Celebrating California’s Native Foods

Jan Timbrook's Talk to Coincide with Museum of Natural History Exhibits

Paul Wellman

Foodies fixated on what’s in season and whether it was grown next door should be humbled to recall that the Chumash and other California native peoples were the original locavores, experts by necessity of eating what they could hunt, fish, gather, and propagate within a few miles of their homes. Right now, the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is honoring that tradition with the ongoing exhibit Seaweed, Salmon, and Manzanita Cider: A California Indian Feast, an engaging look at what native Californians ate during ceremonial gatherings.

To coincide with that exhibit, the museum’s curator of ethnography, Jan Timbrook, will give a lecture on November 12 about what the Chumash and other Californian people ate, both in everyday settings and during celebratory times. But before diving into such specifics, Timbrook hopes to set the talk’s tone with two very critical points. “I want to emphasize the fact that a lot of these foods are being used today, if not in everyday life, then in certain cultural occasions,” she said. “We have this tendency to talk about Indian people in the past tense, but they are very much a part of the community today.”

And secondly, Timbrook will relate how food plays an integral role in the social lives of humans, then and now. “I want to talk about what food means beyond just sustenance of the body,” she said. “It’s a very important glue that holds cultures together.” Here’s what else you can expect from the talk.

What and when did the Chumash eat?

“Acorn soup is the basic staple food that people would eat pretty much at every meal,” said Timbrook, whose research suggests that the Chumash people had a light breakfast, probably last night’s acorn soup. “It would have solidified overnight,” she said, “so they would cut it into pieces and eat it like polenta.” The main meal would be around midday, followed by something small again at night.

Did they use flavoring or spices?

“As was typically the case for native dishes throughout California, they didn’t mix things together so much,” said Timbrook. “We make stews with all kinds of herbs and spices, but native people tended to eat things separately.” They would, however, eat acorn soup between bites of other, more strongly flavored foods, such as the roasted meats, smoked fish, toasted seeds (like chia and red maids), bulbs (like blue dicks and lilies), fresh greens, and fruits, like prickly pear or rose hips, that they had on hand. “They would eat a little bit of this, and a pinch of that, depending on what was in season and what they had stored away,” said Timbrook, and some some dishes paired quite well. “Acorn soup and smoked fish or roasted deer meat go very well together,” she said. “They’re very complementary flavors, like roasted pork and poi in Hawaiian cuisine.”

Did the Chumsh eat differently during feasts?

Timbrook believes that they probably just ate more of everything. “If a town chief was hosting a big gathering with people coming from all over, his wives and assistants would be cooking for days, preparing huge baskets of acorn soup,” she explained. The meat would have included both venison and smaller game as well as any of the 120 species of fish they ate from the Santa Barbara Channel, where big tuna used to run frequently. “Everything from swordfish down to anchovies,” said Timbrook, “and, of course, abalone, lobsters, clams, and mussels.”

So should we be eating more native plants?

“I have to confess that I’m a little ambivalent about promoting the use of wild plants,” said Timbrook, explaining that the introduction of grazing animals and weeds that outcompete native flora have done quite a bit of damage. “Native animals need those wild foods a lot more than we do,” she said. “It’s important to appreciate how native people made their living, but I’m leery of encouraging our large population to go out and start harvesting wild foods when they don’t need to.”


Jan Timbrook’s lecture is at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History on November 12, 7-9 p.m. Call 805-682-4711 or see sbnature.org.


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