Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tales of Mexican California

It’s interesting how some things from your childhood can be viewed with entirely new eyes as an adult.  That’s been the case for me in rereading a book from my past entitled Tales of Mexican California.

Tales of Mexican California is a firsthand account of the experiences of Antonio Coronel, a Californio who arrived in the Mexican territory as a youth in 1834.  Dictated in Spanish to an assistant of historian Hubert Howe Bancroft in 1877, it brings to life the people, places, and happenings of a bygone era.

When my dad first gave me this book as a young kid in grade school, he flipped through the pages with me and showed me the pictures.  “Look, chingasos!”  he said as he left me with the book, opened to a drawing of an early California brawl.  That piqued my interest enough to read of it what I could, and the illustrations were indeed suited to a young boy’s imagination.

“Look, chingasos!"

Though I found the heritage of the Spanish-speaking peoples of this land interesting, and related to it as my own, it was not until recently that I discovered the reason it was so difficult for me to read the book beyond it’s pictures:  Despite it’s cartoonish illustrations, this is a legitamate historical account!  Hardly the stuff a child could comprehend.

What I find so fascinating about reading this book as an adult is that it all takes place in country I’m familiar with.  It’s a look back in time to the land I call home.  Coronel’s family home was Rancho Canada atras de Rancho los Verdugos - the modern day cities of La Canada and La Crescenta.  That’s right up the road from me - I went to high school in La Canada!

Who knew that there were battles against American invaders - right there in the Pueblo of Los Angeles?  Coronel gives an exciting account of this campaign, along with many other of his adventures up until the days of the Gold Rush an early California statehood.

“I knew the Sonoran desert well, and realized it was a risky move, because Flores did not have sufficient provisions.  Although my friends and I were well-provisioned and could share in a pinch, there wouldn’t be much to go around.  Many of the Californians gave me to understand that they were sure I would get them out of any trouble, with my knowledge of the country.  More than anything, this convinced me not to accompany Flores, although my men said they would follow me anywhere.

… I advised them that we should all turn back and wait the course of events in California, while hiding out in the sierra.  If we were pursued, we could still go to Sonora in time."

“… We went by the sierra of San Bernardino, walking all night…  We ran into a storm of snow, rain and wind so violent we couldn’t see each other.  The soldiers… scattered in the brush looking for shelter, covering their backs with saddle blankets…  Fortune helped with a lull in the storm, and I got a huge bonfire going…  When we were all together I told them these hardships were the beginning of the guerrilla life, or that of any wanderer of the sierras…  I proposed we go to the nearest ranch - Cucamonga - and find out what had happened while we were gone…"

Throughout his life, Coronel was a friend and advocate of the Indians and held several distinguished positions.  His account in Tales of Mexican California provides sections on life in the missions, and Californio daily life, culture and customs - including fandangoes, songs and dress - along with accounts of outlaws and banditos.

Photo of Don Antonio F. Coronel

The very fact that these stories take place in such familiar environs to us residents of the Southland - including Rancho del Chino, San Diego, San Gabriel, Los Angeles and Ventura makes this a very exciting account indeed, and well worth a read for anyone looking to connect in a very human way to Southern California’s rich and fascinating past.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Traditional Aztec Dietary Advice

In preparation for my first cooking class tomorrow - Cooking With Native American Foods - I’ve compiled a list of foods and herbs which comprise of some of the greatest gastronomic contributions of North and South America to the world.

In reviewing different sources of information to include in this concise list, I was reminded of an excerpt from the traditional Aztec advice given from father to son regarding the proper way of eating.

"Listen! Above all you are to be prudent in drink, in food, for many things pertain to it. You are not to eat excessively of the required food. And when you do something, when you perspire, when you work, it is necessary that you break your fast. Furthermore, the courtesy, the prudence you should show are in this wise: when you are to eat, you are not to be hasty, not to be impetuous; you are not to take excessively nor to break up your tortillas. You are not to put a large amount in your mouth; you are not to swallow it unchewed. You are not to gulp like a dog, when you are to eat food… You are to drink, eat slowly, calmly, quietly.”

I find it interesting how closely the pre-Cortesian practice of eating moderately and mindfully parallels the traditional Okinawan way of eating.  Okinawa is one of the world’s longevity hotspots, with many of it’s longtime residents living to be centenarians.  The residents of this so-called Blue Zone follow the age-old Japanese macrobiotic advice of “hara hachi bu.”  "Hara hachi bu” means to eat until you are 80 percent full.  

