Food

The Great Acorn Caper – Su Terry

How the author made acorn muffins. WHY the author made acorn muffins. Why you, too, should make acorn muffins.

Image by klimkin from Pixabay

HORACE KEPHART’S BOOK Camping and Woodcraft–in which he gives the lowdown on everything from edible plant foraging to tanning animal skins to building a cabin in the woods, was first published by Macmillan in 1917. Was it any accident that during the war years of 1939–1945 the book was reprinted four times? Perhaps in wartime people are more apt to realize that their lifestyle could be interrupted at any moment, and survival might depend upon making do with what Nature provides.

My copy of the book, given to me by a friend thirty years ago, is yellowed but intact: 479 pages of wisdom for would-be survivalists. Can’t say I’ve actually read the whole thing, but I keep it handy for any Y2K’s or 2012’s that may come down the pike.

I remember a time in 1985 when I went camping with my friend Richie. We drove to a campsite in the Catskills, and I prepared camp while Richie went fishing in the lake for our dinner. Richie lived on 43rd Street in Manhattan. He did not catch any fish. So we drove to ShopRite and bought chicken parts.

Back at camp, I strung up our provisions from a tree limb, as instructed by Mr. Kephart, to keep them from bears and other varmints. Before long, a skunk wandered by to see what was up.

“A skunk! Throw a rock at it!” Richie yelled. “No, don’t!” he yelled again.

(Living on 43rd Street sharpens the wits, enabling speed-of-light thought and rapid-fire decision-making.) The skunk split on his own recognizance, and the next day so did we. But the romantic notion of living off the land lingers on, like the scent of skunk in the night woods.

As a kid, I rode my bicycle all over the Connecticut back roads, making frequent forays into the surrounding forest. My mother had told me to never, ever, eat anything that was growing wild, so I sampled Nature’s lot with the zeal only Prohibition can bring. As Horace Kephart confirms, “Not all of our wild food-plants are acrid or poisonous in a raw state, nor is it dangerous for anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of botany to experiment with them. Many are easily identified by those who know nothing at all of botany. I cannot say that all of them are palatable; but most of them are, when properly prepared for the table. Their taste in a raw state, generally speaking, is no more a criterion than is that of raw beans or asparagus.”

Herein lies the rub: their taste in a raw state . . . This is a not-so-subtle reminder that most of the foods we eat today undergo a considerable amount of processing before being packaged (wheat and rice, for instance) and require further processing, in the form of cooking, before they are finally edible. Such is the case with the acorn. But it practically rained acorns this year, and I was not going to let all of them escape.

SHELL: Bake acorns in 200 degree oven on a cookie sheet or tray, to crack open the shells. Further crack shells by laying them on a big towel and smashing with a wide hammer, or standing on them with a hard flat surface such as a ceramic tile. You can dance if you want. Shell acorns. Discard any that have a tiny hole in the shell, or that look rotten when you open them. Use a nutcracker, hammer, or simply bite down on shell to open. This step is time consuming. I suggest having an Acorn Shelling Party, a la Tom Sawyer. You could also do it while listening to music, or watching a stupid TV show that has no other justification. Or you could devise an Acorn Meditation–the road to nirvana is paved with acorns.

LEACH: Taste the raw acorn meat. If it’s very bitter, boil several times and drain water each time. Acorns in the White Oak family should not be very bitter. I leached mine two times only.

DEHYDRATE: Dry the wet acorn meat in a 200 degree oven, with the door open so the meat doesn’t burn (about 1/2 hour). Or you can lay them out in the sun. But make sure the squirrels don’t take them: Hey, wow! Thanks!

GRIND: Process in food processor or clean coffee grinder to a medium texture. In my Kitchen Aid this took only a few minutes of grinding. Stop and check frequently, or you’ll end up with too fine a powder, or else nut butter. (History buffs will note that the first Native Americans didn’t have Kitchen Aids or Cuisinarts. If anyone desires a more authentic reenactment experience, please go right ahead and grind manually!) Use the resulting acorn meal with different recipes that are in books and on the Internet. The one I adapted for my Acorn Muffins is from Euell Gibbons’ book Stalking the Wild Asparagus, recommended by my friend Lisa Tso. I found a used copy at Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon, but it is still in print and available at Amazon.

