd R. Brown covers Newark, Ohlone College and ethnic community issues. Reach him at 510-353-7004 or todd.brown@bayareanewsgroup.com.

[ View Articles Index. ]