There is much to be learned about eating seasonally from the Kumeyaay and other nomadic Native Americans
“Rattlesnake!” Martha Rodriguez laughs as she talks about preparing and eating rattlesnake, a traditional food of the Kumeyaay and one she says that her culinary students are not always prepared to eat. “I grew up eating rattlesnake, especially the bones. My mother would dry the bones, grind up the bones, and put it in a saltshaker. Anytime I ate salad I used the saltshaker and sprinkled rattlesnake bone on the salad.”
Rodriguez is the founder and CEO of Tipey Joa Native Warriors, a grassroots organization promoting social justice, health, and education. She also teaches basketry, pottery, and food courses at Kumeyaay Community College. Through her and others’ efforts, much of the foods of the Kumeyaay are still cooked and enjoyed today.
“A lot of the foods we had were from the mountains, it could be deer, rabbit, rattlesnake, or birds,” says Rodriguez. Like her mother, she cooks the game in a soup with native onions and small potatoes. An essential of the local Native Americans’ diets were acorns. Rodriguez explains that they were ground and made into a liquidy mash.
Some of Rodriguez’s favorite dishes are made from mountain mushrooms or from the flowers of the yucca plant cooked with onions. “For the yucca flowers you need to boil them three or four times until the water is clear, then they’re good,” she says.
Nathan Lou, the co-founder and executive director of Mongol Tribe, a community-centered nonprofit, developed an interest in native foods because of the nomadic traditions of his Asian heritage. He says that the Kumeyaay were highly nomadic. In cooler months they lived in the desert, eating desert agave, chaparral yucca, and cactus fruits. Summertime would be spent along the coast, fishing and collecting intertidal mussels and shellfish.
Though Rodriquez and others hold onto traditional Kumeyaay cuisine, many of those foods have been lost. In his book Kumeyaay Ethnobotany: Shared Heritage of the Californias author Michael Wilkin-Robertson explains that this loss of native food traditions started soon after the arrival of the Spanish. They forbade the Kumeyaay to perform prescribed burning, which was essential to the Native Americans’ interaction with their environment and food supply. And some native grasses that were part of Native Americans’ diets went extinct because of the introduction of livestock and non-native grasses from Europe.
Not only have the lives of Native Americans changed, but the land on which they relied has changed as well. Lou says that despite their seasonal movement, local Indians centered much of their lives around the oak woodlands. “The oak forests developed with the tribes 10,000 years ago,” he says. “The woods actually looked different. They were different, with more space between the oaks. To me, the Kumeyaay are synonymous with oak forest health and management.”
Though much has been lost, Lou believes that we can still learn from the Kumeyaay. “When people talk about seasonal eating that’s really what it means, to live in harmony with the land based on what it provides throughout the year,” he says. “There is no separation between humans and nature.”
Hero Image: Kumeyaay pictographs color rocks in a remote part of Anza Borrego Desert State Park. Vince Barnes/iStock.