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Food was prepared both indoors and outdoors at the California missions. Feeding all the people who lived at a mission -- usually several hundred people -- took a great deal of time. Many of the Native Californian women and girls at the mission spent much of their day preparing meals.

The indoor kitchen was often a smoky room. A long fireplace, with the wide hearth raised several feet off the floor, was built along one side of the room. Several fire pits were spaced along the hearth, with holes in the roof above for the smoke to escape. Both wood and charcoal were used as fuel. Large pieces of meat were cooked on spits over these fires.

Food for the padres and guests was often prepared inside, while food for the mission workers was prepared in the courtyard. Some reports say that the padres had more nutritious meals than the Indians at the missions.

Adobe ovens, called hornitos, were used both in the inside kitchen and in the courtyard. The ovens were shaped like round beehives, with small openings on one side. Wooden doors covered the openings so that heat would not escape. To heat a beehive oven, a fire was built inside and kept burning until the oven was very hot. Then the hot coals were raked aside and loaves of bread were placed inside the oven to bake. Long wooden paddles were used to put the bread in and out of the oven.

Each mission raised cattle, sheep, pigs, and chickens. Meat was cooked at the fireplaces on spits or open grills. Some of the meat was dried after being salted. The best pieces of meat were cut into strips several inches wide, about 12 inches long, and one inch thick. These strips were dipped into salted water and then hung out in the sun to dry. After several days in the sun, the meat was hard and black. The dried meat could be saved for many months.

The main food for the Indians at the missions was a type of gruel or mush called atolé. It was made from wheat, barley, or corn that had been roasted before being ground. The ground grain was cooked in large iron kettles. The people had atolé for breakfast in the morning, and for supper at six o’clock in the evening. Nuts and berries were sometimes added to the evening meal.

At noontime, chunks of meat and beans, peas, lentils or garbanzos were added to the mush to make a dish called pozóle. The noon meal was the largest meal of the day.  On fiesta days, whole beef or chickens were roasted and special feasts were prepared.

Tortillas, the flat thin cakes popular in New Spain (Mexico), became a standard part of the mission meal. The tortillas were made from corn flour and water, mixed into a soft dough. Small balls of dough were patted flat by being flipped back and forth from hand to hand. The tortillas were baked on a hot iron plate, and were served at every meal.

The food eaten at the missions was much like the food of Mexico. Since the mission padres came from Mexico, they brought the recipes and methods of food preparation with them. Some of these foods and methods were strange to the California Indians, who had been gathering most of their food from the fields and woods.

The padres did not know about the variety of foods that grew naturally in California. From the Indians, they learned which nuts, seeds, and berries could be eaten. The Indians gathered acorns and ground them into flour, as they had been doing for centuries. Sometimes the Indians were asked to hunt for game (deer, rabbits, ducks) and fish for use in the mission kitchen.

Gradually, the Mexican cooking brought by the padres blended with the Indian cooking to produce a unique California-style cuisine.

Wheat, corn, and other grains were grown on the mission lands from seeds brought by the padres. The wheat was pounded into a coarse meal or flour with a stone mortar and pestle. The Indians had used the mortar (a hollowed-out stone) and pestle (a hammer-shaped stone) before the padres came, to grind acorns into flour.

To make the corn flour for tortillas, dried corn was removed from the cobs by rubbing them together. The kernels of corn were then soaked in a large kettle of water to which powdered lime had been added. After boiling over a fire, the kernels were ground on a stone metate, a flat stone used with a stone roller called a mano.

Later, gristmills operated by water power or by horses walking in circles were built at many missions. The gristmill did the work of grinding the wheat into flour by turning large stone circles against each other.

Each mission had a garden where vegetables were grown. Beans, peas, red peppers, squash, melons, tomatoes, onions, and pumpkins were common crops. Orchards of fruit trees provided oranges, lemons, figs, pears, apricots, peaches, apples, and plums. Walnuts, almonds, and pomegranates were also grown.

Chocolate was a great favorite of people at the missions. Cacao seeds, from which chocolate comes, were not grown in California. Chocolate for the missions came from Mexico, or from trading ships that stopped along the California coast. A thick, sweet chocolate drink called champurrado was served hot at the missions.

This recipe requires adult assistance


6 teaspoons cocoa 2 tablespoons cornstarch
6 teaspoons sugar 2 eggs, well beaten
1 cup hot water 2 teaspoons vanilla
5 cups scalded milk dash of cinnamon

Combine cocoa and sugar in the top part of a double boiler, with water in the bottom half, over medium heat. Add the hot water slowly to the cocoa and sugar, stirring until mixture forms a smooth paste. Add the scalded milk, a little at a time, then add the cornstarch after blending it with some of the hot liquid. Just before serving, fold in beaten eggs, vanilla, and cinnamon.

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