As someone who is committed to eating local and sustainable foods, there are two problems that I often come across. One is that most local foods are things that you cannot really base a diet on — local greens are great but you can’t get enough calories to live on them. The other is the extreme disconnect from the natural world (and its foods) that is so pervasive in our society. This unsustainable culture makes local food movements very difficult.
As garden manager of a children’s center, I try to provide opportunities for children to engage and feel connected to the natural world. The best way I’ve found to do this is through food. Although fresh garden veggies are a big hit, no food excites the children more than the wonders of the wild. I often see kids and their parents picking blackberries, and we’ve gone on several field trips and gathered all sorts of wild and feral foods such as figs, pomegranates, wild plums, feral pears and many others. This suburban part of California is FULL of food! Most of this simply rots, unfortunately. I have been closely observing this phenomenon for 4 years now, and each year I’m shocked at the amount of food that goes to waste. As people hit the farmer’s markets in increasing numbers, the fruit in their yards continues to rot. Nowhere can this be seen more than with the acorn crop.
Acorns were a staple of the people that lived in this area not so long ago. They subsisted on acorns for thousands of years, many times they provided 60% or more of their total diet. The Natives in this area were strong and healthy, and lived a very rich, leisurely life. As with most human cultures that have existed on this planet, life wasn’t full of toil. They spent on average only 3 or 4 hours a day of satisfying work to make an abundant life. Acorns were a big part of this lifestyle.
Acorns, having more carbohydrate than protein or fat (although they do contain healthy portions of those as well), are more similar to grain than nuts. It makes more sense to talk about acorns as corn or wheat, rather than walnuts or almonds. Acorns, however, are far more nutritious than wheat or corn, containing more essential amino acids, protein, fat, calcium, phosphorus, potassium and myriad other vitamins and minerals that humans need to grow healthy. They also contain no gluten, and can be eaten without cooking.
Time and time again, I hear people commenting on how desperate the Natives must have been for food that they would resort to eating acorns. It is a complete misconception that it takes a lot of work to eat acorns. Wheat and corn agriculture demands tremendous amounts of work and ultimately depletes the soil (as well as displacing wildlife and mystery and intrigue.) Oaks build the soil, provide for wildlife (and mystery and intrigue.) The oaks were managed by the Native Californians, but their methods required little effort compared to grain agriculture. So that’s the growing them part, people say, but what about processing them? Acorns are easy! Going from picking the acorns off the ground to eating a dish made with them is ridiculously easy compared to harvesting wheat from the field and trying to make bread. You can make the acorns yourself, but wheat pretty much requires a slave labor force to get you your daily bread. All you have to do with acorns is shell them, grind them, and run water through them until the tannin is gone (leaching). You can put the ground acorns in a cheesecloth and tie it to your faucet (or hose outside) and let it drip slowly overnight. In the morning you have this local, sustainable, wonderful, nutritious food.
This year it is especially easy, because the valley oaks (Quercus lobata) are masting — that is they are producing a bumper crop of acorns that are thousands of times more than all the wildlife could eat in their wildest dreams. This year is particularly abundant. I first noticed these trees in 2004 when there was a similar bumper crop of acorns. I was astonished as I saw all this amazing food being run over, stepped on, swept up and thrown in the trash. The thing that disturbed me the most was how for the most part the crop was being ignored (other than the nuisance they caused to be people’s decks, roofs, and driveways.) I gathered several bags worth and ate them on special occasions for the following year. To my surprise, in 2005 and 2006, there were virtually no acorns on the valley oaks whatsoever. This was true not only for the valley oaks in my area, but every valley oak I observed from Contra Costa to Sonoma, Napa, Santa Clara counties. So when I saw all the green acorns on the valley oaks this summer, I was ecstatic.
Valley oak acorns are some of the largest in the world, easy to shell and even easier to leach.
So this year I have harvested about 100 pounds for myself (which isn’t even a drop in the hat) and about the same amount with the kids. The children naturally take to gathering the acorns, and we’ve spent several afternoons telling stories and having great conversation while we shelling them. We’ve made the best pancakes I’ve ever had (and probably the most nutritious, too) as well as cookies and bread-like treats made from the ground and leached acorn meal. This has been one of the most enriching experiences I’ve had with the kids, connecting them to the natural world in a way that nothing else really can. This is the most local and sustainable food you can get. It required no fossil fuels at all to deliver them to us. And acorns are very filling, too, so maybe we might actually do the planet a favor and buy a little less imported and ecological unsound food.