First, a confession: I have many times pretended to enjoy acorn soup. The first time may have been at the table of Bessie Tripp, the legendary Karuk woman who lived to be over 100. She was only in her 90s then. I said the soup was perfect, then I asked for seconds of the fried eels.
Sometimes the acorn soup was too bitter, other times nearly tasteless, but more than anything it seemed foreign, although, on reflection, it's me, a white person, who's the foreigner in Klamath River country.
More recently I feigned enthusiasm at the supper after Pikiawish ceremonies just below Orleans. I watched to see if any of the Natives around me really liked it, and two young men from Hoopa, their plates still full of delicious salmon, got up to see if there were seconds of acorn soup.
Since then four cooks prepared a special dinner at the town's Mid-Klamath Watershed Council (MKWC, which we all call Mick-Wick) and introduced me to acorn soup so tasty that I became a convert. They served the kinds of food the residents of Orleans traditionally ate: salmon roasted on stakes, bay laurel nuts (called peppernuts) toasted black as coffee beans, venison stew, seaweed and acorn soup.
MKWC has long held monthly fundraising suppers with local chefs. The cuisine is typically varied, sometimes exotic and usually first-rate. But this dinner was going to be without precedent. Four chefs -- Clarence and Deborah Hostler, Frank Lake and Luna Latimer along with many helpers -- prepared what Clarence called "good food" from his Hoopa childhood.
The dinner was in a community hall called Panámniik, the town of Orleans' original name. A smoky, unfamiliar but inviting aroma suffused the building as I entered. In the undersized kitchen I found Charlie Thom, a well-known Karuk elder, stirring a big cast-iron pot of peppernuts. Someone teased him not to burn them and the cooks laughed. Later Laverne Glaze, another Karuk elder and organizer among native basketweavers, told me they were best when toasted very dark. When I tasted them, I had to agree.
Outside, between the building and the Klamath River, Clarence Hostler tended a fire to heat rocks and Frank Lake carved redwood stakes to roast salmon. The rocks, Frank said, were basalt found on the banks of the Klamath and Trinity rivers tumbled to a smooth black from thousands of years of river cycles. These are cooking rocks. Ordinary rocks might split or even explode.
When the rocks glowed a faint pink, Clarence moved them into a large kettle of tanoak acorn meal, which his wife Deborah had carefully leached with spring water. The kettle bubbled and sputtered volcanically and Deborah stirred with a hand-carved paddle. More rocks sent great clouds of steam to fill the air.
Luna started a second kettle. Laverne Glaze explained that one pot was from tanoak trees and the second from black oak. Sometimes, at basket weaver gatherings, there would be acorn cook-offs and it was all delicious, she said. In a quieter voice she divulged that she always rooted for tanoak.
Frank raked the bed of hot coals and began to carefully arrange the salmon fillets, fall Chinook, by sticking the fat end of the spears into the sand around the heat. Several Indian families from Hoopa, a half hour away, circled the cooks and Charlie Thom, who years ago promoted restoration of the Karuk ceremonies, and started beating a square-shaped drum and singing. The crowd yelled in encouragement, "Mr. Charley."
When the food was ready, more than 150 people, native and non-native alike, were seated at long tables. Clarence Hostler thanked many people who had helped with the food and delivered a message. "We've enjoyed this food for thousands of years but it's hard to get nowadays. There are locked gates, no trespass signs, marijuana gardens where we could once go freely. We are confronted when we try to gather this kind of food. ‘What are you doing here?' they demand. My question is ‘What are you doing here?'"
He explained that local natives have been trying to teach the Forest Service, which controls much of the land in the Orleans area, the importance of access to traditional gathering sites. His ancestors suffered wave after murderous wave of Manifest Destiny, the slogan of American expansionism 150 years ago. "I hope this wave," and he gestured to the young white people in the room, "will work with us."
He announced that elders would be served first. There was food aplenty. Native diners showed their neighbors how to crack the thin shells of the peppernuts and suggested they dip the seaweed and the salmon into the acorn soup. Everybody agreed that each dish was delicious -- and it was not just out of politeness.
As the dining wound down, Clarence, Frank, Charlie, artist-poet Brian Tripp and several others put on regalia. Each said a few words and sang a song in the fashion of native ceremonies. The crowd was transfixed and even the smallest children quieted and came to watch.
Me, I grabbed my bowl and got seconds of acorn soup.
Laverne Glaze's recipe for Acorn Soup:
Pick up the fallen acorns and remove the caps. If the tops are white, they're good; discard ones with brown tops.
Place in a basket or a mesh sack for a month or two to let them dry.
When dry, crack the shells with a hammer or a rock. Rub off the outer skin (which may require soaking).
Grind the acorns as fine as flour with a mortar or a crank mill --- no chunks.
Place the flour in a fine floursacking cloth lining a colander and pour very hot un-chlorinated water through it.
Follow with cool untreated water until the flour is no longer bitter.
Cook on a stove with spring water and keep stirring. The soup thickens and can be made watery or thick according to taste.
Season with salty fish; Laverne's mother liked salt in her soup.