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Impearls: HIC 4.07: Acorns

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Earthdate 2005-11-12

Acorns   by A. L. Kroeber

Acorns were gathered, dried, stored, cracked, pulverized, sifted, leached, and usually boiled with hot stones in a basket.  This gruel, usually known as acorn soup or acorn mush, though it is thicker than the one and more fluid than the other — the Maidu mix it with ten or twelve times the quantity of water — was the chief daily food of more than three-fourths of native California.  It is about as tasteless as wheat flour cooked in water would be, nearly as nourishing, but richer in starch, and, when prepared from certain species, perceptibly oily.

In boiling, the hot stones must be stirred to insure cooking the contents equally and to prevent holes being burned through the containing basket.  As in the greater part of California, a little paddle is used for this purpose by the Yurok.  But they and their neighbors almost invariably carve the handle of this “mush paddle” into geometric ornaments, while among the average Californian tribe the instrument is wholly utilitarian and often short, rough, and unsymmetrical.  The Yurok paddle is of madroña, manzanita, oak, or other hard wood, and sometimes nearly 4 feet long and quite unwieldy for a seated woman.  (Pl. 17.)

The mealing was done on a hard, smooth slab of rock with a stone pestle usually a foot long.  Exceptional specimens reach nearly 2 feet but were too highly treasured to be put into daily service.  The better pestles have a raised ring or flange about a third of the way from the butt.  (Pl. 16.)  This is purely ornamental and makes a distinctive local type, which is evidently well established, since it occurs in ancient examples from the region.  Even the commonest work-a-day pestles are dressed rather symmetrically, whereas most of the Californians often contented themselves with a convenient cobble.  The acorn fragments and meal were kept from scattering by a flaring hopper of basketry; a soap-root fiber brush swept together what escaped this container.  The mortar was not used by the historic Yurok, although specimens are occasionally washed out or mined in their habitat.  They are so ignorant of the purpose of the utensil that they conjecture it to have been a cook pot or the like.  A similar change of custom as regards the acorn mortar has taken place between prehistoric and recent times in a considerable part of California and constitutes one of the rare instances of a directly traceable cultural change.

The pestle is held near its upper end.  As it is raised the wrist is turned until the stone is half horizontal; on the stroke it is twisted back and falls perpendicular.  The wrist motion perhaps saves raising the pestle to its full height.  The worker lays her legs over the rim of the hopper to hold it down and bring herself close to her labor.  (Pl. 60.)

Among acorns, the preference of the Hupa, and presumably of the Yurok, is for those of the tanbark oak, Quercus densiflora, but the species garryana, californica, and chrysolepsis are used if needed.  Acorns were stored, most frequently in the shell, in large baskets set around the sides of the house.  Some of these baskets are loose or open work; others have their stitches closely set and are patterned.  They are usually covered with an inverted burden basket.  Occasionally they are made larger than the door, but are easily moved out if it becomes necessary through the lifting of some planks off the roof.

Acorns were leached of their tannin in three ways.  The commonest method was to pour hot water over the meal as it lay spread out in a basin of clean sand.  (Pl. 14.)  This is the usual Californian method.  Cold water apparently also removes the bitterness if given time enough.  Thus, acorns buried for a year in swampy mud come out purplish and are ready to be roasted on coals.  Again, they were sometimes shelled, set in a basket until moldy, and then dug into clean sand in the river.  After some time they turned black, and were then in condition for roasting.



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