Edible Monterey Bay

Edible History


In Search of The Real Paleo Diet

Remembering the Esselen people of Big Sur

Story and photos by John Cox 


A massive stone hides behind a forest of oaks in Big Sur, barely protruding above a golden sea of grasses. But you can’t miss it—there are six cylindrical holes in the top of the ancient mortar, worn down from hundreds of years of use. When ancient Esselen cooks went to this rock and looked toward Pico Blanco—which they believed was the source of all life—what did they talk about? As they patiently winnowed and ground baskets full of wild grasses and seeds, did they speculate about the future or ponder the past?

Perhaps the Esselen people of Big Sur knew something that modern culture has overlooked. People accuse them of lacking sophistication, but they survived for thousands of years along this rugged coast, enduring drought, fire and other adversities without ever coming close to depleting their natural resources.

The Esselen believed that rocks had memory and could convey millennia of history through touch. When you place your hand on the warm surface of the forgotten mortar stone, you can feel its energy, but it does not readily give up the secrets of the past. It is hard to know whether it is rock that withholds these stories, or whether we need to remember how to listen.


DSC_0247Much of what is known today about Esselen culture has been extrapolated from the practices of surrounding tribes under the assumption that their cultures were similar, given the overlap of natural resources. Few records of the Esselen still exist, and some historians claim that theirs was the first California tribe to become culturally extinct. The only real evidence of the Esselen culture is what can be determined from middens, or large piles of shell, bone and other refuse deposited at seasonal campsites. And these hold clues to what the Esselen ate and how they prepared it.

Carbon dating indicates that the Esselen people—one of California’s smallest tribes, never exceeding 1,500 members—inhabited the Big Sur Coast for well over 5,000 years.

They were geographically isolated by the rugged Pacific Coastline to the west and the Ventana Wilderness to the east, although their range in certain seasons went as far as the Salinas Valley. So for much of the year, steep ravines, rivers and constantly eroding cliffs served as natural barriers to outside influence, explaining at least in part why their language diverged from those of surrounding tribes.

The Esselen had a strong spiritual connection to the land and all of its inhabitants, and to call them “hunter-gatherers” in some ways misrepresents the complex relationship that they had with nature. Their connectedness to nature and level of understanding are hard for us to comprehend in the modern world.

While all of their food sources were “wild,” the Esselen strove to optimize the amount of food that the ecosystem in which they lived could provide. A great example of this relationship with the environment is their practice of burning low-lying plants and underbrush in the fall to promote new growth in the spring. By stimulating the growth of healthy fields and berry brambles, the Esselen also attracted game animals that they could harvest.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 3.32.35 PMThe community took advantage of Big Sur’s many microclimates by rotating through different camps during certain times of the year, maximizing available food resources and letting the camps they vacated become replenished before they returned.

Roughly 80% of the Esselen diet was plant based, and the Esselen people used hundreds of species of plants for their leaves, seeds, fruits, bark and roots. Acorns, also a staple, were collected during the fall and then stored for the rest of the year, often with bay laurel and mugwort leaves, to preserve them and discourage insects. But before the acorns could be eaten, they needed to undergo extensive preparation that included shelling, grinding and leaching in fresh water to remove bitter tannins.

The Esselen were also adroit hunters, and remnants from shell mounds have indicated that they consumed a remarkably wide variety of animals, including big game such as elk, deer, bear and pronghorn; small animals such as weasel, bobcat, skunk, badger, raccoon, gray fox, wolf, coyote, wood rat, squirrel, gopher, mole, jackrabbit and cotton- tail rabbit; and birds including duck, goose, quail, flicker, barn owl, hawk, falcon, crow, band-tail pigeon, heron and curlew.

During the summer, Esselen women took large woven baskets into the fields of chest-high grass to harvest seeds. Wearing abalone pendants to ward off rattlesnakes, they banged the tops of the grasses, sending thousands of seeds into their collection baskets. These seeds then were processed into pinole, a mixture of grain, seed and acorns that ranged from thick, malleable dough to a porridge-like consistency.

