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Saturday, October 14, 2006

Acorn Day

One Saturday each October is Acorn Day at the State Indian Museum. It's a day is primarily for the kids, but I for one, first visited the museum on Acorn Day many years ago. I had so much fun I ultimately went through training and became a docent at the museum. For Acorn Day we set up tables in the back yard of the museum. The back yard has a sweat lodge, a round house and a traditional Indian house made of cedar planks. We load up the tables with activities; abalone shell, pine nuts, clam shells and dentatum shells for the kids to make necklaces, tule reeds for teaching kids to make Indian style dolls and rubber stamps and beads so kids can make non-traditional bookmarks.

This year I had a table at which I demonstrated a Chumash gambling game. The rules are simple and once the kids get it, they really enjoy it. I explain to them how each opposing player would have a host of friends and family backing them up, egging them on and playing square deer skin drums. Your friends would shout silly derisive stuff at the opposing player, not unlike the lively 'Yo Mama' sort of stuff that might accompany a competitive game of cards. So whenever the kids are throwing down their dice, I shout at them and try to distract them with raspberry noises and such. The kids LOVE it and get all giggly and competitive and by the day's end I'm worn to a frazzle.

Usually along with the Chumash gambling games I do my string figures (cat's cradle). I totally love string figures which help keep my mind - flexible. Unfortunately, right now my mind is as rigid as steel so I decided to skip the string figures for this year. Oh well! My second activity was showing the kids the museum's animal pelts - bobcat, puma, bear, river otter, sea otter (soft!) and mule deer. The kids love that too - they particularly love puting on the buck's head which in the old days would have been used for sneaking up on deer so they could be shot by bow and arrow for supper - to go along with that nice acorn mash you know.


All the above is well and good but the main attaction of Acorn Day is Acorns. There are day long demonstrations on preparing and eating of acorn, California Indian style. Anyone who wants can help to crack acorns and grind them up with stone implements. The dry acorn meal is spread on pine needles over sand in a little sand pit. Then hot water is poured over the ground meal to leach out the bitter tannins. The leached meal is then put with water into a beautiful woven Indian basket. Hot stones are added to the basket, one at a time, and gradually the water heats to a boil in the basket! It's a miracle, I swear it is. The stones are removed and replaced with fresh hot stones until the acorn meal is cooked. Voila! Then it is time to taste the acorn soup.

The process is fun to go through. The final acorn mash is not outrageously flavorful - in fact it is rather bland, but that's ok. Acorns pack plenty of nutrition and you have to imagine the acorn soup or gruel being served up under the pines, along with salmon, skewered on redwood planks and broiled over coals, or heaped alongside some nice freshly roasted venison or rabbit in the manner the Indians might have eaten it hundreds of years ago - or the way local Indians might enjoy it tomorrow night at their Sunday family dinner - yum! Acorns are still a beloved and traditional food for modern California Indian families.

Although nowadays there are pots to cook the acorn meal in, the old fashioned method of heating the acorns with heated rocks is still quite popular. The acorn meal gets all nice and crusty on the rocks and that adds a texture that doesn't happen if you just heat the stuff up in a pot on a stove. Sometimes the old ways remain the best.