HEATHER ARNDT ANDERSON 

is a Portland-based plant ecologist and culinary historian. She is the author of Portland: A Food Biography (2014) and Breakfast: A History (2013), and is a contributing writer to Render (June 2016), Roads & Kingdoms, and Narratively. Her third book, Chillies: A Global History will be published this fall.

Author: Portland: A Food Biography and Breakfast: A History

Twitter: @voodoolily

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images: Peter Barrett

Round-headed and sharp-mouthed ladies, gray-bodied and dark, long-legged gentlemen: wild foods have character. The worldview of Oregon’s Chinook Indians was historically and intrinsically based on the notion that food was symbiotically linked to people, but for Clackamas Indians who once dwelled just outside Portland, all food was anthropomorphized. Springtime food-people were the saviors who kept the warm breath of life flowing through Clackamas lips.

The Clackamas myths of how humankind was bestowed with food come from a sturdy woman named Victoria Howard. She’d heard the tales from her grandmother during her childhood in the mid-nineteenth century. A year or so before she died in 1930, she shared them with a 27-year-old anthropologist named Melville Jacobs, who took the trouble of recording them in effervescent detail. A quarter-century later, Jacobs realized that portions of her stories revealed much more than he’d originally realized, and he presented the script uttered by each of the food-people in his essential paper, “World View of the Clackamas Chinook Indians.”

Through her lively retelling of the myths, we learn how enmeshed the people are with the foods that appear each year in the spring. Mrs. Howard told Jacobs that the springtime food-folk introduced themselves to Salmon, Coyote, and the villagers, each tersely announcing that if it were not for them, the people would all starve to death.

“Dear oh dear. It is during the present season that I appear each year. Were it not for me during this season, the people would be unable to keep their breath. That is, I am of decisive importance to the people right now. It is I who in coming days or weeks make it possible for the people to continue to breathe and  therefore to live. Long ago before I came, the people used to die of starvation. Or, they nearly starved.”

In these stories, the deities Salmon or Coyote, listening intently, ask, “What is the physical appearance of this claimant?” The villagers each chime in, succinctly explaining who each food-person is, using only one or two descriptors: Camas is round-headed. Wild Carrot is long. The striking one with the sharp mouth is Trout, and the tall, blackish one is Eel.1

Then, each food-person briefs Salmon on his or her preparation; the lily Cat Ear says she is eaten raw or baked in the ashes; Wild Carrot (also known as yampah; the only male plant who spoke), professes to be eaten boiled or mashed into cakes. Camas —“the staple type”— would be eaten by everyone, boiled, baked or cooked on hot rocks.

The final step in each episode, as Jacobs explains, is that while Salmon listens to the stories, Coyote, the Creator in the Chinook mythos, decrees each food-person’s fate. “We hear, pontifically enunciated, Yes indeed! Poor, poor person! He or she will be edible. The people will boil her with hot pebbles, bake her in an underground oven, and cook her on hot rocks. Her name shall be Camas. Or, for Trout: They will boil her to make soup for sick persons. Her name is to be Trout.”

After their introductions, the importance of each food-person is acknowledged by the deity with the endowment of a gift: leather armor, furs, dentalia-shell jewelry. In some cases, their physical characteristics are part of their gift, as in the case of western skunk cabbage’s “club” and “shield” — the stubby, studded spadix, subtended by its distinctive yellow spathe.

In the spring, it wasn’t just the plants that came to humankind in benevolent salvation: Salmon, also borne of the Myth Age, was alternately a crucial resource provided by the deity Coyote and a sacred and powerful deity on his own. To say that salmon was important to the Chinook would be a gross oversimplification.

First Salmon and related ceremonies were based on belief in the immortality of game, that animal spirits do not die when they are eaten by humans. This is symbolic because the Chinook creation myth tells that Salmon was the first animal to offer the gift of his own flesh to the humans, in Christlike self-sacrifice. The myths provide insight into the ceremonial practices, because they very frequently dictate the ritual behavior itself. Taboos warn of the consequences of disregarding these rituals.

The coming of vernal salmon runs marked the end of living on dried meats and roots, and in some cases, salvation from imminent starvation. Once the first spring salmon was caught, all fishing was halted until after the First Salmon ceremony had been performed. A salmonberry was placed in its mouth, and the fisherman solemnly carried the fish to a shaman, who cut the fish lengthwise with a mussel shell (if a stone or metal knife were used, the taboos warned, a thunderstorm or other disaster would befall the people). The head and backbone were removed in one piece, and the fish would be roasted in the ground, in a pit lined with chokecherry leaves and covered in grass mats. The roasted fish would be shared among all the people. In completing this ceremony, it was thought, the salmon would continue to run, happy to give of itself to feed the people.

As we sometimes see in modern Japanese pop culture (think Kogepan, or Burnt Bread Man, who is depressed that no one will eat him), anthropomorphized foods are portrayed in myths not just as warm and friendly, but genuinely wanting to be cut, mashed, sliced, and eaten. As Jacobs puts it, food-folk, in their continuum of spiritual personification, are humankind’s allies who “need to relate to people and which are lonesome and unhappy when not related closely to people.” The food-person’s self-worth is hinged on their usefulness to humans, and they are never more useful than in the spring.

***

Today, Oregon’s indigenous people sometimes unearth yampah roots and camas bulbs with a Sharpshooter spade instead of an ash-wood digging stick, but they still venture into ancestral fields. They sometimes fish for sacred salmon from power boats, but they still use dip nets and spears. Though the songs of the springtime food-folk may be quieter now, they are still sung, and First Salmon ceremony is still practiced by the people.

 

1Probably Pacific lamprey, an important food of Clackamas Indians.