Wednesday, December 28, 2011



We should keep the old way here because of our children, 
and our childrens children,
and generations to come after us.
~Julia Parker                

     My whole life i've known you could eat acorns. I grew up hearing stories about the indians leeching them in a mountain stream to make them palatable. But, aside from the squirrels, i'd never met anyone who had actually eaten them. 

  When i read about Ishi, i was hooked, on acorns and archery. I started building bows and arrows. I didn't know any bowyers, but there's a few good books out there on th' subject. My favorite being Jim Hamm's and Paul Comstocks. So i plugged along, even met a bowyer to talk to. Experience grew, and i make them still. But still silence on the acorn front. 
     Then one day Neil came over- we talked about eating wild food, and "ancient grains". He told us about his experiences eating acorns. Finally, some one who has actually tasted them. Thanks Neil. That was encouragement greatly needed. A few months later i got my hands on a copy of Samuel Thayers book Natures Garden, which includes a 50+ page account on acorns. Once again, someone who actually eats them, and has a great reverence for them. This is a wonderful account, and anyone interested in acorns, or wild foods in general would do well to give it a read. One of th' things Thayer mentions, which is supported by numerous accounts, is the nutritional content of acorns. They are perhaps th' most nutritionally balanced food known to man, and it's easy to see how they could have sustained people for thousands of years.
     After that i found a copy of It will live forever- a touching account of Julia Parker, a lady keeping alive the ancient traditions of her people by showing others how to live with acorns. She makes all her own baskets from plants she harvest's herself. She cooks acorn in a basket with boiling water. Do you know anyone who can weave a water tight basket from plant roots? I don't. Talk about a master craftsman, that about sets th' standard. She cooks the acorn into a variety of dishes. One of them, deceptively called mush, is more like a porridge, and has kept her people alive since th' beginning of time. Another is a flatbread made from th' finest ground flour. So i read both these books, but still it was summertime. Patience.
     Then late summer came, i harvested a bagfull of th' first dropped acorns off some large oaks in city park. We cracked them and leeched them in hot water, only to add them to a stew that i ruined with too much evening primrose root.
     But not giving up hope, fall came just th' same. I found more acorns. Collected three different species, dried them in th' sun, and dried them in our house above th' heaters on cloudy days. Cracked them first with a nut cracker, then realized that nutcrackers are fine if you want to leave out a bowl of nuts for your guests, but if you want some food, a nutcracker is absurd. Nothing beats a good hammerstone, or wooden mallet. 

acorns and black walnuts drying, in single layers

     We leeched them a variety of ways, coming up with our favorite, th' one that works best for us. Then we baked pumpkin pies on acorn crusts. Flour crusts will never be first choice for us again.

pumpkin pie with acorn crust

     We also drank acorn milk, th' last squeezing of th' leech water, with a drop of maple syrup in it. It's really good.
We made crackers, and gingerbread cookies and a rye bread from crushed acorns. We've still got some flour waiting, next we'll try th' porridge.

acorn rye bread

     Acorns taste like no other food, a bit like fall itself. Th' flavor is rather neutral, and can be used sweet or savory. When raw, and freshly ground, they have an aroma so inviting it makes you want to skip th' leeching process altogether and dive right in- but don't do it. They really do need to be leeched. 
     For some great acorn recipes click here. Like many of your favorite foods, once you start eating it you get used to it, and get cravings for it. It's a new sensation to me to get cravings for things i can't buy in th' markets, but with all th' foraging we've been doing, i'm getting rather used to that too. So, without further ado, here's a photo essay of our acorn experience. 

 First thing is to find the acorns.
oak leaves in winter
 Then use them, or dry them right away, they will mold. We dried ours in single layers inside strawberry boxes, either in the sun or in our house near a heater.

