A Nut By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet – Just Ask Any Squirrel

When I first brought up the possibility that my contribution to the “Nut Cracker” blog post would be about acorns, Ann’s immediate response was “Are you nuts?  Acorns are not nuts!” (or something to that effect).  I found this curious because she was thinking about mentioning an Atlantic Magazine article about research on the amazing ability of squirrels to store and archive nuts.  Indeed, the researchers used almonds, walnuts, pecans, and hazelnuts with their squirrel subjects. But the fact is, squirrels eat way more acorns than all those bourgeois nuts combined. So I am sticking to my guns and writing about acorns.

Note from Ann: there is a bit of a family dispute about this particular exchange. I may have said “you’re nuts!” But – using the same excuse familiar to those in politics  – “I don’t recall” ever questioning the nuttiness of acorns.

Farmers Market Nuts

Just try to find acorns at the Santa Rosa Community Farmers’ Market

To start with, acorns are nuts.   I generally don’t like to immediately resort to the Wickipedia heavy artillery, but this situation begs for it – “The acorn, or oak nut, is the nut of the oaks and their close relatives (genera Quercus and Lithocarpus, in the family Fagaceae)”.

But I am not satisfied with merely establishing the fact that acorns are certified nuts.  They deserve our respect and a rightful place in the nut hierarchy.   Because acorns are not sexy and not represented by large marketing organizations such as the California Walnut Board or the Almond Board of California, they remain under foodies’ nut radar.   So I think it’s only fair that our blog offers these proletarian oak reproductive organs equal billing along with the bourgeois walnuts and pecans.

Returning to the nut-archiving squirrels mentioned above, I want to share some conclusive ethnographic evidence regarding squirrel diet. To do this you need to know something about Lucky. Lucky (named by our kids) first joined our family when we discovered him as a teeny tiny baby gray squirrel (aka kit, kitten, cub) after falling out of a nest from one of our big Louisiana oaks (it was the 1980s and no one had told us we shouldn’t try to domesticate wild animals). We read up on what to do and somehow nursed Lucky into a healthy young buck of a squirrel.   Until he was almost fully grown, Lucky had the run of the house and was part of the family (although he was the only member who would gnaw through electric cords and wooden table legs).

When Lucky began to mature we hoisted his cage up into our oak tree so he could come and go as he pleased. Eventually, he took off for good, although we thought we occasionally caught a glimpse of him amongst the numerous gray squirrels that frequented our trees and relentlessly raided our bird feeders.

Note from Ann: Andy has blocked out one of the more disturbing Lucky stories, centered on a very uptight older guest, who, as she was walking up our semi-dark driveway for a dinner party, had Lucky, who obviously thought the guest was a family member, come dashing up from behind, scramble wildly up her legs and back, and land happily on her shoulder.  It wasn’t pretty.

travis&lucky

Travis and Lucky the squirrel

Although I never personally witnessed Lucky dining on acorns in the wild, our son Travis who was about 7 years old at the time, drew an ethnographic field sketch of Lucky on a branch of our oak eating acorns on a tiny table. This was conclusive proof that (1) squirrels do eat things other than highfalutin nuts and (2) Travis was a skilled nature illustrator by the time he was 7 years old (a career option which he abandoned in college in favor of sociology).

oct10tadLuckycrop2

From Travis’s ethnographic field notes (1980?)

Of course, squirrels are not the only creatures that eat acorns. More than 100 U.S. vertebrate species eat acorns, including one of my local favorites, the acorn woodpecker. These zany birds, which often raise a delightful racket in our neighborhood, build amazing family “pantries” which can archive up 50,000 acorns (learn more about them here.) I could digress at length about these guys, but I need to get to the acorn-eating vertebrate that is most relevant to this blog: humans.

Acorn Woodpecker Pantry1

Acorn Woodpecker at an acorn pantry

Despite not being wildly popular in the U.S., acorns have long been a part of the homo sapien diet. In addition to some Native American communities, there is historical evidence that acorns were an important food source throughout much of the world.  Acorns are mentioned in ancient Greek literature. Korean cuisine includes a jelly from acorn starch called dotorimuk and is used in a variety of dishes (maybe there is an Acorn Board of Korea?).

I should also note that the Organic Facts web site touts the lowly acorn’s health benefits which stack up quite favorably to those of high-society nuts mentioned in Ann’s part of the blog.  But before you go out and pop some acorns into your mouth be warned that they are full of tannins and very, very bitter. However, prepared correctly, they can be ground into tasty flour or meal.

If you read  Why I Sometimes Carp about Fishing or our blog on Where the Wild Things Are it will come as no surprise that Euell Gibbons’ Stalking the Wild Asparagus includes a chapter on the acorn – with recipes such as candied acorns, acorn grits and acorn griddle cakes.  You can also find a number of acorn recipes on the Earth Skills web site.  If you really, really want to get into the acorn scene check out “How to Eat an Acorn” where you can sign up for a course on how to make “Acorn Crusted Pollock with Polenta”, “Acorn ‘French Toast’ Scramble”, and- don’t tell Lucky about this one – “Pan Fried Squirrel w/Frank’s Sriracha”.

My fellow Bouverie docents, Nancy and Cheri, each make delightful acorn-based treats. Nancy gave me some tips on preparing the acorn flour:

“I cheat a bit and use my dehydrator to dry the shelled acorns and then pulverize them in my VitaMix.  I put the flour into fine cheesecloth (I think I’d use a cotton dishtowel next time), gather the ends and leach the flour under the faucet in my sink, squeezing out the cloth from time to time until the flour no longer tastes bitter.  The finished flour is actually almost sweet.

For those not wanting to go through the trouble of making the flour, Cheri suggests ordering it from Royce Native Orchard.  Their Facebook site offers lots of enticing recipes as well.

Full disclosure: neither Ann nor I have tried to cook with acorn flour… yet. But it is on my to-do list (I am not sure about her list) … as soon as I finish shelling a bag of almonds for Ann’s next culinary creation.

Bottom line is that our traditional holiday nuts may not be the only game in town. Although not a prophet, I predict that it won’t be long before the (yet to be formed) California Acorn Board will be funding TV ads with well known celebrities schlepping through the oak woodlands wolfing down acorn-based pastries.

Bon Appétit!

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