If Antonio Sanchez has his way, the next salad you eat may come with a side of California historical significance.
Sanchez, board member of the California Native Plant Society, will visit the E.P. Foster Library on Tuesday, Feb. 20, in Ventura to present a lecture dubbed “Inviting California to Dinner: Bringing California native plant foods into your life and the future of native plant agriculture.”
One might be mistaken to consider the avocado or lemon plants native to California, but Sanchez says that they, like a vast majority of plants grown for food not only here but elsewhere in the country, are imported. Real native Californian food is almost impossible to find – due in large part to loss of the culture that made use of them in its daily life.
“It’s not that they’re gone, it’s that the people are gone,” said Sanchez. “You also lose language, song, dance and how the foods were eaten. For the most part, California still has over 6,000 plants native to the state; we just really lost how they were used.”
Sanchez points to the acorn, favorite of the squirrel but otherwise ignored by modern Californians. Native Californians such as the Chumash would have used the acorn in much the same way that corn is used today to make tortillas. Acorns, however, take a long time to cultivate. Sanchez says that his lecture will focus more on foods that can be harvested now.
“Lavender and rosemary have been growing for a thousand years, but where’s California lavender? Salvia is California’s lavender,” said Sanchez. “One of the dishes that I make is a Cleveland sage pesto, which is native to the national forest in San Diego.”
Jan Timbrook, Ph.D, curator of ethnography at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, says that the Chumash living in what is now Ventura and Santa Barbara Counties would have made use of native plants not only for food, but also to craft everyday items.
“Plants had a role in just about everything people do,” said Timbrook, “hunting implements to ceremonial use, from the cradle to the grave, including cradles made for infants; and after death, people were rolled up in tule mats for burial.” Tule is a grass-like perennial that grows along California marshes.
Timbrook notes that because the habitat has changed so much — where once existed Chumash hunting and foraging lands now exist tract homes and paved roads — very rarely do we see native California plants, even in landscaping. But Timbrook pushes back on foraging for these native plants, and instead agrees with Sanchez about planting one’s own home garden to harvest.
“For 250 years California’s native flora, fauna and habitats have been severely impacted by nonnative invasive species, including weedy plants, livestock and overpopulated humans,” said Timbrook. “I just don’t think our own selfish desires give us the right to take from the little that is left when these same wild resources are a matter of life and death for wildlife.”
One exception she’ll make is for acorns. Due to the time it takes to harvest, most people wouldn’t bother, but Timbrook says she has made a stew from the seed of the oak tree for a ceremonial gathering of Chumash in Santa Barbara. She adds, however, “Most people don’t think it’s very good.”
Other indigenous plants that natives made use of include a California chia. Recognizable chia seeds in the store are cultivated from a Mexican varietal. The California varietal has a similar taste and protein profile that make them popular with long distance runners.
Sanchez says that his lecture is tailored toward novices who aren’t familiar with many, if any, native plants, and he’ll begin with a map showing where tomatoes, chilies and the like are native around North America. Then, Sanchez will discuss plants that would do very well in a Ventura County home garden.
By the end, Sanchez hopes that guests will want to take what natives made use of in the past and bring them into the modern kitchen, not simply for taste, but as a way to reconnect with what has been lost over time.
“If you do this once a week, that means you’re actually connecting with a local plant,” says Sanchez. “To me, that’s a beautiful thing because then you start understanding native gardening and the rhythms of California.”
Sanchez will host “Inviting California to Dinner” on Tuesday, Feb. 20, at the E.P. Foster Library, 651 E. Main St., in Ventura, 7:30-9 p.m. For more information, visit www.cnpsci.org.