My acorn muffins were delicious! Very hearty, not too sweet, with nice texture and a moist consistency. They’re good with butter, jam, or as dinner rolls. But even more delicious was the feeling of satisfaction at harvesting my free, organic acorns. Well, I suppose they’re not exactly free–but they’re definitely included in my property taxes. The egg, sugar, milk, olive oil and salt I bought at the store. But in a pinch, what’s stopping me from getting a hen, a cow, an olive tree? Salt . . . let’s see, I think I could figure that out.

Harvesting sugar from beets may be slightly more problematic, however. The so-called “Roundup Ready” sugar beet now accounts for 95% of the United States crop. Roundup is a weed killer invented by Monsanto, the giant chemical company. As most people know, the problem with herbicides, antibiotics and insecticides is that their subjects tend to develop resistance to them. When certain weeds began showing a resistance to Roundup, Monsanto isolated the resistant gene and began inserting it into seeds, thereby creating crops that were themselves resistant to Roundup. This meant the crops could be doused with Roundup and live, while the still-evolving weeds would die.

Opponents to herbicides argue that harvesting Roundup Ready crops may be a lot easier for farmers in the short term, but possibly not in the long term. Here I cannot help but make a seemingly unrelated comparison to the music business! When musicians do a live gig, we have to mix the sound using microphones, amps and equalizers so the blend is good for both the audience and the musicians. The general approach to mixing is to boost the volume of any instrument that is not being heard adequately. This is the easiest way, but it often results in muddy sound with poor definition as you keep cranking the volume.

A more refined solution is to lower the volume of the instruments that are too loud. This somewhat more time-consuming process, however, combined with the fragile egos of musicians who prefer not to be turned down, makes it impractical for many situations. So we usually end up dousing everything with Soundup. The difference between Soundup and Roundup is that at the end of a gig, no damage has been done–unless you count those little cilia in the inner ear that don’t survive the audio onslaught. But you don’t really start missing them till you’re around 60 years old, and that’s so far away . . .

I could sign up my acorns as USDA Organic. That means I followed organic practices on my oak trees by not using chemicals on them. It doesn’t mean, however, that my acorns are necessarily completely free from contaminants. My neighbor’s chemically treated plant pollens might have been transported here by bees, wind, rain or cattle. Or a passing vehicle could have dropped some genetically modified seed on my property. Farmers who don’t use genetically modified seed find their crops are often contaminated with GM pollen from other farms in the area.

Monsanto has been the defendant in some anti-trust suits because of its Microsoft-like history of buying up the major seed companies (to the tune of $9 billion) and hard-selling bundled packages of GM seeds and herbicides to farmers. Their “loyalty program” then rewards farmers who use at least 70% Monsanto seeds. The farmers also must agree to use only Roundup as their herbicide, rather than a competing product. It’s brilliant, actually: get people to buy a problem, then sell them the solution.

In today’s controversial food industry saga, Monsanto is not the only villain. Other players make appearances in the 2008 film Food, Inc., which does for the food industry what Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle did for the meat packing industry a hundred years ago.

In the year 2000, the World Health Organization ranked the U.S. 37th in the list of health care performance amongst 191 countries. As author Michael Pollan points out, “more than half of what we spend on health care–of that $2.5 trillion–-is going [towards treating] preventable, chronic diseases linked to diet.”

Until the food business becomes more about food and less about business (and similarly for health care) the consumer will continue to get the short end of the stick. This is ironic, because it is actually the consumer who holds more power–at least collectively. The only reason so-called “health foods” arrived in supermarkets at all is because consumers demanded them.

Unfortunately, as long as healthy food choices are tied to a higher price point, many people will not be able to afford the choice. But you can always go to the park and collect acorns! Not to mention the rest of the vast array of foods found in backyards, meadows, parking lots, and by the side of the road.

Read my bumper: I Brake For Foragers.

AUNTIE SU’S ORGANIC ACORN MUFFINS

Sift together:
1 c bread flour
1 c acorn meal
3 TBS sugar
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt

Beat one egg. Mix in 3/4 cup half n half, 1/4 cup water, and 3 TBS olive oil. Mix wet ingredients with dry till everything is moist. Pour into greased muffin tins. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. If you use a greased loaf pan for acorn bread, bake at 400 degrees for 30 minutes.

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