Oak trees are among the most visible icons of the ancient Northern California landscape. With dark limbs curling above a carpet of grass, they lend an almost parklike visage to the foothills. The ten native species here also have seasonally dropped vast quantities of edible harvests of acorns, which support a bounty of wildlife and once fed indigenous people, who used fire and other tested practices to protect and nurture productive “orchards” in the woodlands.
The acorn was the original California cuisine, a reliable, nutritious staple on every menu that literally grew on trees. But after thousands of years, the venerable acorn was ignominiously edged out, to be replaced by imports of wheat flour, French fries, instant rice and corn flakes.
Despite its culinary disappearance, appreciation for the humble oak tree nut was never completely extinguished, and now it’s making a modest comeback, thanks to renewed interest in local, sustainable, functional and even foraged foods.
A mid-February workshop at the Laguna de Santa Rosa Foundation entitled “Seed to Table: How to Process and Eat Acorns of the Laguna Watershed,” was nearly sold out several weeks in advance.
The wild acorn is also the focus of local tribal groups seeking ways to strengthen cultural ties, reclaim their rich California heritage, and restore links to healthy diets from ancestral lands. A local, indigenously produced new product, Acorn Bites, is set to hit the local market in February.
While a particularly large oak can yield as much as 500 to 1,000 pounds of acorns per season, eating acorns actually isn’t as simple as it sounds. Right off the tree, they are mouth-puckeringly bitter, and indigestible to humans, thanks to a healthy content of compounds called tannins. In the wild, those tannins help preserve acorns from rot and insects – they can be stored for years.
Preparing them to eat involved multiple careful steps, first of gathering, sorting, drying, and shelling. In the past, the nutmeats were ground by hand, using stone, into a course meal. The Pomo and Miwok grinding rocks were usually located near running water, and the group work was accompanied by songs. The resulting coarse meal was then subjected to long rinsing, which leached and then washed the tannins out.
Before Europeans arrived, this elaborate, labor intensive process was a community affair, guided by traditional cultural practices, and longstanding knowledge of the natural environment. Local bands had their own protocols for how and when the acorns were harvested, stored and processed. Some, for example, favored acorns that had been stored for years, or intentionally left the first fall of acorns for wildlife to harvest, to ensure their survival as well.
The acorn meal could be mixed with berries or salmon, boiled in baskets for porridge, pressed into cakes, dried or baked as flatbread. Scientists believe acorns made up more than half of the calories in the native Californians’ diet.
“When tribal communities here were dispossessed by incoming settlers, and targeted for extermination, traditions had to be hidden,” Nicole Lim, Executive Director of the nonprofit California Indian Museum and Cultural Center (CIMCC) in Santa Rosa, explains. “In dealing with native peoples, there was a concept: ‘kill the food, kill the culture’.”