Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Acorn of My Eye

The acorn drop here in western North Carolina has astounded me this fall. Oaks of every variety have produced a mast crop the likes of which I have never seen. Before it got too cool at night to leave the windows open, Sue and I had trouble sleeping for the acorns that crash onto the neighbor's tin-roofed shed.
That's not the only factor leading up to this post. Last week, we had our friends, Troy and So Yung, over for a succulent wild duck dinner. The featured bird happened to be wood duck - a lover of acorns. I started thinking of other game animals we eat that relish acorns; white-tailed deer - good, wild turkey - good, gray squirrel -goooooood. The next day, our friends traveled to Atlanta and ate at "The Iberian Pig" of Decatur, GA. The Jamon Iberico served there is made from the famed Iberico pigs of Spain, which eat a diet of mostly acorns before slaughter to develop the prized flavor of the meat.
Add in the fact that I'd just started reading Euell Gibbons' seminal work on foraging wild foods, "Stalking the Wild Asparagus," in which he writes (in the first chapter no less), "If we consider the whole sweep of his existence on earth, it seems likely that mankind has consumed many millions of tons more of acorns than he has of the cereal grains, which made their appearance only during the comparatively recent development of agriculture. It seems a pity that the food which nourished the childhood of our race is today nearly everywhere neglected and despised." Well shoot, that settled it right there. We were going back to our roots to eat acorns.
The fact is, not all modern cultures have abandoned the acorn. The Koreans eat them several ways, including an acorn noodle. North Africans, Portuguese, Italians and Native Americans still eat them too. Over at his blog, Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, Hank Shaw does a superb job of explaining the basics of acorn collecting, processing, storing and cooking. It's not like I was planning to reinvent the wheel. Lot's of people are doing it.
Maybe I should have taken a little more time for research and maybe I should have followed the advice I found a little more closely, but it seemed like everyone has his or her own way of making acorns fit to eat, so I decided to wing it with a mash-up of different techniques.
What oaks made these?
First, there was the gathering of the acorns. This was not difficult, for the reason I started this post. Acorns are abundant here. During a 1-hour hike just north of town, I collected 3-pounds of acorns. While I harvested, I cracked open the nuts of several varieties and tasted each to see if any were less bitter than the others. All acorns contain tannins that make them taste, well, poisonous. The white oaks are supposed to produce the sweetest acorns with the fewest tannins, but I couldn't detect any differences in the level of bitterness in the three or four varieties I found. I couldn't identify any of them with the guide book we have for oak trees because Sue had left it at work. Some were big. Some were long and narrow. A few had burly caps that almost enveloped the nut. They all tasted pretty toxic to me. No matter, I'd leach the tannins out by boiling the nuts when I got home.
Raw nuts
Shelling 3 pounds of acorns with a lobster cracker took a couple of hours. I had to throw a third of my catch into the forest, either because they'd been infected with the acorn weevil grub, or they were moldy inside.
Boiled nuts
With my raw acorn meats gleaming in the sun, I prepared the leaching bath - two pots of boiling water. One of these was for the acorns to start in, the other was for transferring the nuts at 20-minute intervals. Several of my sources warned against hot to cold water changes, as it locks in the bitter tannins (I don't know - I'm just telling you what I read). Mr. Gibbons also recommends tasting the acorns for bitterness after each 20-minute interval so as not to lose the natural sweetness of the nuts, which also reduces during the leaching period. I have to tell you I was still a little nauseous from sampling the raw nuts in the forest, so maybe I was a little over-anxious to get the tannins out. Though Gibbons says a 2-hour leaching process is normal, I decided mine were ready to come out after 80 minutes (on reflection, maybe it was my digestive system begging me to stop).
Oven-dried nuts
The boiled acorn meats were mushy and unappetizing, but I still had the drying process to complete before they'd be ready to cook with. I spread them out on a baking sheet and put them in a 200-degree oven for what turned out to be 3 more hours. During that time, the acorns shrank a bit and turned chocolaty brown, but not the good chocolaty. By this time it was 11 o'clock at night - past my bedtime. I'd been at this experiment, pretty much non-stop, for 8 hours and I figured they had to be done. I took out a small bite of acorn and ... ugggh ... tasted it. It was hard on the outside, chewy on the inside and, blast it to hell, still bitter! Discouraged, I threw the batch of semi-processed acorns in a Zip-Loc and tossed them in the freezer and went to bed for a fitful night's sleep thanks to my roiling stomach juices.
My acorns are still in the freezer, where they may remain indefinitely. In time, I may muster up enough courage to throw a handful into a hearty soup or stew, but for now, I have no stomach for it. Looking back, I certainly made my share of mistakes. I should have looked for white oaks and been more refined in my leaching and drying processes. I may revisit this experiment sometime in the future, but for now, I'm willing to claim victory in the fact that I produced something marginally edible that Sue and I can survive on in the case of famine. I'm also quite happy to leave future acorn processing to the deer, ducks and squirrels. I'll just get mine from them.


  1. I find it Quercus you chose to blame Sue for your inability to id the plethora of acorns you gathered for processing. You won't fool me the next time you serve a "blackened" dish.

  2. That's a big word I had to look up. Bravo!

  3. Got 19.25" of rain at the house since Sunday. Good thing we were in a drought before all this hit.