I Gathered, Cooked, and Ate Acorns (Part 1)

Shelled acorns, sitting in a jar of water.

Shelled acorns, sitting in a jar of water.

Ever since I was a young child, I knew that the indigenous people of northern California ate acorns from oak trees as their staple food. Acorns are high in fat, protein, and starch, and oak trees take care of themselves, so the indigenous people did not need agriculture to have a steady, reliable source of food.

As it so happens, I live near groves of native oak trees, yet it was only last year that it occurred to me that I could also gather acorns and eat them.

Once the notion got into my head, I started paying a lot more attention to oak trees than I ever had before.

Last October, I visited Niles Canyon. I noticed that, whereas the acorns in San Francisco were still immature, there were already plenty of ripe acorns in the canyon. Impatient as I was, I decided to gather lots of acorns in the canyon.

Under a big blue sky, we see hills covered with yellow dead grass with splotches of green trees on them, and a road winds around the hills in the bottom right

Niles Canyon – the landscape practically screams ‘California’

I had acorns, great!

Then I had to shell them and remove the tests. That was time-consuming, not in the least because acorn shells are soft … rather than cracking them off, it was more a matter of peeling them off. At least it’s a relaxing, not-mentally-challenging activity, so eventually I got a bunch of shelled acorns.

Now here is the real rub with eating acorns … they are high in tannic acid. Humans can tolerate tannic acid in very low quantities (indeed, a number of foods do have low levels of tannic acid), but acorns have way more tannic acid than humans can tolerate. On top of that, tannic acid tastes very bitter. The tannic acid needs to be leeched out.

“The Best Way to Make Acorn Flour” and “Acorns, the Inside Story” were my main guides for DIY acorn preparation. As recommended, I blended the acorns with water, made a slurry, and tried to change the water until the tannins were (almost) all out. However, I did not find their methods for changing the water entirely practical, so I ended up doing my own improvisations, such as using a baster to extract the tannic water.

Here is the acorn-water slurry.  The tannic water (brown) is at the top, with a light layer of starch, with a (slightly darker) layer of acorn meal below the starchy layer.

Here is the acorn-water slurry. The tannic water (brown) is at the top, with a light layer of starch, with a (slightly darker) layer of acorn meal below the starchy layer.

My first attempt … I thought I had leeched out the tannins, since I couldn’t taste it in the water, but I did not taste the acorn meal itself … uh uh. The results were inedible.

I tried again. I kept on changing the water again and again and again … and it just seemed to go on forever. Eventually, I was not sure whether there were tannins left in the meal or not, but what the heck, I was tired of changing the water so much.

The acorn meal, straight out of the jar.

The acorn meal, straight out of the jar.

After pouring out the acorn meal, I used a flour sack towel to squeeze out all of the water I could.

This is what it looked like after I squeezed out the water

This is what it looked like after I squeezed out the water

I then put it in a pot, added fresh water, and cooked it as a porridge. The results … there was still a faint tannic taste, but all I had to do was add a dash of cinnamon, and then I could not taste the tannins at all. It probably was no more tannins than are in foods such as walnuts (indeed, the tannic taste made me think of walnuts), so I figured it was not a health risk.

In my next attempt, I tried a different leeching method – I used whole acorns rather than blended acorn/water slurry, and rather than just using fresh water, I used a mix of water and baking soda. After a couple weeks I was getting impatient, so I tried the hot water method – boiling the tannins out of the acorns, and changing the tannic water with non-tannic hot water about every 15 minutes. A few hours later, I had boiled acorns with the tannins mostly removed (they could still be tasted, but not so much more than walnuts, so I figured it was safe). I then roasted the acorns, which made them a little firmer, but they were still fairly soft.

In addition to the acorns from Niles Canyon, I have also gathered acorns from San Francisco, so eventually I intend to shelling, leeching, cooking, and eating them as well. Hopefully I’ll get better at this process.

So, aside from edible acorns, what did I get out of all of this effort? That is a question I will answer in Part 2.

The Kitchen Where I Turned Vegan, Part 3

You can find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

I picked up a vegan cookbook so I wouldn’t have to deal with the aversion I felt towards cooking with milk and eggs. I remember reading one review of a vegan cookbook who complained that vegan cookbooks shouldn’t have lengthy introductions about why people should become vegan because anyone would buy a vegan cookbook is already convinced the veganism is good. Well, that reviewer is wrong – I was persuaded to transition to veganism by a lengthy introduction in a vegan cookbook.

The thing which struck me in the lengthy introduction was not the animal rights arguments, but the environmental arguments. I had been so busy being proud of myself for being a semi-vegetarian and being So Nice to the Environment that I felt that I was excused from examining my diet further to see if there was anything more I could do to lower my ecological footprint. The lengthy introduction pointed out that it takes a lot less resources to support a vegan diet than even a semi-vegetarian diet.

That didn’t persuade me to go vegan right away, but hey, since I had already decided I was going to learn how to cook good vegan food, it wasn’t much of a stretch to commit to at least increasing the amount of vegan food I ate.

I also did a lot more reading about veganism. Even though I had been aware of veganism for a long time, I realized, I had never actually listened to what vegans have to say about veganism. This is why, when people have the knee jerk of reaction “I’ll never become a vegan no matter what” I have to wonder … how can you know if you’re not even bothering to listen to the arguments? During this reading, I encountered an excellent bit of a advice – try one new vegan food every single day. This is great advice for several reasons, not the least because it gives people transitioning to veganism something to do which is not centered on guilt.

I went ahead and tried a bunch of new vegan foods – both what I prepared in this shiny kitchen in my new residence with the assistance of the preachy vegan cookbook, and what I could find in local eateries.

I found that, when I decided to abstain from eating fish, cheese, etc. … I didn’t miss those foods as much as I thought I would. On the contrary, as I learned more about the harm which is done in order to get those foods to my plate, the less appetizing I found them.

On top of that, compared to trying to ask people whether the salmon came from California/Oregon (Yellow), Alaska (Green), or the Atlantic Salmon Farms of Environmental Destruction (Red), or agonizing over figuring out whether it was okay to eat this specific animal which was on the Seafood Watch ‘Yellow’ list … just not eating fish was a heck of a lot easier.

Over the course of weeks, I gave up eating animal-based foods for environmental reasons, and once I did that, I found myself much more receptive to the animal rights arguments in favor of veganism. At first I simply called myself a strict vegetarian (someone who eats a vegan diet, but does not abstain from consuming animals through non-food products), but I eventually concluded that it was better to go as far into being vegan as practically possible.

So that is how and where I became a vegan.