DSC_1092When the mountains became too hot and dry, the Esselen foraged along the coast for seaweed, abalone, mussels and other sea creatures. They were known to eat sea otters, sea lions and even whales that venured too close to shore. Some accounts indicate that they found beds of barnacles at low tide and covered them with hot coals. When the tide came back in, it extinguished the coals and washed the barnacles clean. The barnacles could then be picked from the rocks and eaten or dried for future use.

Lacking clay vessels or metal pans, the Esselen made tightly woven baskets for cooking their stews of grain, acorn meal and seafood. But since baskets cannot be put on a fire to cook, the Esselen instead heated stones in a fire and dropped them directly into to their stews to heat them from within.

Eventually, the Spanish built missions on three sides of the Esselen’s home range—San Carlos in Carmel, Nuestra Señora in Soledad and San Antonio de Padua in Jolon—and their presence was devastating. After first baptizing the Esselen in 1775, the Spanish are said to have coerced the Esselen into moving to the missions, where they were subject to forced labor, malnutrition, disease and demoralization.

Anthropologists have long thought that the Esselen tribe was driven to cultural extinction as early as 1840. But evidence also shows that some tribe members escaped the missions and produced descendants who still live in Big Sur.

In 2010, some of the living Esselen submitted a formal request to gain tribal recognition from the federal government. But the earliest residents of Big Sur are all but forgotten, their history a blur of legend and mythology, relegated to campfire banter and academic pontification.

One of the few ways their memory can be brought to life is through their cooking.


DSC_0207If we could eat a meal from 2,000 years ago, how would it taste?

I decided that the only way to answer this question was to recreate a few of the dishes mentioned in historic accounts of the native Californian diet. It quickly became apparent that this would entail much more than an afternoon trip to the supermarket. Everything from the

ingredients to the cooking devices would need to be foraged. Initially, I wanted to replicate a common technique that called for filling a tightly woven basket with grain, water and meat or seafood, and then boiling it using rocks heated in a fire. Unfortunately, despite my basket weaving merit badge, I am nowhere near skilled enough to make a basket capable of holding liquid. In fact, I was not able to even find a basket that could hold water. I did locate a few historic, early California baskets online—but they far exceeded my budget for this article, and the risk of burning a hole through one with a white-hot rock seemed irresponsible.

When you read about pinole, the primitive mix of ground grain and seed that was widely eaten by early California natives, it is hard to imagine that it would be flavorful. It defies every rule of modern cooking. Raw grains, seeds and acorns are ground in a mortar and formed into a ball or diluted into a drink or stew. I decided this was within my culinary repertoire and set off to replicate the historic account that I had read.

To start, I needed grass seeds. Wading out into the coastal prairie in late June, I was soon up to my waist in tall grasses. From above, the field appeared to be a homogenous blend of waving golden stalks, but as I pushed my way through, I found diverse shapes and colors. This field alone contained dozens of varieties: dried yellow shells of California oatgrass, reddish tufts of fescue, thick spears of wild rye and new purple tips of California brome. Each type was at a different stage of maturation, some holding tightly on to their seeds while others had already released them into the wind.

I bent small grass clusters into a bag and slapped them against the side to release their seeds. Each kind yielded a different seed size and abundance. After about 10 minutes, I had filled the bottom of the bag with an eclectic mix of seeds and loose chaff. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the bag teemed with tiny insects—a red spider the size of a quinoa grain crawled out from under a head of oatgrass, a large brown tick made its way up the side and a handful of tiny aphids and weevils crawled through the maze of seeds. I tied the bag to a tree and let it air out for a couple of hours. When I returned, all of the insects had vacated.

The next step was to winnow the seeds. This simple process involves gently rubbing seeds between your hands then letting them fall back into a bowl below. It is best to do this outside in a persistent breeze, as it blows away the chaff as the seeds fall into the bowl. After five minutes of sifting through the winnowed seeds, most of the chaff was gone and only clean seeds remained.

I put the seeds in a large mortar along with a few spoonfuls of fresh acorn flour and a splash of water and pulverized them into a smooth, mud-like paste. The mixture was mild in flavor with a coarse, but palatable, texture and a slightly bitter finish. The acorn flour provided a nutty flavor and creaminess, while the grass seeds added herbaceous and floral qualities along with a texture reminiscent of bran. This pinole would certainly do the job in a survival situation, but I wondered how it might be improved using indigenous products and techniques.

