Native Harvest

Foraging for some original California cuisine -- roots, acorns, and manzanita berries.

Bendean’s food relies on local, seasonally available produce, but what were the flavors of the original local cuisine, the foods harvested by the Ohlone Indians?

No farmers, the Ohlone slashed and burned meadows to ensure fresh crops of flower and grass seeds every year. They hunted everything from elk to gopher, and subsisted on fish and mollusks from the tidal areas surrounding the bay. After thousands of years, their trash piles, or shellmounds, reached as high as thirty feet.

Many of the foodstuffs the Ohlone subsisted on can be found at the UC Berkeley Botanical Garden, one of the East Bay’s most private public parks. The garden’s collection includes one-quarter of California’s indigenous species, says director Paul Licht. Each October, it organizes a “Foods of the Americas” display, showcasing dozens of varieties of corn, beans, squash, and tomatoes. The garden also features a permanent self-guided tour, a bit like a treasure hunt, of the Indian foods in its California collection. The path takes the curious through what the Ohlone might have considered a produce market. On one clear day last week, the warmth from the sun edged by fall breezes, I traveled the trail with programs coordinator Perry Hall and got a rare opportunity to eat what I could forage. (You are not allowed to try this without supervision.)

In October, that meant berries. Perry and I plucked off black, soft Ribes sanguineum, native Californian currants with bitter skins and molasses-sweet juice. Discretion alone kept me from gorging on the clusters of tart wild grapes at the peak of their season that covered one large oak, but we had to pick through dozens of manzanita berries to find a perfectly ripe one. Acridly raw, the tiny fruits crunched like apples (manzanita means “little apple” in Spanish). As the berries dry out, their mealy flesh desiccates into a fine, silky, sweet-tart powder that was used to make cider.

Savory dishes such as soaproot bulbs and cattail roots were off the menu — they have to be baked in underground ovens to make them tender and edible. At this time 250 years ago, native Oaklanders would have been harvesting their staple crop of acorns. They would leach them to remove the acrid taste, then cook them into a porridge by stirring hot stones into watertight baskets full of ground acorns and water. In the years when the acorn harvest failed, the Ohlone would undertake the more labor-intensive process of leaching the poison from California buckeye seeds. Needless to say, a snack was out of the question.

Foods of the Americas culminates in the Dias de los Muertos Celebration on October 23, when children can make tamales and taste frothy, unsweetened hot chocolate (from Scharffen Berger) spiced up with chiles and vanilla — just the way the Aztecs liked it. For more information on the botanical garden’s hours and events, call 510-643-2755 or visit

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