A sure sign and sound of autumn is acorns littering the lawn and dropping on the roof at night. The sound often startles me as the nuts break the nocturnal noiselessness by tapping on and rolling down the shingles. I'm a roof kind of person and love this unique dance of fall.
By day I watch chipmunks and squirrels scurry and scramble to hoard the nuts into their winter caches. Acorns are an important food source for many animals and birds. They are relished by mallards, pintails and wood ducks. Pigeons, doves and gallinaceous birds such as turkeys, pheasants, quail, grouse and prairie chickens enjoy the nuts and the buds. While some birds peck through the shell to get to the inner meat, wild turkeys will gulp down acorns regardless of their size.
Deer, elk, peccaries and mountain sheep consume the nuts and also browse on the twigs and foliage. Acorns are devoured by black bears and when the nuts are prolific will readily gorge themselves. This year acorns are so plentiful at my place that the bear who resides near us has been leaving his calling card of scat right off the back step.
Wildlife isn't alone in its enjoyment of acorns. The fruit from the 300 species of oaks found in the warm part of the north temperate zone and adjacent tropical mountains have provided food for people worldwide.
In America the native people, early immigrants, naturalists, culinary adventurers and outdoor lovers have used the nuts to expand their wild edible menus. In parts of Mexico and Europe many people still eat acorns in the old ways.
According to Bradford Angier's "Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants" acorn soup, or mush, was probably the main daily food of more than three-fourths of native Californians. All tribes ate the nutritious nuts by themselves or in combination with other foods. Roasted nuts were ground into a coarse meal that was used alone, or mixed with corn meal, to make into cakes that were baked. Sometimes the acorns were ground more finely to make a drink similar to wilderness coffee or tea. The hungry pilgrims who arrived in 1620 were fortunate enough to find baskets of roasted acorns that Indians had buried in the ground. Discovery of this cache helped them survive the first winter in Plymouth.
In a nutshell, oaks are divided into two basic groups: red and white. Acorns from red oaks do not mature until the end of the second growing season. These acorns tend to contain more astringent tannic acid and thus are more bitter than acorns from white oaks.
Native Americans extracted the bitterness from acorns in several ways. Sometimes the nuts were buried in the mud for a year, then retrieved for roasting and eating whole. Other tribes let the shelled acorns mold in baskets and then buried them in clean freshwater sand. When they turned very dark the nuts were sweet and ready to use. Another method was to leach out the tart taste by slow roasting.
Today, the simplest method to remove the bitterness is to cook acorns. Remove the caps, boil the nuts in a shell for two to four hours and change the water as it becomes dark. Boiling will crack the hulls and release the nuts. To expedite the process decap, crack and shell the acorns first. The acorns can be baked for an hour at 300 degrees and eaten as is or ground into coarse flour for use in breads and griddlecakes.
If you value early food preparation methods, immerse the nuts in a porous container or cloth sack and anchor it in a stream for several days. After this treatment the acorns can be sun dried or roasted to use in the same manner mentioned.
Acorns from the white oak group, which includes burr oaks, are considerably sweeter and need little or no blanching. Crack the nuts and taste for sourness. If they are sweet enough for your personal taste you can eat them raw. If not, boil or soak them in one or more changes of water. Numerous and creative acorn recipes are found in wild food cookbooks and on the internet.
With the abundance of acorns this year I don't think humans will have much impact on the supply if we harvest a few nuts. I'm sure there'll be plenty left after the wild birds and animals get their share. And remember this other gift of the fruit: "Tall oaks from little acorns grow."
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