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River Views

Autumn turns toward winter and Thanksgiving is upon us. At this time of year the old timers of this area, the Pomo, gathered acorns, storing them in watertight baskets inside huts made from brush, willow saplings and leaves, lashed together with tule. Pomo closer to the coast sometimes used redwood bark slabs to construct acorn storage huts. Acorns ready for use were ground with stone pestles in mortar baskets that rested above hollowed bowls of stone. After grinding, tannic acid was leached from the acorns by repeatedly running water over the ground meal. Employing fiery hot stones the meal was boiled in baskets into an edible mush. Some of the remaining acorn meal was baked into bread within underground ovens. Generally, these ovens consisted of holes in the ground, two to three feet deep, with the food enclosed by layers of leaf wrappings, surrounded by hot rocks, all over a bed of coals or ashes.

Remember that variations on these food preparation and cooking methods often proved as diverse as the Pomo languages. The Central Pomo word for acorn, spelled somewhat phonetically in English sounds like pdu. In Eastern and Southeastern Pomo it was said as budu. In Southern and Southwestern Pomo it changed to bidu. In Northeastern Pomo it changed altogether to maa. The Northern Pomo used both maa and budu. Words for willow varied even more: kalal, kalal-no, tsubaha, aceklai, ceklai, onop, seko and tcubaha.

Words are a tricky thing in any language or dialect. If you want to set me off, call Mendocino “the village.” We now know the Pomo’s northern coastal neighbors as the Yuki, which meant “the enemy” in a Pomo language. The so-called Yuki proclaimed themselves the Ookotontilka (or Ukoht-ontilka).

A side dish might consist of pine seeds pried from the cones then roasted. Some Pomo preferred the pine seeds raw. Remember Euell Gibbons? In a 1970s add for Grape-Nuts cereal he asked, “Ever eat a pine tree?” He went on to state, “Many parts are edible.” Gibbons died at the relatively early age of 64. An urban myth persisted that his natural food diet killed him prematurely. Gibbons actually died rather suddenly due to a ruptured aortic aneurysm.

The Pomo crushed Manzanita berries, mixed the berries with a little water then ate them or mixed the berry mash with other foods much the way potatoes or cranberries end up gobbled in the same bites with turkey. Pomo around Clear Lake simply drank the Manzanita and water concoction as juice. We do share similar tastes with our Pomo forerunners in that they enjoyed picking and eating fresh huckleberries as well as blackberries, raspberries, wild strawberries and grapes. Inland Pomo also heated toyon berries (some folks call them Christmas berries) on the ash of a fire before eating.

A feast must contain some protein, which leads us to soaproot. No, soaproot is not the main course, but reportedly (the story I know derives from an Anglo-American witness, so who knows?), Pomo women living near the Russian River mashed a heap of fleshy soaproot bulbs then tossed basket after basket of it into the stream. The men agitated the soaprooted water with sticks while others manned willow branch weirs, lashed with redbud bark. Within minutes, dulled fish as well as frogs and sometimes eels flopped into the weirs or were simply plucked out of the river by hand. Perhaps this tale ventures no further from the truth than the Pomo word for fish, which is “ca” in four dialects and “aca” in two others.

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