 Once they're dry, it's time to crack them. Dry ones crack much easier than fresh ones. I tried a variety of different ways, and settled on smashing them right where they are in the box with a log, or just giving them a good whack with a wooden mallet as i'm shelling them, which i often had to do for th' ones that escaped th' log th' first time. By th' way, a good whack means th' right amount of force, not as hard as you can hit it. Hit them on th' top, they'll open right up.

one good whack!

and they open right up

After you get them cracked, you'll have a beautiful mix of nuts, ready to be pounded or ground. Note th' different colors are due to oxidation, and are not indicative of flavor or tannin content. Th' darker ones dried out in cracked shells, where as th' lighther ones sat in closed shells. 

bur oak acorns

arizona oak acorns
     Each acorn is covered with a thin skin, like on a peanut, called th' testa. You need to get those off there, and when the acorns are dry, it's really easy, when they are fresh, you often have to scrape them off.

acorns showing skin

      Once you've gotten them cracked and de-skinned, it's time to pound them. Being inspired by Julia Parkers account, and preferring to use as simple a means as possible, i pounded them with a hammerstone, th' same one i use for cracking black walnuts. From time to time however, i do like to experiment with modern contraptions, just to compare them and/or give me a marker for more primitive technology. So i have put some acorns in a blender and ground them, and i broke a coffee grinder with them. Th' blender didn't get the acorns nearly as fine as pounding them with a stone, and was hardly faster. And it was really loud and th' motor smelled bad. It's really not worth it. 
     So i spread a pile of acorns on a thick piece of canvas doubled over, and just pounded away. After a while you get a rythym, and a feel for how hard to pound.

a hand helps keep them together, some like to fly
I like to pound for a while, then sift them through a strainer with my pounding stone. Whatever doesn't fall through gets re-pounded.

pounded acorn

Now take a whiff of this, it's that smell i told you about. Yummmm.
Also, this is a good grind size for pie crusts, if you want it finer, keep going.

 After you've pounded, and your arms are sore, but you're feelin pretty good, it's time to leech. We've leeched them in a fruit strainer with a cloth filter, and that worked out pretty good, but it took a couple of days. In order to leech them in one day, we spread them thinly over a screen, with a cloth filter on it. 
     Following th' traditions of th' natives, we used a spruce branch to break up th' water we poured over th' top, so as not to splash the acorn and created puddles. You can even set up a sprinkler with a shower setting on it to spray and just let it go for awhile, but i'd recommend using filtered water for th' last few pourings, to rinse out th' chlorine you may get from th' water hose. Filtered water all th' way through is, of course, th' better option. We covered ours with another screen to keep falling debris off. 
leeching setup
If you're going to do this outside, keep in mind th' squirrels, they will pee right on your acorns. I had one pee on my pounding cloth once, luckily after i was done pounding. Another way we've leeched them is with th' same setup, but we placed it on a frame in th' shower. That also worked very well, and we didn't have critters to watch out for. We used about 30 gallons of water to leech th' second batch, the arizona acorns, and about 20 gallons to leech the burr oak acorns. Taste them periodically to know when they're ready.
     Once you taste them and they're not astringent, they're ready to be cooked. We wring 'em out in th' filter cloth and catch th' liquid, which is full of th' smallest particles of acorn flour. Then add a little maple syrup and you've got acorn milk. It's like almond milk, but tastes like acorn. Again, for recipes look here.
     The acorn is a sacred food. It has sustained many cultures for thousands of years, and it just may do so again. But it's a commitment. It takes work. But like all good work, it's worth it. It satisfies. The indians said that if we did not love and respect the acorn it would disappear. White people thought that was old indian superstition. So they cut down the oak trees to build cities and roads and cheap houses and what not. They also burned the indians stores of acorn. Millions and millions of bushels, just so they would starve and have to move onto reservations to eat. They didn't respect the acorn, and so the acorn disappeared. But thankfully, a few people did love the acorn, and silently, against overwhelming odds, they preserved a knowledge that might've been lost forever. Thank you Julia, and thank you Sam, and thank you to everyone else, known or unknown, who has preserved an ancient tradition, that it might be passed down to us.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Ten Things Challenge

A while ago, i went through in my head the ten things i use most in my life, and set a goal to try to make as many of them as possible, from natural and local materials. Those that i can't make for myself i'll search for from someone i know, again, as local as possible. Or at least to know th' history of th' things i use most, where they come from, who made them, why were they made, etc...their story. Knowing a story makes a thing much more meanginful, and gets us to consider why we need these things in our life, and whether th' price we pay for them is worth it. It's been quite a challenge, but one that humanity has met throughout most of history, and only in th' last couple of centuries has departed from. That gives me courage, and has inspired me to meet this challenge. And, being a member of a family, that's th' first place to start looking for someone else to make something for me. Like having Beth make my clothes, I'm sure i could do it, but when you're married to a textile artist, it's only rational to allow her work to flourish in your own life. This is not so much a personal goal as a familial one, and more of an effort to feel that empowerment that people must've once felt who were able to meet their own needs. Th' list itself is not easy. We use so many things in our lives that many of th' most common place often get overlooked. My list, roughly, (and it changes frequently) goes something like this, in no particular order.

