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Honoring the ancients by eating acorns

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Maybe you’ve noticed more acorns than ever falling from this sky this year. You wouldn’t be the only one. The large valley oak tree near our home has dropped thousands of acorns, many of which hit our roof with the acoustic equivalent of a gunshot. Thwack!

At one point in mid-August, I counted one impact every 30 seconds. Extrapolate this out and get nearly 3,000 falling acorns each day. Given that this went on for weeks, it’s no wonder that my yard was eventually nearly ankle-deep in the leathery shells.

Masting year

It turns out that throughout North America 2021 was what is known as a “masting” year. This means that trees produce more seeds than is typical. In a process that is little understood, trees — even spread out over vast distances — somehow are triggered or coordinate such events every decade or so.

There are many hypotheses on why masting happens. One is that extra-favorable conditions occurred during the flowering season and that leads to increased production. Another thought is that after fire events underbrush has been cleared, inspiring trees to produce more seeds that might successfully germinate with less competition.

A third theory suggests that trees somehow synchronize their efforts to thwart seed predation. The idea, in this case, is that trees overproduce seeds to the point where the squirrels, mice, other rodents, pigs, etc. that feed on the seeds are unable to eat them all, thus allowing some to germinate.

The extra-favorable conditions hypothesis sounds good, but very few studies actually address what such conditions look like. The idea that fire is somehow related to masting resonates with anyone living on the West Coast but does not account for the fact that 2021 is also a masting year on the East Coast.

The overproduction to overwhelm predators hypothesis sounds intriguing, but exactly how such coordination might happen is tough to understand, especially over such vast distances. Maybe the trees are just especially generous this year. We may never know, but perhaps the native inhabitants did.

Native inhabitants and the importance of acorns

The original inhabitants of the Napa Valley and surrounding area — the Pomo, Miwok, Wappo, Patwin, and Yuki — all ate acorns. There is debate as to when exactly these people first settled the area, but suffice it to say that they lived here for thousands of years. The people of these ancient tribes were intimately linked to the flora and fauna of the region, all living sustainably for many generations on what the land, their creativity and skills provided.

I’m proud of the fact that I can trace my Northern California roots back five generations, but my ancestors were basically explorers, not living in a single place for more than one or two generations.

It’s hard to imagine a family that had always lived in this relatively small region for hundreds of generations. What might such a tie to this place feel like? Would you know every rock in a stream or where to gather the finest reeds for basket making or the location of oak trees that consistently dropped the sweetest and plumpest acorns?

The ancient inhabitants of this place were linked to this land in a manner that is unfathomable to anyone who has explorers in their recent ancestry. We come from two very different philosophies. One lived in balance with nature for millennia, while the other learned to extract what it wanted before moving on to the next location or conquest.

But what happens to explorers when there is nowhere left to go and nothing left to conquer? What then? One answer is to look to the ancients for guidance on how best to live as if we might be staying for a while. And making acorns into food might just provide a peek into such a worldview.

What to do with all those acorns?

Food made using acorn meal is delicious. Processed correctly, the flavor is nutty with a hint of caramel and has a texture that is almost creamy. My family and I adore using it for pancakes and cookies.

Read on, and I will explain how to make your own acorn meal and provide a couple of recipes. But first a warning: The process I describe will take days to complete and is tedious and not likely anything from which you can make money. Also, although it’s possible to purchase acorn meal, I have not found any that is as good as that I’ve made myself. My approach is slightly different, but everything I do with acorns is informed by the native inhabitants from this area.

Harvesting acorns brings to mind the ancient peoples who once lived here. I picture them gathering, and I thank them for passing down their knowledge and for their care of this region’s water, land, flora and fauna. Although I do not have any Native American heritage within me of which I am aware, I feel it’s important to show gratitude to these teachers and guides. When my family and I eat food made from acorns we also give thanks to the oak trees for providing us nourishment and pleasure. These are small and perhaps strange rituals, but for us, it just feels like the right thing to do.

Making acorn meal

Every pound of acorns yields about 1 cup of acorn meal. Look for acorns that have intact shells and no signs of damage or bug infestation. It’s possible to shell newly harvested acorns right away — just take a hammer and crack them open — but allowing them to dry in a warm location for a week or more works best.

Luckily, I have an outdoor shed that gets warm in the afternoon sun, so I just place my harvested basket in the shed to dry. Many of the acorns will eventually crack open on their own. When this happens it’s like a little gift since the acorn meat slips out of its hard shell without much prodding. When this doesn’t happen, I use a nutcracker to crack the shell and an oyster fork to pry out the meat.

Because acorns are full of tannic acid, before they can be eaten they must be thoroughly washed — first by being crushed and then rinsed with cold water to leach off any excess bitter tannins. To do this, rough chop the acorn meat into gravel-sized pieces. This can be done using a traditional stone mortar and pestle or pulsing within a food processor.

At this point, you could soak the acorns in hot water to speed up the leaching process. But I highly recommend that you never use hot water because it can denature some of the nut’s proteins, which changes the final meal’s texture from creamy to grainy.

Place the meal into a bowl with a lid and cover with cold water. You’ll need to replace the water twice a day for three to seven days. Not storing in a refrigerator at this stage will cause the solution to ferment, which in my experience is not pretty.

You will know when enough tannin has been removed by nibbling a kernel. If it tastes sweet you are good to go to the next step, but if it remains bitter and overly tannic then you’ll have more washes to complete.

Once the acorns are ready, drain and puree in a food processor into a fine paste (adding cold water as necessary). Using cheesecloth, drain and squeeze out as much liquid from the puree as possible and spread out (a max of 1/4 inch depth) on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Place into the oven at 125 F (or a dehydrator) and let dry overnight. Once dry, crumble and push through a fine-mesh sieve or flour mill. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one month.

Acorn Pancakes 

Start to finish: 5 minutes

Servings: 3-4

1 cup acorn flour

1 cup wheat flour or gluten-free flour

2 teaspoons brown sugar

2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2-3 cups buttermilk or almond milk

2 large eggs, beaten or the equivalent of egg substitute

1 tablespoon unsalted butter or butter substitute, or as needed

Whisk flours, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda together in a bowl. Beat milk and egg together in another bowl. Pour flour mixture into milk mixture; whisk until batter is thick and smooth. Let batter rest a few minutes. Melt butter on a griddle over medium-high heat. Drop batter by ladle onto the griddle and cook until bubbles form and the edges are dry — 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and cook until browned on both sides — 1 to 2 minutes. Repeat with the remaining batter. Serve with maple syrup or fresh berries.

Acorn Cookies 

Start to finish: 15 minutes

Servings: 2 dozen cookies

1 cup butter or butter substitute, softened

1/2 cup granulated cane sugar

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

2 eggs or the equivalent of egg substitute

1 tablespoon molasses

2 cups all-purpose flour or gluten-free flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

3 cups acorn flour

24 walnut halves

Heat the oven to 375 F. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

In a medium bowl, cream together butter, sugar, molasses, and brown sugar. Beat in eggs one at a time.

Combine flour, baking soda, and salt; stir into the creamed mixture. Mix in acorn flour. Cover and chill dough for at least an hour.

Roll the dough into walnut-sized balls, and place 2 inches apart on cookie sheets. Flatten each cookie a little by firmly placing a walnut half in the center. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes.

Allow cookies to cool on the baking sheet for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

Tim Carl shares a Death Valley “Holy Grail” time lapse filmed in June 2021. Courtesy of Tim Carl.

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