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.

1 comment:

  1. And, thank you, for this beautiful instruction. I used to leech much larger kernels but I love this ground one better.