1. Clothing (or strings to make clothing)
2. Shoes (this could be considered clothing, i know, yet to me somehow feels different)
3. Sleeping quarters (pillow, bed, etc.)
4. House.
5. Food (and water)
6. Fire (light, heat)
7. Eating and cooking utensils
8. Tools (archery, woodworking,oh boy)
9. Soap
10. Furniture (tables, chairs, workbench, etc.)

I'm not going to be too stiff about this, it's a lifelong goal, and i'll build up to it over time, but it gives me one more thing in life to look forward too, and is an absolute joy to accomplish any part of, no matter how small. When one thing is accomplished it empowers you to move on to th' next. In our quest for new skills, we have met many fascinating and inspiring folk, and have begun to understand freedom in new and exciting ways. For me, it has helped me to re-asses my values, and how my time is spent, helped me to see what's really important in my life, and spend more time in those areas.
We'll put up related posts as we get time, slowly perhaps, but steadily- we've already written a bit about foraging, and not having much garden space, that has been a tremendously freeing experience.
So, we encourage you to take up this challenge yourself- It may just change your life for good. Don't be overwhelmed, just start with one thing, and go from there. Everything you do will prepare you for the next. Post comments and let us know what you're working on, ideas, etc. We'd love to hear from you. Start your own blog chronicling your experiences, and then post a link in th' comments section, so we can all share ideas. Let's see what kind of future we can build for our children.
soap dish, spoon blank, and tin can that i pretend is a carving knife

Wednesday, December 07, 2011


Sunlight. By it we see everything- 
It has the abilitiy to Illuminate.
And, by it's very brightness, to darken. 
All cultures have held it in reverence,
and it has been th' supreme symbol of th' Creator.
For without it, their could be no life at all.
All of our energy comes from it. All of our food.
This time of th' year, with th' sun slanting low in th' sky, it's very scarcity makes it precious-
and it seems to impart it's life to other objects freely, 
and they glow as with a light of their own.





Friday, November 18, 2011

Black Walnuts

Black Walnuts
black walnut tree, showing nuts in husk, leaves,
and deeply furrowed bark

     I've a new found respect for squirrels. I've always liked them, and we even have one who's practically a pet. Her name is Mama Squirrel, and she comes around about as often as we're moving about outside. She even comes in th' house when we let her. Last year she was badly maimed by a blue jay, and we fed her nuts while she was recovering, while she could barely walk. It took her about six months to heal, and even now she itches a lot, and has a bald spot just above her back right leg. We've seen her have two litters of babies, watched the babies grow up and move on, but mama squirrel stays around. She takes nuts out of our hands, and sometimes lets me pet her.
Mama Squirrel

      And, what has earned her my new found respect, she cracks black walnut shells with her teeth. You may not think much of this feat until you try to crack into a black walnut yourself. I think they're quite possibly th' hardest thing on th' planet. Exaggeratedly so of course. But still, they're so hard that if you try to use a common nutcracker to crack them, it may just come alive for a moment and laugh at you. But enough of th' wise cracks.
Hey! Come back here with that nut!

     There's a lot of black walnut trees around here. Most of them have been planted as ornamentals many years ago, and now a days th' walnuts usually just fall to th' ground for th' squirrels and stain peoples lawn mower blades. Suffice it to say that most folk are happy to part with them, all you need do is ask. Some times they'll even help you gather them, or at least offer you a bag to put them in. 
    Th' husks are green, somewhat larger than a golf ball around here, and have a sensational citrus like scent which repels insects, but attracts squirrels and myself. You can use th' husks to make ink, which was a common usage in medieval Europe, or a dye color anywhere from an olive green to a dark black. I've rubbed th' husks fresh over a sinew backed longbow and it made a nice natural camoflage. If you want worms for fishing, just run some water over a pile of fresh husks in your yard and "voila", instant worms. A guy that frequents th' bike shop where i work tells me he used to soak th' fresh husks in a bucket of water, then pour it into a stream or lake to catch fish. They'd rise to the surface stunned, and he'd scoop 'em up. I'll leave you to judge th' morality behind that one.
     The wood of the tree, like th' nut itself, is very hard and is a common fine furniture wood. It also makes good bow staves, and i've made a couple of arrows from walnut wood as well. 
wagon load of walnuts

