Portland, Pre-Pilgrim

Thanksgiving 1621 found Portlanders eating camas, wapato, salmon—and maybe a passing seal.

In the autumn of 1621, sometime between Sept. 21 and Nov. 11, a three-day feast took place in Massachusetts. No one knows if there was turkey on the table. According to the only surviving firsthand account, the Plymouth colony hosted the party, serving waterfowl to friendly natives who brought them five deer. There probably was porridge made from the corn of a recent harvest, plus nuts and shellfish.

This all took place in a post-apocalyptic hellscape. Though the Pilgrims may not have known it, as Charles C. Mann's 1491 points out, Plymouth was built on the abandoned ruins of a native village decimated by a three-year plague that killed 90 percent of coastal New England's population beginning in 1616.

Meanwhile, on the other side of what is now the United States, the autumn of 1621 found the indigenous bands along the rivers of Oregon living as they had for a millennium. That is to say, very well.

"The houses were crammed with all kinds of food going into the wintertime," says Ken Ames, retired professor of anthropology at Portland State University and co-author of several books, including the new Chinookan Peoples of the Lower Columbia. "The Portland-area homes had cellars. We excavated one of them and estimated it was large enough to have 26 tons of potatoes in it."

There weren't any potatoes, though—and also no squash, beans or corn. Rather, the bulk of the basement would have held camas and wapato, roots that were once the staple of the Portland diet. Why haven't you eaten camas? Because of bacon.

In 1621, Portlanders had never encountered a European. Some trade goods may have made their way north from Spanish colonies, but the first sustained contact between Europeans and Native Americans was still 170 years away. And things were great.

The region was teeming with villages and towns of indigenous peoples, some interrelated, others inimical. Most of present-day Portland was territory of the Clackamas and Multnomah Chinookans, with Kalapuya living in the Willamette Valley above Willamette Falls. The Kalapuya and Clackamas are now part of the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde; the few descendants of the plankhouse-dwelling Multnomah are scattered.

Like other Chinookan peoples, the Multnomah were active fishermen. "This time of year they would have had smoked salmon, a tremendous amount of eulachon—a kind of smelt—and sturgeon," Ames says. "And lots of deer and elk—they were almost specialized at hunting those. Also, ducks, geese, swans and the occasional passing seal."

There were also berries, either the last freshly picked bunches or the first from the stockpile smoked over fire during the summer. Acorns were left in the river to leach out their bitter tannins before being baked. Every home would have a pot simmering. "They would heat rocks up in the fire and then put them in the pot to heat the water," Ames says. "They always had some type of soup or stew going throughout the day."

The staples, though, were camas and wapato, once plentiful in the area. Wapato is an aquatic tuber found in marshes. Camas is the bulb of a flowering plant once found in the meadows of Vancouver and East Portland. Wapato looks like oblong garlic and can be baked or steamed—sagittaria, which you can get at Asian grocers, is a cousin. You can still find wapato in some ponds, but it's no longer abundant. "The wapato was destroyed by the idiot who released carp into the lakes and marshes," Ames says.

Camas, which looks a little like a gourd mated with a potato, isn't commercially cultivated anywhere for food, but it has found its way into a slow cooker owned by Matt Bennett, chef and owner of Albany's Sybaris Bistro. In honor of a new park in Albany, Bennett wanted to do a dinner that paid respect to the area's original inhabitants.

"In the park there was a cooking area where they found lots of mounds, which had been used to cook camas," he says. "Sort of like the big pits used to cook pigs in Hawaii."

Bennett asked the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde for help sourcing camas and discovered they still cooked traditional fall meals with it, preparing the root in an earthen oven and slowly steaming it until a mashlike block is cut off and eaten like porridge.

"The tribe was so generous with their knowledge, so we kinda hit it off," he says.

Bennett was later invited to prepare a meal with camas and other traditional Native American ingredients from Oregon at the James Beard House in New York City.

At that dinner, and at his restaurant, which has a few dishes like chipped elk on toast and cornmeal pan-fried trout, Bennett employed his preferred technique of substituting indigenous ingredients into familiar dishes.

"They didn't use salt at all, even for food preservation," he says. "They just smoked it dry enough. Try to do Thanksgiving—or any dinner—without salt."

And if you think a whole turkey takes a long time to prepare and leaves too many leftovers, consider that camas was traditionally prepared in batches of several hundred pounds. "It takes five days to cook," Bennett says, "and that long cooking time sort of denatures it and it really gets nice and caramelly."

You should not, however, attempt to forage for camas on your own. "There's two kinds of camas, a pretty purple one they ate and a white one that's called death camas," Bennett says. "And, gee, why did they call it that? I don't trust myself to pick it."

And what happened to all the camas, once the main staple of a Portland diet? It was gobbled up by another food mainstay: Feral pigs devoured the bulbs from Idaho to the Pacific.

That's a shame, according to Bennett.

"Lewis and Clark talked about eating it, and it wasn't their favorite thing—you have to cook it right," he says. "It reminds me of a sweet potato or a European chestnut. But it’s actually really, really good.”