Big Sur’s Ancient Dining Room

“The Indians knew all the cool places,” Cindy, Ragged Point Inn Gift Shop manager, told me.  Her voice trailed off wistfully.

The resort’s restaurant is adjacent, and I was enjoying the Small Stack of gourmet pancakes one morning.  As I poured maple syrup, sun beat down through the glass ceiling amidst the wood beams and stone.  Dining there is at once indoor and outdoor.  Waiting for me, in the sea-washed air through the abundant glass, behind the outdoor tables, was an exhibit of modern/ancient fusion.  It was a lesson offered in an outdoor classroom leading to a superb Pacific view.

Four circular holes pocked a hard serpentine outcropping jutting above the manicured lawn and garden path.  Called “grinding holes,” not uncommon here yet largely unknown to tourists, they formed as native Americans ground foodstuffs.  Right here along Route 1, I found the California spirit, that lost and longed-for land connection.

Anthropological research at CalPoly in San Luis Obispo established the Ragged Point grinding holes as Salinan in origin.  Such sites can be as recent as 150 years or can be much, much older.  The Salinans who fashioned them were a division of the tribe called Playano — “beach people” — by Spanish explorers.  Salinan villages stretched from Morro Rock to Dolan Rock, Salinas to Cuesta Grade Summit, and as far as 70 miles eastward to the Diablo Range, Temblor Range and the Painted Rock of Carrizo Plain.  Today, the Salinan Tribe, which once numbered 3,000 souls, consists of about 800.

Salinan Tribal Administrator Patti Dunton explained how the tribe “mapped” the territory of the beach people.  Their map was one of existential poetry: a Western Gate facing a Great Fire.

I wondered if the Salinans were making acorn pancakes 1,000 years ago out back of the resort restaurant.  They ground this staple in these rock mortars and then leached out the tannin in water, making acorn meal that they baked into cakes.

I learned the complex lore of these grinding holes when Tribal Chair John Burch honored me with his insights on Ragged Point.  That outcropping was actually a long-ago organic kitchen.

“Tegula shellfish were as important a food as acorns,” he explained, as I recalled the whorled snails washed up on the Big Sur beach.  “They ground them up shell and all and mixed them with acorns or other meats.”  Their high salt content not only lent food flavor but preserved their tiny meats on long journeys.  He continued, “They ground herbs there.”  As hunter-gatherers, they made use of unusual foods such as tree lichens.

Then John Burch told me the age of the Ragged Point rock mortars.

Whatever they were grinding, they ground it long ago — 10,000 years ago.  He could tell the age by the convex form of the mortars, created in an ancient process using a wooden implement.  They first broke the rock apart with an agate drill and then smoothed the contours through the circular grinding motion.  He reminded me that this mortar site, when in use, was a clifftop 25 miles inland from the ocean.  It was still a cool place, but bereft of crashing ocean sound, which approached over the intervening ages.  Time tends to smooth over boundaries.

These days, as Tribal Chair, John Burch deals with the politics of boundaries.  The ancient neighbors of the Salinans, the Chumash to the south, overlapped with the Salinans around Ragged Point.  The Salinans objected to Ragged Point’s inclusion in the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary.  Millennia ago, Salinans packed their shellfish on foot over the proposed sanctuary’s seabed.

The grinding holes behind the restaurant establish the clifftop as Salinan, but the Chair prefers to look at it in an older way.  “It doesn’t matter whether those grinding holes were Chumash or Salinan,” he says.  “What matters is that they offer a window into learning.”  Through the Ragged Point Inn restaurant windows, I looked out at a 10,000-year-old kitchen classroom facing a Great, Sacred Fire.





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