Just as in ancient Mexico, the Eastern practice of mindfulness and gratefulness with respect to eating demonstrates the profound importance of not only the quality of the food taken during meals, but the manner in which those meals are consumed.  Indeed, the Spanish conquerors of Mexico were astonished at the deliberate and solemn manner in which the Indians ate.  Combining such practices today along with a return to the indigenous diets of the world would yield immeasurable health benefits for our modern society.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Out With The Big Sagebrush

This past Friday, I really needed to take a mental health day.  I found myself wanting to get out into the sagebrush and pine trees, to a place that reminds me of my Uncle Bob’s property in the Eastern Sierras.  I decided to drive for about an hour up Angeles Crest, and hike a section of the Silver Moccasin Trail I’d explored before with a friend near Mount Waterman in the Angeles National Forest.

If you drive far enough up the highway to the desert side of the mountains, the plants begin to change.  You’ll begin to encounter a plant which grows in abundance at my Uncle’s place in Sierra Valley - Big Sagebrush (Artemesia tridentata)

Big sagebrush is an important plant.  It can be used for purification in the sweat lodge, disinfection, and to cure colds and stomachaches - as described in Healing With Medicinal Plants of the West - along with many other traditional uses.  While last at my uncle’s place during New Year, I wandered his property, and walked through the abundant sagebrush.  I collected a small amount, which I bundled and gave to relatives and a friend, and kept one for myself, which now hangs on my kitchen cabinet for decoration.

Now, whenever I need a moment of peace, I take a deep breath of the fragrant bundle and am transported back to the beauty of Sierra Valley where it covers the landscape and perfumes the air.  I am reminded of the rustic comfort of my uncle's land, which has become a cherished place for all of my family.  And on this last hike of mine, I realized that this is a plant that I am developing a special relationship with.

Out with the Big Sagebrush - Sierra Valley, CA

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Oh Happy Days

Please allow me to introduce you to one of my favorite spots, located in the heart of Altadena, CA - Oh Happy Days Healthfood Cafe & Market!  

What is it like to visit Oh Happy Days you might ask?  Well, imagine going to your grandfather's house for some good, home-style cooking, except that your grandfather is vegan and knows a lot about health.  

That's what you can expect at Oh Happy Days.  It's rustic food is pure, hearty, nutritious and filling.  You can't go wrong with the soup!  With brown rice, beans and vegetables, it's a full meal in itself for less than 3 bucks... and all organic!!!  The Lomein noodles are also good. 

 I discovered this place one night several years ago, when I stopped by with my mom to purchase some supplements.  Opening the door for the first time, I was met by the turning heads and stares of the locals who were sitting at communal wooden tables over steaming hot plates of food.  The owner was very friendly, and I didn’t fail to notice the hand-painted sign on the front window advertising a bowl of vegetable soup - for a mere $2.50!  

The heart and soul of Altadena 

Upon my second visit there, I decided that the soup was too good a bargain to resist.  On this day, the sunlight brightened up the store’s yellow painted walls, and the classical music playing in the background created quite a cheerful atmosphere indeed.  There were African paintings, statues on display, buddhist prayer flags, and interesting things to look at all around.  A truly worldly place, the cafe walls displayed an eclectic mixture of cultures and influences.  I tried the soup, loved it, and have been coming back ever since.  

Oh Happy Days has become a place where I feel comfortable passing the time. It’s the kind of place where strangers will introduce themselves and start a conversation with you.  It’s a place that brings people from all different races, ages, and backgrounds together.  

Someone caught me in a pic!  The author, at center - a regular at “John’s"

Like everyone who frequents this establishment, I became friends with the owner, John - who is one of the best people I know and an inspiration to me.  A vegan for over 30 years, John has run his store in Altadena for about as long.  Now in his sixties, he goes on long bike rides, cooks all of the food, and works tirelessly maintaining this peaceful little spot - a true gift to the community.


For the highly affordable price, John's homestyle cooking really hits the spot.  Oh Happy Days is a community gathering place, and John is such a caring guy.  I've seen him give a free bowl of soup to the homeless before, and get the sense that he helps a lot of people out.  Definitely a place worth supporting!

Sunday, March 2, 2014

First Overnight In The Angeles

Encouraged to document the adventures I’ve had, I have decided to begin with the following account of my very first camping trip into the San Gabriel Mountains.

It was mid January of 2009 when I departed for my first overnight journey into the mountains.  I had been hiking the trails often, and had been wanting to camp overnight for some time.  I felt different when I was out on the trail…  free and strong.  I was comfortable by now in these mountains, and wanted to know what it would be like to take it one step further and stay overnight.

This was to be an adventure!  I had a tent, sleeping bag, book, instant miso soup and cooked brown rice, water bottles, granola bars, and tortillas.  I began from the Chaney Trail parking lot in Millard Canyon - my favorite place to take off into the mountains.  Following a quick smoke, I placed my Adventure Pass in the window, and was off.

The Sunset Ridge Trail

It’s always exciting hiking up the trail through the oak-covered hills and above the stream of Millard Canyon.  Though it felt the same as the hikes I’d make into this canyon before, I knew this time I wouldn’t be coming home at the end of the day.  I’d be out there.  Outside.

