Indigenous family brings walnuts back to California kitchen

This is an oak, giver of water And time, the oak tree will grow is a known fact. Few people know that walnuts can also be turned into a delicious meal. Arrow Sample, founder of Arrow’s Native Foods, is working to change that.

The specimen is known as the Mono/Yokut and is a registered tribal member of the Big Sandy Rancheria Band of Western Mono Indians. Growing up in the foothills of central California between Fresno and the Sierra Nevada mountains, the specimen did not know that the region’s towering oaks provided a staple food for his tribe until adulthood.

When Spanish missionaries and settlers claimed California lands and the U.S. government established boarding schools for indigenous youth, walnuts were no longer part of the local diet. “My ancestors were forced to forget many of their ways and then rely on the government for help when we could no longer support ourselves,” the model explains.

The humble acorn has been supporting communities across California.

His association with Walnut was almost completely lost until his father retired. Several years ago, Brian Sample started coming home regularly with buckets full of walnuts. It was a time of reconnection and rediscovery as he sought to remember how his grandmothers and aunts collected and cooked walnuts in his youth.

Like his father, Sample was going through a turning point in his life. After graduating from college with a business degree and serving two terms in his tribe’s tribal council, he took on the role of shepherd for his first child, then his second child, and eventually his ailing elder uncle. While caring for his family, he would cook with his father on tribal occasions.

At first the duo served only Indian tacos. But sample and fiancée Rochelle Bonillas soon saw an opportunity to expand the list, while restoring their tribe’s oldest traditions. In 2019, Sample and Bonillas founded Arrow’s Native Foods with the goal of making ancestral ingredients more readily available. Their focus will be on one dish of particular historical and cultural significance: acorn harissa.

The oak mash recipe consists of oak flour and water only, but its preparation varies between tribes. The model describes its version as having a pudding-like texture, while in Northern California, the texture may be closer to soup. The flavor also varies from place to place based on the variety of local nuts. “For my tribe, the premium product is from the black oak tree,” Sample says.

Specimen often sell their produce at local cultural events, such as refrigerated oak mash.
Specimen often sell their produce at local cultural events, such as refrigerated oak mash.

Harvesting begins in the fall, when the majority of the nuts have fallen from the trees. The specimen avoids any that have been burrowed by insects, and stocks the good ones with bay leaves and Buckeyes, which act as natural deterrents to insects and rodents.

Sample walnut shells as needed throughout the year. Once the fine interior is ground into a powder, it must be filtered—a process that involves soaking the powder in water for several hours, removing the bitter flavors.

In the past, oak flour was sprinkled on a rock heated in the sun to dry naturally. Last winter, Sample was the first person in generations to do this practice in his community, but he generally uses a dryer for efficiency. After drying, the oak flour is ready to be mixed with water to form a cooked and cooled paste to form a nut puree.

The long and arduous process, from collecting the walnuts to finally serving the dish, required patience and physical stamina, which may have something to do with the scarcity of walnuts at the dinner table in recent history. “Unfortunately, as with many of our traditional foods, the food is getting smaller and smaller,” says Sample. He links the loss of traditional foods – including nuts, which are full of vitamins and minerals – with the emergence of health problems in Native American communities today.

Presentation of traditional oak processing tools.
Presentation of traditional oak processing tools.

When Sample first introduced oak mash at his tribe’s wow in 2019, he was greeted with so much enthusiasm that he was invited to prepare it at tribal gatherings across California. However, the emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic only a few months later, led to the cancellation of all events. Motivated by a desire to continue serving his community, Sample set up a food stand outside his tribal offices. He was surprised how far people would travel to get a plate of oak mush.

Restrictions on gatherings have since been lifted, but the sample’s ability to make oak mush is still limited by several factors, including climate change. “For the past seven years, maybe eight years, the oak harvest has not been fruitful in our general area,” he says, citing drought as one possible cause. One year, walnuts were so rare that Arrow’s Native Foods depleted their supply in just a few months. The sample began researching where black oak trees grow across the state. When autumn came, Sample traveled for six hours in search of acorns, often relying on the advice of helpful strangers and other tribes who knew their whereabouts in abundance.

Then, in the fall of 2020, a creek fire broke out in central California. “It almost completely wiped out the Sierra National Forest and large parts of some of our regular gathering areas,” Sample says. For now, the specimen will have to keep traveling far to collect acorns each season.

The filtered oak nut removes the bitter taste from the mush.
The filtered oak nut removes the bitter taste from the mush.

Sample serves the majority of his acorns at events. Because of the work it takes to process what he can collect, he intends to keep sales of oak-based products limited to what he and his family can sustainably produce for their community. Native American for a menu based on the various culinary traditions of Native Americans. There, oak flour is used in chocolate chip cakes and crepes.

Although Sample loves to see walnuts used in new ways and enjoyed by non-Indigenous people, “My main goal is to serve my people with our traditional foods,” he says. Sample hopes to increase access to such foods in other indigenous communities as well, and now leads educational courses on nut collection, storage, processing and cooking. At the same time, his children learn how to make oak mash, passing on this historical and lively tradition.

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