To start, I seasoned it with sea salt, which can be harvested easily along the coast. The salt brought out some of the more subtle flavors, making the mash tastier. Next, I wrapped the ball of seed mash inside a green sycamore leaf and fastened it with a bay laurel twig. This is a technique that several sources referenced for making acorn bread, though the leaf varieties differed. I placed the bundle directly onto a bed of live coals and let it roast for half an hour, flipping it once during the process.

On removing the charred leaf package, I was pleased to find the pinole ball still intact and not burned. Whereas the exterior remained smooth, the texture was much firmer and infused with a pleasant smokiness. Overall, the baking had improved the texture and flavor dramatically. Being completely unleavened, the ball was far denser than any modern bread, but I found it to be enjoyable. I can only speculate that different Esselen cooks had their own personal variations of this diet staple, but any number of foods could have been added to this base recipe. Examples might be wood mint, bay laurel leaves or seeds, black sage, wild berries or even animal fat. Once baked, these packages could be easily stored and transported inside their protective leaves.

Mussels were another favorite food of the Esselen people. Just like today, paralytic shellfish poisoning was a concern for the early coastal residents, and they likely knew to avoid eating mussels in the summer months when the toxic algae blooms were common. (For safety reasons, I do not recommend harvesting wild mussels at any time of year and decided to use farm-raised black mussels for my test.) My favorite part was actually the texture of the crispy mussel meat, which was unlike any mussel I have ever experienced.

 Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 3.32.23 PMBut at safer times of year, one way that the Esselen people prepared mussels was to pry them off the rocks and then place them point side down in the sand. They would cover the mussels with seaweed first, then hot coals. When I read about this, I envisioned that the final product would be covered in sand and ashes, but decided to try it anyhow.

A variety of sand along the Big Sur coast ranges from fine to coarse. For this test I used a rougher variety. After pulling the beards off of the farmed mussels, I stuck them point downward in the sand so that they were almost half buried. I covered them with a mix of kelp, Turkish towel seaweed and dulse, and then topped everything with a layer of hot coals.

As the seaweed began to steam and sizzle, I saw some mussels pop open within minutes of the hot coals being added. Because the heat was uneven, a few mussels around the perimeter stayed closed, but after redistributing the coals, most of the mussels opened within 15 minutes.

The intense heat from the coals made the shells of the mussels brittle. They transformed from jet black to deep red and opalescent, some even partially shattered. I drew a mussel from the smoldering embers

with a stick and pulled it apart. Surprisingly, juice remained trapped in- side the shell. The mussel meat was tender and creamy but had an unexpected crispy exterior from searing against the hot shell. Overall, the depth of flavor was superior to that of steamed mussels; the charred shells imparted a rich shellfish aroma, and the smoky salinity from the seaweed was noticeable. My favorite part was actually the texture of the crispy mussel meat, which was unlike any mussel I have ever experienced.

Despite my initial reservations about this cooking method, sand did not get into the mussels, and I would not change anything.That said, I think this technique would work equally well inside a grill, by layering the charcoal bed with seaweed, then mussels and, finally, kelp. But if you replicate this method on the beach, keep an eye out for bits of shell and sand that may adhere to the mussels.

The sense of place that you gain from eating food like this is special. There is no purer culinary experience. These simple preparations, using the most elemental ingredients and tools, are a stark reminder of how overprocessed our foods have become. These distinct flavors, while subtle, are unmasked thanks to the fact that they are free from the re- fined sugars and sodium that are added to so many of our foods.

While I have seen my share of people practicing the “paleo” diet, I have yet to get a request for ground acorns or grass seeds. I encourage anyone interested in truly reconnecting with their culinary ancestry to add mussels to their next beach bonfire or spend an afternoon harvesting acorns or grass seeds and creating their very own primal backyard recipe.

John Cox is the executive chef at Post Ranch Inn’s Sierra Mar restaurant in Big Sur. He is a regular contributor to Edible Monterey Bay and is an avid proponent of local food and culture. More of his work can be found at www.postranchkitchen.blogspot.com.