Monday, August 01, 2005

the mighty acorn

Elaine is a botanist as well as a friend. Once she added this item to my meagre store of knowledge: "There are few plants that will actually kill you. But there are a great many that, if you eat them, will make you wish you were dead."

Think then of the great desperation that led the Amerinds to make a flour out of acorns. Yes, those insouciant brown nuts with their burr caps that heave up mighty oak trees. Ever taste one? Straight from the tree, au naturel, I cannot reccomend more than the slightest taste with something handy to thoroughly rinse your mouth out, after you expectorate the nutmeat. The bitter flavor is tannic acid -- the same that tans leather. Over-strong tea will give you something similar -- though at the pastel end of the spectrum. The tannins in acorns are more like primary colors. Yet, properly processed, acorn flour makes an okay bread, or so I was told long ago when I worked at a school camp in California.

The Amerinds gathered the nuts carefully in the fall, picking them over for worms and molds, as they shelled the critters. The crushed nutmeats were hung in bags in fast running streams for days, and possibly weeks. At first the water turned a dark brown from the tannic acid. When the water ran clear, the nuts were ready to dry, grind, mix and bake. As dry stores, the acorns helped them through the winter. I doubt the acorns contain any gluten to hold the gas created in raising. So I expect the acorns would have made more of a cracker then a bread. No doubt it was eaten with relish -- as being better than nothing at all.

That first comer, though! The one who was so tired of starving that the bitterness of the raw acorn was preferable if not tolerable. Was it an accident? A bag of acorns found in a stream that gave the hint about leaching? But why gather acorns into a bag if you don't know how to use them? Squirrels hoard the acorn harvest for winter use. Maybe a ground squirrel's nest was flooded? But the squirrel stores the nuts in the shell -- they weren't cracked. Did someone attempt to make a soup? Steeping or boiling the nuts would release the tannin? Perhaps an interruption. A cup with water and shelled acorns left to soak. Though the stock was too bitter to drink, the nut was sweeter.

I ponder these things awestruck that not only did the discovery occur, but that the discoverer had the moxie to grab his companions by their scruffs and make them understand that something had changed. That it could be made to change. And for the better.