Eat Native

Jana Nason, seen holding elderberries. Nason is a member of the Esselen Tribe, which has been around for thousands of years, gathering from the land and ocean.

First and foremost, this event is sold out. So stop reaching for your phone, relax and read – hopefully Big Sur Food & Wine Festival and the Esselen Tribe will make Matsa Lelima – in the Esselen language: the earth ceremony – a recurring, annual event.

For this inaugural edition, a lucky 60 will gather on Saturday, Nov. 6 on Esselen land, high up on a Big Sur cliff, to celebrate the foraged resources and “traditional ways” of the original people of Big Sur. It’s a new event added to the established Big Sur Food & Wine Festival’s lineup, back in action Nov. 4-6 after a pandemic year off.

This unique collaboration started when Elsa Rivera, CFO and events director of the Big Sur Food & Wine Festival, approached Jana Nason, an Esselen descendant and tribal council administrator and secretary, with an idea. They discovered they are both driven by a desire to showcase and build upon traditional indigenous cuisine, perhaps with a modern interpretation. “The Esselen people have been gathering from the land and ocean,” Nason says. “I love to cook and work with traditional products, such as bay nuts, elderberries and use wild game and wild fish for cooking.”

“I LOVE TO WORK WITH TRADITIONAL PRODUCTS SUCH AS BAY NUTS.”

Nason and other members of the tribe designed the menu for the upcoming feast, and Rivera provided the infrastructure to turn a tribal dinner into a big, multicultural event.

“It’s not about me at all,” says Chef Nicolaus Balla, a Bar Tartine alum who relocated from the Bay Area to Big Sur to run Coast Big Sur. He is known to use local produce to make anything and everything by hand. “It’s all Jana and her people,” he adds.

Balla and another chef, Noberto Piattoni, joined the project to set up a kitchen, provide all culinary logistics and make sure everything is as practical as possible. Balla says he took a look at all the dishes, helping the tribe to express their inspirations. He is excited about three things, he says: the acorn flour that Nason and other indigenous hands have been grinding for weeks with a mortar; local bay nuts (“you don’t see them often in the menus”); and the nice big bowl of stew that he will get himself at some point.

What stew? Here Balla stops talking, diplomatically, because the actual ingredients of the stew will be first revealed only to the taste buds of the diners on Nov. 6. Balla says the wait will be worth it. Rivera, meanwhile, only smiles mysteriously.

After some begging, Nason offers a few keywords for our culinary imagination: “Sage, mussels, venison, hazelnuts, mushrooms and yerba buena,” she says. That and much more.

“It’s like planning a wedding,” she admits, nine days before the big dinner. By now, preparations have been taking place for weeks. “We will talk about it more at the dinner, but [we] do a lot of archeological work locally and learn about dietary elements important to our ancestors. That was a big inspiration for this meal.”

The Esselen are often described as the least numerous indigenous group in California. When the Spanish arrived 250 years ago, the tribe lived in the upper Carmel Valley, up in the Santa Lucia Mountains. Much of Esselen territory is now within the Ventana Wilderness area. A year ago, the tribe regained some land (1,199 acres known as the Adler Ranch) in Big Sur, which was a small but clear and consequential victory. The dinner will celebrate that gain, and also the tribe’s anniversary which takes place in November.

Ten members of the tribe, several of them now busy in the kitchen advising on traditional ways of doing things, will participate in the feast, along with about 30 ticketed guests. They will be accompanied by the family and guests of the landowner, who made the land available for the event.

“He has been a good friend of mine,” Rivera says, promising stunning views. “The property happens to be on the Esselen land.”

The tribe requested that the wines paired with the dinner be from the Santa Lucia Highlands, and so winemakers Mark and Gary Pisoni will be present at the feast. They have donated their wines. Wine service will also include two talented sommeliers, Beccy Breeze and Rebecca Chapa.

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