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Treebeard's Stumper
22 November 2002

Forgotten Harvest

Did you notice that it's the peak of acorn harvest time here in central California? The birds know! It's remarkable that these same acorns that clutter our patios were once the "staff of life" for the Chumash Native Americans in these parts. What other forgotten foods can you find, either local or global? I'm most interested in those unknown foods that are not only edible and delicious, but were once the staple foods that fed whole civilizations, even though the harvest is now ignored and forgotten. Raw acorns taste bitter, so the challenge is to prepare something delicious using acorns for your Thanksgiving feast!

These are Valley Oak (Quercus lobata) acorns that I gathered in my yard at school. These particular acorns are a bit past their prime. You can see that many of them are splitting and sprouting. Acorns are favorites of deer, pigs, acorn woodpeckers, band-tailed pigeons, and many more local critters including acorn weevils. (Note the hole in the lower left!) Valley Oak acorns must have been a favorite of the Chumash since the nuts are large and not as bitter or wormy as Coast Live Oak. There are many more California oaks (and chinquapins and tanoak). that were harvested as staple foods by native Americans in California.

This Chumash site near my home on San Marcos Pass in the Santa Ynez Mountains behind Santa Barbara hints at how important the acorn harvest once was for ceremony as well as food. There are dozens of bedrock mortars up to two feet across on this one sandstone outcrop under a huge Coast Live Oak. You can see how some mortars have worn together with many years of use. This mysterious rock art is in a nearby sandstone cave. Fish? Sperm? Comets? Stars? You can almost hear the Chumash songs as they prepared the harvest. But now this ancient factory is forgotton and full of dead leaves. The emerging global economy is simplifying food choices around the world. What other harvests are now forgotten along with acorns? Why?

Valley Oak acorns are not as bitter as most other local oaks, but all acorns contain astringent tannic acid that must be removed by leaching before eating. There are instructions and recipes here, here, here, and here. I plan to prepare acorn grits for our Thanksgiving feast. I have my own recipe with butter and honey. I'll give a report here in my answer.

Bonus Stumper: That bitter tannic acid that you leach out of the acorns is (or was) collected for what commercial products? What's the connection with wasps?


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Copyright © 2002 by Marc Kummel /