I’d hiked the Sunset Ridge trail so many times by then that I fail to recall any significant difference in my enjoyment of the sights and smells of native California during this particular trip.  I only remember knowing that this time I’d wake up in the forest!  It seemed an adventure indeed, and I felt pretty bad-ass when chatting with a group of young hikers I met while taking a pause to eat some tortillas at Dawn Station - an old station of the former Mt. Lowe Railway.

I had been up to that point before and higher, having reached the Mt. Lowe Campground at least once before.  I was encouraged when I reached the timberline not much further above, knowing that I was coming upon the last stretch of my journey.  I passed Granite Gate, and took a picture of it with my cellphone.  I studied all of all of the old-time photos on display boards.  Signage and pictures of other landmark passings were posted all the way up to the campground.

Once I finally arrived at the campground, I was relieved to find that I was the only one there.  I rested my pack on a bench-table seat and sat to enjoy a snack following my exertions.  What a feeling I had, while my legs were swinging on that bench and I was eating my sandwich.  Looking out over the trees in the afternoon sunlight and knowing that I was free!  That I was here!  That I had nowhere else to be!

Mt. Lowe Campground 1/14

I had reached the campground and took time to read it's informative historical exhibits, but my goal was to reach the nearby summit of Mt. Lowe that day.  Not wanting to lug as heavy a pack as I had been carrying further, I climbed into the woods on the hillside above the ruins of the old resort and stashed my tent and sleeping bag behind a tree.

Ye Alpine Tavern - the current site of Mt. Lowe Campground

This was all new country to me now, and I passed first the site of old cottages that had housed guests and maids of the resort as far back as the 1800s.  When finally I reached the summit of Mt. Lowe, I admired the pictures of Professor Thaddeus Lowe and some other old-timers in fine dress on the summit of the former Oak Mountain (later renamed for Lowe.)

I ignored the group of eight or so affluent-looking folks (who had obviously walked in from the nearby Mt. Wilson Road) and gazed out upon the horizon and to the valley below.  I actually managed to text my brother from that height and let him know that I’d made it!  It was good to receive his response, and I admired and explored the peak a while longer.

Oak Mountain, near the summit.  

By the time I arrived at the campground and had retrieved my stashed goods, it was almost dark and I had yet to make camp and forage for firewood.  I had not expected that I would be allowed to make a campfire.  It was my first time camping, and I guess this city boy expected the rules to be more stringent!  I was pleasantly surprised to find the fire-rings, but found myself now scurrying about in near-darkness trying to scavenge enough dead and cut branches to maintain a fire.

Luckily, there was an abundance of dead branches piled up - native shrubs and manzanita wood that had been cleared and piled on the side of the fire road to the camp.  I gathered the remainder of my wood in the dark with the aid of a miniature LED flashlight and felt rather light and energetic running about in the brisk evening air.  Perhaps the feeling of lightness was because I no longer carried a heavy pack strapped to my back.

The surrounding hillsides and peaks had grown dark by the time I huddled near the campfire.  The stars were out, and the ruins of the old resort were dark and empty as the light of my fire flickered against it’s walls.  I made some tea and munched on trail mix, though I distinctly recall not being able to sit down and relax near my fire as I would have liked, for I was continually getting up to feed it.  I was walking my tired body around different sides of the flame with my bandana over my nose and mouth like a bandito, trying to avoid the shifting direction of the smoke that burned my eyes.

Cell phone pic of my first campfire!  

I sat near the edge of the fire pit for a while trying to read the book I’d brought by firelight, but it was never long until I had to get back up to again feed the flames.  Eventually, sooner than I would have liked, I decided it was time to go into my tent and abandon the embering pit.  I hung my little flashlight in my tent and unrolled my sleeping bag.  I laid down on top of it and felt that I could have fallen asleep right then and there.

I roused myself up into a sitting position under my light to read a bit.  The book I’d brought with me was one which I had just received for Christmas entitled “Sacred Plant Medicine:  The Wisdom In Native American Herbalism.”  A seemingly fitting book for a night in the forest.  Hours passed as the cold wind whistled through my tent.  The haunting photographs of long-dead medicine people stared somberly at me through the depths of time as I read of the connection and relationships between humans and plants, and of the knowledge that can be gained firsthand from plants.

The chapters began to meld into one another and reading grew more tiresome.  I turned out the light and settled into my sleeping bag in the pitch-blackness of my tent.  The darkness let up as my eyes became adjusted, but the cold and wind did not.  My tent was pitched on a gradual slope atop many roots and rocks; outside there were noises…  I forced myself out of the tent once past midnight to relieve myself.  Facing the dark old ruins, I had some fear of ghosts.  I reminded myself that this resort had been a place of joy.  I didn’t sleep much at all that night.

