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.

Flora of Where I Live

When I see San Francisco in my mind, much of what defines the look of the city are the plants. Miner’s lettuce, nasturtium, French broom, Himalayan blackberry, eucalyptus, hollyhock, rosemary, Algerian ivy, jasmine, fennel, pines, ginkgo, olive, yellow oxalis, and so forth; these are all plants which are really common in San Francisco, and are plants which I powerfully associate with both the city and my childhood. For example, as a child, I would eat (or at least try to eat) most of the plants on the list with my school friends. Interestingly, out of all of those plants, only the miner’s lettuce and maybe the pines are native to California.

Taiwan has very different flora, having a totally different climate at all. In the less populated areas, lots of ferns, subtropical broad-leaf trees, ferns, bamboo, ferns and so forth. In the more populated areas, lots of rice, bananas, and vegetables. Outside of Taipei city itself, quite a bit of food gardening/farming happens within town/city limits – for example, just a 15-minute walk away from where I live there’s a rice field, and I live in downtown. And there are even still some farms within the city limits of Taipei itself – they tend to be in places like Neihu and Maokong. The lines between the urban and the rural seem blurrier in Taiwan than in California.

But sometimes I go to a place in Taiwan, and the flora makes me think of California.

Keelung makes me think of San Francisco and Oakland simply because it’s a hilly port city. Most of the flora in Keelung is of the low-elevation subtropical type, … but on Heping Island, the flora consists of coastal scrub. San Francisco also has plenty of coastal scrub, and while I’m sure the species are different, coastal scrub looks like coastal scrub. It made me think of California all the more as I looked out at the Pacific Ocean.

The first time I went through a patch of pine trees in Taiwan (I think it was in Pingxi) it also made me think of California, but pine trees are actually common in Taiwan at the higher elevations, and I’ve seen enough pine trees in Taiwan that they do make me think of California as much.

But last week, I went through an oak forest. In Taiwan. Specifically, I hiked the Wenshan trail in Hualien county, which runs from Wenshan to Lushui and is part of the path the Japanese made to help ‘pacify’ the Taroko people. I associate oak trees with the East Bay (Oakland and Berkeley), and I had never really seen oak trees in Taiwan before. So there were moments on that trail when I asked myself if I were really in California, not Taiwan. I even looked out for poison oak once or twice, even though I knew there is no poison oak in Taiwan.

Plants which I encounter frequently sprout and grow in my subconscious.