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For countless generations of American Indians, acorns were the staff of life. Some families gathered up to 500 pounds of acorns every September through November as they ripened. Today, most people regard acorns as food only for squirrels, and literally tons of this good food go to waste every autumn in the forest and on city streets. What a shame. Let's learn how we can rediscover this food of our ancestors.
There are over 200 species of oak including deciduous and evergreen trees and shrubs. All oaks
are easily identified by their fruit, the acorns, which are nuts set in scaly caps.
All acorns, regardless of species, can be consumed once they are processed. Acorns are not eaten raw because the presence of tannin makes them so bitter; thus a number of methods have been devised to rid the acorns of their tannic acid. One of the Indian practices was to bury the acorns in a swamp and return the following year. This removed the tannin and blackened the acorns. However, there are quicker methods which can put food on the table tonight.
Sometimes shelled acorns were wrapped in a cloth container (like a burlap bag) and submerged in a river overnight. The flowing water would leach the water-soluble tanning from the acorns by morning.
Some Indians would shell and grind the raw acorns into meal. Then this meal was put into a shallow depression tamped into a river's shady edge. Hot and cold water were poured over the meal for most of the day, washing the tannin out into the sand. The resultant acorn mush would then be carefully scooped from the sand and either dried or eaten as-is.
The final product would then be boiled into a mush, and was usually eaten cold. The acorn flour was usually baked into bread in crude ovens or used as a base for soup. Corn meal was often mixed into the acorn meal.
But, unless you're out camping, or have a strong desire to practice The Old Ways, most folks today process their acorns in their kitchen.
Boiling is the quickest method to render acorns edible. The shelled acorns are boiled, continually changing the water each time it becomes brown. You know they're done when you taste them and the bitterness is gone. Unfortunately, boiling results in a loss of oils and flavor.
Another leaching method involves nearly bringing the water to boil in a pot of shelled acorns. You don't actually boil the water, however. You then turn off the water and let the acorns sit for 24 hours. Then you pour off the water, add fresh water, nearly bring it to a boil, but then again turn off the water and let the acorns sit 24 hours. You repeat this process for a third day, and by then the acorns are usually free of tannic acid. This "cold" leaching results in a more flavorful, more nutritious acorn that is softer and easier to grind.
Once leached, the acorns must be thoroughly dried so as to ensure a long storage life. The dried acorns can then be ground with a hand mill, stone grinder, or heavy duty blender. The resulting flour can be used in bread, muffins, pancakes, grits, soup, etc., either alone or mixed with wheat or corn flour.
CHRISTOPHER'S ACORN BREAD
A favorite acorn bread recipe is as follows:
1 cup acorn flour
¾ cup whole wheat flour
¼ cup carob flour
3 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. sea salt
3 Tbsp. honey
1 cup raw milk
3 Tbsp. oil
Mix well and bake in greased pan for about 45 minutes (or longer) at 250 °F.
PANCAKES - I use the above recipe for making pancakes simply by adding more milk or water until the consistency is correct for pancake batter.
SOUP OR MUSH - Southern California Indians commonly used the leached and ground acorns as a base for soup or mush. To use as a soup base, mix approximately 2 cups of the meal with 8 cups of water. Add diced onions, potatoes, carrots, wild greens, and seasonings to suit your taste. To use as a breakfast mush, add milk and/or water to the acorn meal to your desired thickness. Serve with whatever you'd add to oatmeal, such things as raisins, sliced fruit, honey, butter, and cream.
Analysis of the acorn meal has shown it to be 65% carbohydrates, 18% fat, and 6% protein.
In the wild, acorns are eaten by mallards, pintails, and other water fowl; deer, elk, peccaries, and mountain sheep. Quail eat little acorns, and squirrels and chipmunks traditionally store them for winter.
Even in its death throes, the oak is useful in that it becomes a host for a myriad of other life forms. Gall wasps lay their eggs in the smaller oak branches, and, as the immature wasps develop, that section of the branch appears to "sprout" small green apples which slowly harden into brown balls. These balls are like miniature apartment houses for the new wasps.
Oak rot fungus (Armillaria mellea), one of the edible fungi, appears at the base of the dead and dying oak trees. The thick oak leaf mulch under the tree provides ideal growing conditions for the pored Boletus genus of mushrooms, many of which are edible. Countless edible termite larvae thrive on dead and fallen branches. The hollowed trunk becomes a home for bees, birds, snakes, and rats. What appears to the untrained eye to be death and decay, therefore, is, in truth, part of the symbiotic inter-relationship of plant and wildlife.
ARE ACORNS POISONOUS?
Livestock that have eaten large amounts of the young foliage and buds have become ill and in some cases died within a few days. Eating large amounts of the raw acorns can lead to toxicity due to the tannic acid. Humans never eat toxic amounts of raw acorns because of the extreme bitterness. Those who have persisted in eating raw acorns have nearly always been stopped far short of death because of the onset of frequent urination and constipation, abdominal pains, and extreme thirst. However, anyone with a normal sense of taste would find it nearly impossible to consume raw acorns in large amounts, unless they were either coerced into doing so, or needed to do so to prevent starvation.
Kingsbury, author of Poisonous Plants in the U.S. and Canada, included raw acorns on his list of poisonous plants. He stated that if large quantities were eaten over a long period of time, bloody stools and other symptoms would result. In an interview with Euell Gibbons (author of several books about natural foods) in the Mother Earth News, Gibbons responded to Kingsbury's reference to acorns as follows:
"Well, I wouldn't argue with him about that. If you ate raw acorns in large quantities ~ maybe a bushel every day for 10 years -- you'd probably get something like that. But then Kingsbury ended up by saying something like, "The effect of even the smallest amount, one time, on a very young child, is simply not known." You see what he's done? He's thrown a hell of a scare in there for every mother in the country. I could say exactly the same thing another way: "There's no evidence whatever that a small quantity of acorns, taken only one time, ever had any effect on a child." That's all he really said, but he said it in a way to make every woman grab her baby and run every time she sees an oak tree. I know 80-year-old Indians out west who've eaten acorns all their lives; every year. Whole cultures depended on them."