digital collage on a light teal background with a loose wavy grid in a slightly lighter green. digital images of herbs and mushrooms surround a book cover that features a picture of a round bowl filled with herbs and plants. white text on the book cover reads "Chími Nu’am: Native California Foodways for the Contemporary Kitchen" at the top and "Sara Calvosa Olson" at the bottom
Designed by Kimberly Rooney 高小荣

A photograph of a bowl of chanterelles, as golden as the sunlight cast upon them, tells you what kind of cookbook “Chími Nu’am” will be. It is a love letter by Sara Calvosa Olson to those who raised her and those she’s raised. It’s also a register of recipes that may not have found their way to the page before, offering readers a map of how to strengthen a relationship with food in a way that honors the land that gave the food and the time that grew it. 

To say that “Chími Nu’am: Native California Foodways for the Contemporary Kitchen” is just a cookbook is inaccurate. What took Calvosa Olson more than two years to write and publish is an expression of her life and an act of stewardship for the earth. Recipes like “Acorn Focaccia with Wild Edibles” and “Pine Pollen Cacio e Pepe” will result in beautiful dishes that evoke California’s conifers, but the function of food isn’t limited to flavorful dishes that nourish. “Chími Nu’am” illustrates how food can tell us who we are to each other. 

Calvosa Olson grew up in the Hoopa Valley Reservation along the Trinity River in Northern California. Italian on her dad’s side and Karuk on her mom’s, Calvosa Olson had a childhood punctuated with Italian manicotti, Coho salmon, and commodity foods like “government cheese and canned pork.” Her mother had more of a talent for the garden than the kitchen, and along with the Italian influence, Calvosa Olson learned that cooking with and for others could be a language of love. She left for college at the University of California, Santa Cruz, at 16 and now lives on Huimen Coast Miwok land with her husband and two sons.

In the early days of the pandemic, Calvosa Olson found herself fielding questions about gathering and food preservation. As a person who dedicated her life to being in service to others, it felt like it was the right time to offer this information in the form of a cookbook. 

“I want people to stay hopeful, I want them to feel like they can still effect change in their families and communities, and I want them to fill in some context from an Indigenous perspective so they could move forward intentionally and carefully,” Calvosa Olson said.

Chími nu’am means “let’s eat” in Karuk. The book is organized by season, and within each section is a guide to gathering, preserving, or canning offerings from fall, winter, spring, and summer. Calvosa Olson recommends that readers begin cooking the recipes for the current season and looking ahead for what recipes arrive with the following one. This now-and-future approach instructs readers on what to gather for immediate use and what can be preserved for another season’s recipe. Turkey or rabbit stock can last all year long when pressure-canned in the freezer. Dehydrating spring herbs like nettles ensures year-round access to the nutrient-rich leaves. 

Developing a familiarity for seasonal bounty is the “fundamental base for beginning to reaccess these rhythms,” Calvosa Olson said. While she grew up eating traditional Karuk foods, her sons would have to work a bit harder to connect with Karuk foodways. Now, they’ll eat anything with acorn flour, like NDN Whoopie Pies. 

“Our oldest relatives like salmon and acorns and mushrooms … all of the animals and all the flora and fauna that have raised us up as people, I wanted them to connect to that,” Calvosa Olson said. “But we weren’t living on Karuk land, and so I just started incorporating these foods into their [other] foods.” Wild Meatballs, featuring elk, venison, and boar, transform Karuk animal proteins into an Italian staple. 

Calvosa Olson said that she wanted her sons to understand what bitterness and fishiness taste like. She also didn’t want them to be afraid of texture. Desserts weren’t required to be saccharin in order to be sweet. Perhaps most importantly, she wanted them to learn the relationship of gathering, as enacted by generations of Karuk peoples—individuals who helped shape the Northern California forests that are so revered and so endangered by a colonial approach to fire. 

“Our gatherers did prescribed fire; our gatherers made sure the understory was healthy,” Calvosa Olson said. They made sure that vegetation was supporting riverbanks against erosion so that salmon could run through clear and clean streams and that mycelium mats underneath the trees burned at the right temperature for regeneration, Calvosa Olson said. 

The author was raised to believe that if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you. “The land remembers us and wants to be in relationship with us,” Calvosa Olson said. “We are meant to be together and [take] care of each other.”

For those unfamiliar with where to start with that relationship, a Spring Gathering Guide lays out the basics: “You should spend 10 percent of your time gathering and 90 percent of your time planning how to prepare and/or preserve your gathered foods,” Calvosa Olson writes. Don’t harvest, gather, or pick without being certain of what the plant is. Only do so in local areas, starting with a backyard or personal garden. Don’t gather, pick, and harvest in Native communities. If you’re non-Native, seek out ways to build relationships with Native-led land stewardship projects and ask if there are local Native elders who might be interested in sharing gathered food. Food that can’t be gathered or made where you are can be purchased from Native sources, like Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation olive oil or White Earth Nation wild rice.

Gathering plants with the intention of translating their lives into something that sustains human life is a careful act. It requires moving at a pace unheard of at the supermarket. It demands a level of looking where the eye is more muscle than lens. 

“Once you have decided that you’re going to develop a different connection [with land], you’re going to look at your food in a different way,” Calvosa Olson said. 

Relationship is central to the practice of gathering, and as Calvosa Olson knows, gathering, preparing, and eating together sews the connective tissue of relationships. To some readers, this might seem like a novel concept. But the practices Calvosa Olson outlines are millennia old. The past hundred years of land theft, farm expansion, crop homogeneity, and suburban sprawl are a blip in food history. Though their impacts are indelible, so too is the resistance to the stultifying wave of corporate food control. 

Colonization preceded and precipitated climate change, and these dual forces are shaping our food system for the worse. Yet the growing recognition of harm is also opening people and institutions up to the idea that reciprocal ways of growing and raising food can heal the planet without sacrificing food access. We often hear that organic produce is far more expensive and out of reach than conventional produce. However, rotational grazing, removing invasive plants from land and bodies of water, and ensuring that unconstructed land stays that way are all ancient Indigenous practices now being turned into policy proposals. 

California has proposed a program to support soil restoration, a potential salve against decades of tillage, pesticide use, and water theft. In September, members of Congress will authorize the next version of the Farm Bill, which may include funding for returning farmland to BIPOC farmers and ranchers, who for generations have been systematically stripped of access. Indigenous-led movements are illustrating that California’s decade-long drought is a consequence of a system of water rights predicated on Native removal, wetland destruction, and corporate farm dominance. 

“We are defending and stewarding and existing at the pleasure of our Mother Earth, and we are existing in devout service of this land,” Calvosa Olson said. “To be disconnected from that so violently changes us fundamentally and emotionally.” 

Movements to defend water and land allow for reconnection. It’s not just about the movement for food justice or the fight for clean water—an entire belief system is being fought for. As with liberation, the task is urgent, but the way is slow.

Start small, Calvosa Olson says. Make one recipe, learn about one native plant that grows locally. Then branch out, build. Grow a relationship with those around you, trade stock for syrup and flowers for flour. Most importantly, she said, “Center Indigenous people and center our perspectives when it comes to food and gathering in the land. Center relationship with Indigenous people.”

“Chími Nu’am: Native California Foodways for the Contemporary Kitchen” is now available for preorder.

Ray Levy Uyeda is a staff reporter at Prism, focusing on environmental and climate justice. Find Ray on Twitter @raylevyuyeda.