ethnobotany feralculture local food permaculture tending the wild wild food

here it’s all acorns

dscn0858.JPGdscn0852.JPG 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.

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9 thoughts on “here it’s all acorns

  1. Since I was a child I’ve wanted to try making acorn flour but I didn’t have anyone to show the way. The recent article on acorns as food in the Harbin Hot Springs newsletter made me think about it again. And folks on the NAFEX list have been discussing which are the most edible varieties. In the HHS article, the writer mentioned how last season the acorns from live oaks that she ran across were already moldy. I went to the Oakland Rose Garden for the first time and when I noticed acorns all over, I tried splitting some to eat. But worms and other things had already gotten to them. So I’ve yet to try acorns. If I could find ones the squirrels, worms, fungi, etc. hadn’t already found, I’d give them a try.

  2. The trees in the Oakland Rose garden are live oaks. Their acorns are supposed to be more nutritious and store better than the valley oaks of my article, but I’ve had a very similar experience as you describe: They are full of worms, mold, and various forms of rot. They are also much smaller and harder to shell in my experience, and they require far more leaching. One theory for this poor live oak crop is the lack of Native land management practices such as burning that would presumably reduce the number of problems. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  3. Ah. I just went to the Mt. View Cemetery this last week and picked a bunch of more stereotypically-shaped acorns. Haven’t popped them yet but I think they may be in better shape than the other ones. (Can you tell I don’t know the difference between different oaks?)

  4. It’s easier to tell the type of oak from looking at the leaves rather than at the acorns. I’ve never been to the Mt View Cemetery but my best guess would be one of the Live Oaks. Is it evergreen? Does it have pointed leaf lobes? Some Valley Oaks and Black Oaks can be found in the Oakland area, but in an urban area you are also likely to get non native California oaks such as cork bark oak or some English or East Coast oaks.

  5. Just watched your video on Sunny’s site, also had a look at your site. Lovely video, I’m always enthusing about acorns to the perplexed. Perhaps though they have reason to be. After all, although as you say, acorns are a delight to harvest, they are not, as you say, easy to process! Part of the problem is that here in the UK our native oak, Quercus pedunculata, is high in tannin. Even when ground up it takes 6 weeks to leach this out in a clean flowing river. OK, that’s not really hard, after all it’s the river that’s doing all the work. Nevertheless, to make flour in sufficient quantities to use as a staple requires considerable effort if you decide to remove the shells. In this regard, I have a couple of questions which I really hope you can answer. Firstly, is it really necessary to remove the shells? The 50kg of acorns I gathered last year have now been turned into flour but I had trouble removing the shells. The best method I could devise was to roughly grind the acorns and tip them into a bath full of water. This way the shells that floated to the surface – about 50+%- could be scooped off, dried and used for smoking. Once dried and finely ground much of the remaining shell was removed during sieving. I still imagine that at least 10% shell remains in the final flour. The only reason I remove the shell is because I can find no information on their edibility. If they are OK to eat – although not providing much in the way of calories, it would be far easier just to leave them on. Do you have any info about their edibility/toxicity? Also, if you do remove the shells, do you have a better technique than the one I use?
    Keep up the good work!

  6. Fergus, thanks for dropping by.

    About your acorn experiences: 6 weeks in a river!
    That’s intense. Here the live oaks possess lots of tannins, and take
    longer to leech, but only a few days. I have never heard of leeching
    them with the shells, I wouldn’t want to have any shells in my meal at
    all. I don’t think there is anything toxic in the shells, other than
    tannin, which I suspect is in there as well, possibly in higher
    concentrations than the nutmeats. Shell removal in my experience is
    fairly easy. (I have done this with Eastern White Oak, an Eastern Red
    Oak, as well as California Live Oak, California Black Oak, and Valley
    Oak (Quercus lobata.). With the smaller, more tannin rich live oak
    acorns, it is a bit more fiddly, but the taste and nutrition is
    better. I use a simple $3 dollar nutcracker typically, but I’ve also
    used stones to crack them. It’s easier to do when they are dry, but
    other than I’m not sure of any particular method. One thing that
    really makes it worthwhile is to sit around and have great
    conversation in a beautiful place, so after a pleasant afternoon you
    have all these beautiful nutmeats by simply not having idle hands when
    chatting.

    I have heard of certain California native tribes that would put the
    whole acorns (still in shell) in basket in the river for a year or
    more, until they fermented, rendering them edible and delicious. Now
    that’s an advanced technique!

  7. Hello,
    I am a veterinarian in Campbell (near San Jose). I am writing to inquire about the potential toxicity of the acorns of The Coast Live Oak (Quercus agrifolia). I have a canine patient who has a penchant for eating them in great quantities. She spends her days in the backyard where this tree is dropping a copious amount of acorns faster than can be cleaned up and her owners are concerned for her safety.

    I cannot find anything online about this variety specifically with relation to ingesting acorns.
    Please advise if this is something to be concerned about.

    Thank you,

    Chana Eisenstein, DVM

  8. Hi Chana, I am NOT a doctor, so please don’t listen to anything I have to say.

    But I will say this anyway: Live Oak acorns typically have a high degree of tannin, the only thing that’s toxic in acorns. Squirrels and deer eat them unleached, maybe a dog can, too. The toxicity probably also depends on the total diet of the dog, as some foods have the ability to absorb the toxic tannin (like edible clay.)

  9. Hello, and thanks for the great website!

    We’re a family in Orange County that’s slowly converting our large yard to natives. Originally, the motivation was asthetic, conservation and wildlife. Plantings have included two coast live oaks over the last 7 years, that are today 25 and 10 feet tall. We’re now beginning to think locally about our food and would like to know more about what to expect from our oaks. We have room to plant more and, depending on our ability to use them as a supplemental food source, may do so.

    Solid infomation about edibility is very hard to come by. Here are some questions that others may also share:

    1) Do all coast live oaks yeild accorns, at what age, and what type of yeild can be expected from a healthy tree?

    2) You discuss nutrition generally, but are there specifics available on protein, carb and fat percentages, and on other nutrients? We have two growing boys, and this would help us plan the accorns into their diets in an intelligent way.

    3) What is a good source of detailed prep and recipes for these accorns?

    Thank you, or any of your readers, in advance for help with these queries. We’re excited to truly “go local” with some of our food!

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