Tastes of California

Preparing acorn porridge with basalt rocks.
Preparing acorn porridge with basalt rocks.

Native Foods Workshop

Last week I had the pleasure of attending a native foods workshop hosted by the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. On a gray and drizzly morning we learned about the acorn, Brome seed, soap root, and manzanita berry. As a State Park Ranger regaled us with culinary stories and demonstrations on how to use traditional Native American baskets and basalt rocks in preparing the different plants, a horticulturist from the UCSC Arboretum supplied details about the plants and their ecology.

I learned that the Native Americans had managed the California landscape for the last 1000 years. Using low intensity, slow moving fires during the rainy season in the fall and winter, the Native Americans such as the local Amah Mutsun kept the grassland and oak woodland ecosystems viable. Burning the land helped to remove excess leaf litter and duff where insects and diseases can spread. The presence of fire and smoke also promotes seed rejuvenation and germination, especially with grasses.

However, today about 96 percent of the California landscape is non native grasses and other plants brought from Europe and elsewhere. Very few places exist where native California grasses grow. One of the last places is Russian Ridge Preserve, located off Skyline Boulevard in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Tastes of California

Now to the edible native California foods…


About: over 50 species in California, which can grow either as a tree, bush, or ground cover. Flowers winter through spring with berries in late summer. Some have a burl, which needs fire to activate the energy within to sprout into a new plant.

Preparation: grind dried berries to powder in a mortar and pestle; soak in cold water; repour the same water over; repeat to taste (using the same water), until water has cider consistency about 1 hour.

Soap root plants
Soap Root

Soap Root

About: the soap root has many uses, from culinary, to soap, to poison. The Native Americans would open the root bulb and place it in a river, the soap of the root would stun fish by reducing the flow of oxygen into their gills, making them easy to catch. Both the bulb and leaves of the plant are edible, and they’re found in oak woodlands, chaparral, and grasslands.


  • First make an earth oven: dig a hole in ground; line with basalt rocks; build fire on top and let it burn to ash; then add the bulbs which can be wrapped in sword fern leaves; top with more basalt rocks; and repeat layers. Top with dirt and cook for about 14 hours.
  • Tastes like carrot and yam, eat it like an artichoke.
California Brome Seeds
California Brome Seeds

Brome (Bromus carinatus)

About: a native California grass that was harvested by the Native Americans. At the time of the Spanish missions, records indicate the Native Americans began to favor Brome seeds over acorns.

Preparation: after harvesting the seeds, add them to a basket and toast with hot basalt rocks. Make sure to move the rocks vigorously throughout the basket to toast the seeds and not the basket.

acorn porridge
Acorn porridge


About: acorn porridge was probably prepared and eaten with wildflower seeds and animal fat. Black oaks are considered to have the best tasting acorns. The first crop to drop from the trees is diseased acorns, the second crop is good. After the acorns are collected they must dry in the sun, and let the acorns sit out for one year before use.

Preparation: crack the hard shell and remove; take off the skin; add starter acorn flour to a mortar; add some acorns; pound and grind interspersed with sifting. The acorns need to be ground into really fine flour. Afterwards, pour water over to leach (about ½-1 hour).

Books to check out

Tending the Wild – Kat Anderson

California Indians in their Environment – Dr. Kent Lightfoot

Living Wild – Alicia Funk

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