UO graduate students get a taste of Native camas cooking

Image shows Madonna Moss in a field behind camas seed pods and blue flowers

Roasted chestnuts, sweet potatoes, cassava: Those were the reactions about the taste of camas bulbs pulled from a traditional-style Native American rock oven 13 hours after roasting them in a pit outside the Many Nations Longhouse.

The opinions came from a small group of UO graduate students. Two days earlier they had spent a day harvesting camas — once a dietary staple of Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest — at the Oregon Country Fairgrounds and then cooking it long enough to make it safe for eating.  

The experience wrapped up a graduate-level course that helped design a new undergraduate course, “Archaeology of Wild Foods and Pre-industrial Cooking,” that will be taught in the fall by UO anthropologist Madonna Moss with support of an instructional grant from the Tom and Carol Williams Fund for Undergraduate Education.

“My graduate students helped plan the class,” said Moss, who also is curator of zooarchaeology at the Museum of Natural and Cultural History. “We did a lot of reading and used the principle of backward design to figure out what we want the undergraduate students to learn. We let the material we looked at take us to where we wanted to go.”

The course also took the graduate students — none from the region — into a deep dive into Native American life in the Pacific Northwest.

“We studied the evolution of the use of fire to the evolution of different kinds of cooking techniques that allowed people to prepare and digest various foods,” Moss said. “We take so much for granted today, like we can boil water and we can microwave food. The idea of boiling with heated stones is really a different operation.”

Camas, a root plant with an onion-like bulb and member of the lily family, must be cooked up to 24 hours to be digestible. Camas initially contains a high concentration of indigestible, starch-like inulin.

The class hauled shovels and trowels to dig in soil saturated from spring rains at the fairgrounds near Veneta. The site originally was home to the Chelamela, or the Long Tom Creek, branch of the Kalapuya, who lived throughout the Willamette Valley before European settlement.

“Farmers came in and plowed the fields, eliminating the food supply of the native peoples,” said Kalapuya descendant David G. Lewis, a member of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde, into which most Kalapuya tribes were merged. “Plowing and agricultural animals put an end to camas growing and harvesting.”

Lewis, who heads Ethnohistory Research in Salem and had studied under Moss, led the dig. He holds three UO degrees, including a doctorate. In 2001, Lewis co-authored a paper that proposed that the name Oregon came from the word “oolighan,” a Native American term that refers to grease made from eulachon, a type of smelt.

Most people think of the Oregon Country Fair as a three-day binge of local culture featuring music, food and crafts. This year’s 48th annual fair runs July 7-9.

The site gained archaeological significance in 1986 when Museum of Natural and Cultural History archaeologists spotted underground anomalies while helping the state plan a realignment of Oregon Highway 126. They found 21 earth ovens, dating to 4,440 years ago.

The oldest archaeological site on the grounds dates to 10,500 years ago, said Ann Bennett Rogers, an archaeologist and fair board member who led the UO group to camas sites.

Moss and her students gathered four gallons.

Camas traditionally was harvested in the spring when it is identifiable by blooming blue flowers, said D.J. Rogers, an archaeologist at the fairgrounds. It commonly grows alongside white-flowered, highly poisonous Zigadenus venenosus, or meadow death camas. In the fall, bulbs from the two plants are identical, he said.

“Part of what I’m learning is about teaching from the ground up. Part of it is learning about a different part of the world,” said UO doctoral student Sophie Miller of New Zealand, while working a trowel and swatting away swarming mosquitoes. “I like the idea of looking at pre-domesticated foods around the world and figuring out how we can get students excited about them.”

Camas is still consumed by some Native Americans, said Marie Knight, a traditional food gatherer of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, who directed the construction of the rock oven and the cooking.

“Doing this kind of thing is a major privilege,” she said. “This is a skill and knowledge that a lot of people don’t have and don’t practice. What I’m trying to do is help revive the tradition and make sure that it’s done properly.”

Knight, who lives in Portland, guided the students as they dug the pit and covered the floor with rocks. Wood was piled onto the rocks and burned for two hours to heat the rocks. The coals were then removed and set aside.

Layers of Oregon grape, salal, bigleaf maple, sword fern and Douglas fir were then quickly layered atop the rocks, with the camas on a middle layer. A canvas was spread on top followed by soil to seal the pit. Hot coals and wood were piled on top to keep a fire going and the oven hot through the night.

“I have read and lectured about camas and camas ovens in the Willamette Valley,” Moss said. “However, Marie’s tribal experience is different than what we studied. The students learned that no matter how well you might think you’re prepared through research, reading and study, the experience of working with tribal experts is always different.”

As everyone gathered around the cooked camas, Miller said the taste reminded her of cassava, a root plant common in the Cook Islands where she previously had done research.

“It is a little bit dry, but it has kind of a sweet, smoky texture, and very starchy,” she said. “It’s a little flowery and tastes a little like sweet potato as well, but not as sweet.”

Another student suggested yams. Moss said roasted chestnuts. Knight said the taste likely reflected the maple and Douglas fir that had surrounded the camas during the roasting.

For more details, see a blog posted by Moss.

—By Jim Barlow, University Communications