I arose exhausted early in the morning and cooked a breakfast of oatmeal on my little camp stove.  The trip had been great so far, expect for the not-sleeping and being frozen part of it!  I wanted to see Inspiration Point, for it was nearby and I’d never been.  I hiked up to the structure through the beautiful manzanita bushes and peered out from the high up view.

Just as from the top of Mount Lowe, the recognizable landmarks below seemed especially small.  I could see Pasadena City Hall, Los Angeles City Hall, and everything in between.  I could see Catalina Island far out on this overcast day, and felt as if I could see the curvature of the Earth.  There was hustling and bustling going on in the civilization below, but I couldn’t hear it.  All I heard was the wind running through the branches.

The author revisiting his first campsite.  Mt. Lowe Campground 1/14

I turned around and walked back upon the familiar trail.  It was time to return to that concrete world of electronics and automobiles.  But a new chapter of my life had begun.  Forever after, looking up to the looming peaks from the city below, I would always remember that experience.  I’d spent a night in the Angeles, and the mountains were now that much more a part of me.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Making A Clapper Stick - A Native California Instrument

A recent project of mine has been to create my first elderberry clapper stick.  I finished making it just in time to demonstrate it’s use on a native plant tour I guided on Saturday at the beautiful Rosemont Preserve.

Clapper sticks are an ancient Californian musical percussion instrument made from a split and hollowed out stalk of the Elderberry tree (Sambucus mexicana).  Indian people in California didn't play drums to accompany them in song and dance as other cultures may have, but instead used this unique instrument, along with a traditional four-holed elderberry flute.  For this reason, the elderberry tree was known to native Californians as the Tree of Music.

A clapper stick is made by splitting a straight branch part way to it’s handle, and striking the split ends together against the palm to produce a rhythmic, clapping sound.  To make my clapper stick, I first selected and harvested a young, straight elderberry branch.  I then carved away the bark, save for a section I kept in place as the handle.

Once that was done, I used a saw to split the branch and then hollowed out the pith from the center of it.  Once the basic shape was complete, the carved portions were sanded down.

I painted four stripes onto my clapper stick with the red dye of the cochineal insect, which lives on the prickly pear cactus.  Cochineal has long been used as dye by native people throughout Central and North America, and became a sought-after commodity following the Spanish conquest of Mexico in 1521.  As a final decorative touch, I tied a hawk feather above the handle with deerskin, and added a strip of rabbit pelt below the handle for decoration.

I now have a wonderful way to demonstrate on my hikes how the Tree of Music has been used here in California for thousands of years.  The elderberry branch, cochineal dye, deerskin, hawk feather, and rabbit fur are all native materials which would have been used throughout the area.

The author displaying a clapper stick.  Elderberry tree in the background.

Enjoy these videos below, and hear the sounds which have echoed across this land since time immemorial.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Blue Corn Atole

I felt inspired Friday morning to make myself a breakfast of blue corn atole in preparation for a long day of work after reading of it’s use in Rudolfo Anaya’s classic novel Bless Me, Ultima.  

Atole, from the Nahuatl word atolli, is a maize porridge which has been eaten in Mexico for thousands of years.  According to Daily Life of the Aztecs, breakfast for the Aztecs “nearly always consisted of a bowl of atolli… thick or thin as the case might be, and either sweetened with honey or seasoned with pimento.”

In Anaya’s novel, the curandera Ultima uses blue atole to heal:

“’Ay,’ Ultima said, ‘we have begun our cure.’ She turned and looked at me and I could tell she was tired. ‘Are you hungry?’ she smiled.

‘No,’ I replied. I had not eaten since breakfast, but the things that had happened had made me forget my hunger.‘Still, we had better eat,’ she said, ‘it might be the last meal we will have for a few days… Lay your blankets there and make yourself a bed while I fix us some atole.’

I spread the blankets close to the wall and near the stove while Ultima prepared the atole… 

‘This is good,’ I said. I looked at my uncle. He was sleeping peacefully. The fever had not lasted long.

‘There is much good in blue corn meal,’ she smiled. ‘The Indians hold it sacred, and why not, on the day that we can get Lucas to eat a bowl of atole then he shall be cured. Is that not sacred?’

Blue Corn Atole

1 cup water
1 cup milk or milk substitute (hemp, rice, soy)
1/4 cup roasted blue corn meal
1/2 tsp vanilla extract 
Generous dash of cinnamon 
Maple syrup or agave nectar to taste


1.  In a saucepan, whisk water, milk, cornmeal, and cinnamon until there are no lumps.  

2.  Heat over medium heat, stirring constantly until it begins to thicken.  

3.  Bring to boil, then add sweetener to taste and reduce heat to a simmer.  Continue to stir and prevent lumps from forming for a minute or two.

4.  Turn off heat and let sit for a few minutes.  Serve in a bowl or hot mug.