     So, once you get your nuts gathered in their husks, you want to get them out of there asap, th' more th' husks dry th' harder they are to remove. A lot of folks will tell you to run them over with th' car, and some people even do it! But if you, like me, find the idea of driving on your food a little repulsive, and maybe even sacreligious, don't worry, there is a better way.
mashed husks and nuts

     If possible, i just mash them with my feet where they are, or use a log stomper, this way i can get many more in th' same amount of space, as th' husks are about half of their volume. You'd be surprised how efficient this method is, and how much less ridiculous you'll look than if your were driving back and forth back and forth over something you're gonna eat. When we can't husk them right there where we find them, we take them home, find a spot in th' back yard where th' ground is firm and mash them with a log, usually a bow stave that's curing. Fynn likes this th' best, as we can get "Black Hands" together. 
Fynn, mashing log, nuts in husk and de-husked
      This is really my favorite part of th' whole process, me and Fynn smashing walnut husks, about six squirrels fighting to get at 'em, and us getting black hands. Oh, it makes us smile. And Bethra in th' kitchen bakin up somethin good. This is livin i say. 
"Black Hands!"

Fynn getting black hands
     I work at a bike shop, so black hands are acceptable, most people just think it's bike grease and never wonder about it. For those who don't jump to that conclusion, it's a great conversation starter. But, if black hands aren't your thing, you'd better not touch these buggers with bare hands, it won't wash off. Also, it makes your hands very slippery for a few days, like there's soap on your finger tips and you can't seem to hold on to nothin. But one bite of that nut and oh it's worth it. 
     After we de-husk them, i rinse them well, them spread them evenly in a shallow cardboard box, and anytime i'm in th' back yard i'll put them in th' sun, but with mama squirrel around, i can not leave them alone even for a minute. Even with us out there she manages to get some, often with a daring leap from incredible distances. So anyway, let 'em dry for about two weeks. If you open them young, they're kinda jelly like, and reminiscent of a brain. Due to th' close resemblance of th' nut to a brain, th' Doctrine of Signatures would say they're good for your brain and mental functions. And th' Doctine of Signatures is very often correct. 
black walnuts and acorns drying in th' sun
(note th' squirrel tail in there) 

     Once they're dry, they're ready to crack and eat. And here's where it's just work. There's no shortcut to cracking black walnust as far as i know, and that's OK. All my life my family has sat around cracking pecans together. It was fun, it was something we did together, and it was work. Black walnuts are th' same. Though their shells are much harder, once you find your technique and practice a bit, it really doesn't take much longer than cracking any other nut. But it does taste better. So far i've only talked to one person who's tried them and didnae like them. She had about twenty pounds of them from her tree, ate one, and then brought us a bag full. Everyone else i've shared them with has liked them so far as i can tell. 

     What works best for me is to sit down near a small hole in my driveway (which i don't drive on, by th' way), which just holds th' nut up so i don't have to, then hit it a couple of good whacks with our river stone pestle.  
pounding stone and divet for nut
     At first i had th' tendency to pound them too hard, reducing them to bits and mixing up th' shells with smashed nuts. Trust me, you don't want to bite a shell
same picture with nut in place
when you think you're eating a nice soft nut. Anyway, once they're cracked, i use a small flathead screwdriver, or a nutpick to help break th' inner shell apart more and pry th' nutmeat out. Do this for a while and you have a nice bowl of black walnuts to eat. I've also cracked some by placing them in a vise with th' seams towards each jaw, and that works pretty well too, but being th' primitivist that i am, i prefer pounding them with a rock. 
a good cup of tea aids th' cracking process
cracked nuts, showing meat and shell

     I've read that black walnuts make excellent additions to baked goods, and we do have plans to try them, but so far we can't seem to stop eating them long enough to have any left over for baking. They have a very exotic flavor, nothing at all like an english or persian walnut. It's similar to a pecan, yet so vastly different as to defy all attempts at comparing it to any other nut. Give it a shot, it just may be th'  best thing you've ever tasted.   ~Rico 
Mama Squirrel