First things first: I’m not Elizabeth. (I know: Awwwwwww…) As you know, Elizabeth had the stomach flue last week (Again, let’s hear it….) and so I, her sister, have been temporarily hijacking 52 Projects to tell you all about the things I made this week out of acorns. Yes. Acorns.
Here’s the context: I love Toronto, but I am not always happy to live here. I’d move, but I have a small business which I love beyond reason. This means (for now) being in a dense urban area. I dream of living somewhere with fields outside my window and time to look after animals, learn the names of birds, and mulch a giant veggie patch, but that’s not my current reality.
So, in my quest for dirt under my fingernails, Elizabeth told me about the PINE project, an urban non-profit, aiming to “bring the wonders of the natural world back to the urban jungle”. PINE works largely with kids, but they have various adult education programs on everything from tanning hides to identifying edible plants in the city. When I checked their website, the next workshop was a full-day on acorn processing. I thought, as you may be thinking, “How totally random.” And I signed right up.
Before I start DIY-ing, lemme sell this: Acorns are THE most consumed human food-source in history. Are you listening? That means that, as a species, we’ve eaten acorns more than corn, more than wheat, more than rice. Get out, right?
Story has it that in pre-euro-invasion North America, acorns were so key to the food supply of indigenous people that each family would have their own acorn-grinding tree-stump, which would be passed down from one generation to the next. Stealing it would be unheard of – access to acorns was life and death.
And, as I learned, there are many reasons why they’re an awesome food source:
1. Acorns are incredibly healthy, and they’ll fill you up quick.
2. Oak trees have enormous yields – one tree will create up to 200 pounds of edible acorn goodness in a season.
3. Oak trees are hardy as hell.
4. Oak trees grow all over the world.
5. Acorns are deeeee-licious.
So, what the heck happened? Why aren’t we popping them back like edamame or frito lays? One reason, which I also found out, is that they take a lot of work to process. That’s why the workshop took seven hours. In our facilitator Eddie’s words, “these ain’t the big mac of the woods.” But, the main reason, he suggested, is that oak trees are pretty much impossible to domesticate, since they are open pollinators, so modern farming methods can’t lasso them in.
OK, Sold? On to the workshop.
The group that ambled into the workshop at 10am on Saturday were a friendly smattering of teachers, wilderness-y types and reluctant urbanites like myself. While PINE hosted and oversaw the workshop, it was facilitated by Eddie Starnater and Julie Martin, an almost-freakishly-knowledgeable couple who run Practical Primitive a small company out of New Jersey, designed to learn and teach lessons from the natural world.
Step one: Gather ’em
OK OK, we didn’t actually do this part. We’re a few weeks late for acorn harvesting, so Eddie and Julie brought us several shopping bags full from home. Generally, one should look for acorns with no holes, and no nasty black patches.
Tip: Eddie said he would never take an acorn off a tree, or shake a tree to dislodge them. In his words, “The tree will let ‘em go when it’s ready.”
Step two: Bash ‘em
This was my favorite part of the day. After learning all about the history of acorns, we headed out to the back yard and sat around with rocks, cracking the shells open and pulling off the inner husks. I must admit, I did get a bit romantic at this point. It was one of those abnormally sunny fall days, and, sitting in a circle of good people, processing food in the sun… It was impossible not to start romanticizing bygone eras when life would have revolved around these tangible tasks.
Step three: Mash ‘em
It’s possible to eat acorns without making them into flour first, but it takes a lot longer to get the tannins out, so we decided to pound them right down. The traditional way to do this would be to carve a deep depression into a stump of wood, and then to spend hours and hours pounding the nuts with a big, round rock. We did this for a while, and then Julie busted out the more modern (“modern”) stainless-steal corn grinder, and we took turns at that. In the end – cup upon cup of beautiful brown nut-flour, which looked a little like brown sugar.
Step four: Get the tannins out
There was only one problem with the flour we’d created – it was disgusting. Acorns are very, very high in tannins. Tannins are medicinally fabulous, if you want to, say, stop blood flow or prevent acne, but they’re not even a little bit yummy.
There are many ways to remove tannins, most of them involving running water over the bits of acorn in some way. In yesteryear, this may have involved weaving baskets to enclose the acorns and lowering them into a stream for, say, a week. Eddie and Julie have some up with some more modern systems.
“In your post-apocalyptic survival kit, make sure to have at least four pairs of these” Eddie said, holding up a beige pair of panty hose. He explained his modern system: Fill the feet of the panty-hose with acorns, place in the back of your toilet tank (not bowl!), and leave them there. After enough flushes, the toilet will have done the same job as the stream, running clean water over and through your nut-meal and cleaning them of tannins.
For the sake of time, we did the hot processing method, which is quicker but also leaches some of the nutrients. We got a huge soup pot and boiled the acorn flour for a couple hours, often draining it and quickly replacing with hot, clear water.
FYI: I’m skimming over some things here, so I don’t recommend trying this without more careful instructions. Check out one of these, recommended by Eddie and Julie:
~ It Will Live Forever – Traditional Yesemonite Indian Acorn Preparation by Beverly Oritz and Julia Parker
~ Nature’s Garden: A Guide to Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Edible Wild Plants by Samuel Thayer
Step Five: Consummation
This step was pretty awesome. We each packed up a cup of acorn flour to take home, and with the rest we made acorn dumplings (which looked exactly like poo), acorn pizza crust and an acorn loaf, somewhat the same consistency as banana bread. We were going to make pancakes, but everyone was full. We also talked about ways to work acorn flour into everyday recipes replacing some of the flour content with acorn flour for greater protein and nutrition generally. Julie regaled us with stories of their other successes, including acorn muffins, acorn waffles, and an acorny topping for apple crisp. Yum.
I left this workshop feeling satisfied, and also sad. I loved learning about the history of this amazing food, and I was deeply fulfilled by the processing process. I’m grateful for organizations like The P.I.N.E. Project who bring these kinds of events to the city, and to people like Julie and Eddie who spend their lives reviving and teaching these skills. I have nothing but good to say about everything that happened between 10-5 that day.
Yet, my urban angst wasn’t curbed. I wandered through high park after the workshop, feeling a familiar, haunting sense of emptiness. I found a tree, not far from the sound of traffic, and sat down with my journal.
I looked at my hands, dirty from acorn tannins. Somehow, the hundreds of files I’d created on my computer this year, the flyers, the lesson plans, even the workshops, felt strangely abstract compared to the small baggie of brown nut flour that was sitting in my backpack.
And, to let’s be honest: It’s not likely that I’ll be carving a depression into a tree trunk to create my own acorn-processing station, or that I’ll radically change my life and career in the near future. But, I began to wonder about small next steps that will let me keep this feeling of beautiful production alive, and could move me closer to the gardens and birdsongs in my imagination.
I had a number of ideas, but here’s the important one: When I got home, I talked to Elizabeth (who was sounding much better, by the way) and suggested that I take over 52 projects for the next four weeks, to give her some recovery time. Many of you know that she took on a full-time job (with The Stop community food center) since she began this blog, and, as her health this weekend shows, she’s been working just a little too hard. This coming month will allow her a small sabbatical to regroup and ground, while I try keep this soil under my fingernails, and bring you stories from my own little trip.
‘Till the next!
PS I also had a fabulous chat over lunch with the a participant named Chris Gilmour who leads wilderness expeditions north of the city. We discussed collaborating some writing/nature expeditions. Journaling in the wilds, anyone? Poetry and dog sledding? (… you think I’m kidding.) Drop a line if you want updates.