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Treebeard's Stumper Answer
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?

Many wild plants are edible, but there are few staple foods to support civilization. Many are now forgotten or denigrated as snacks, like tapioca pudding made from the ancient South American manioc root. What about amaranth, quinoa, maca, and t'ef? A U.N. report says that 15 crops provide 90% of the world's food calories, and 2/3 of that comes from just rice, wheat, and corn (maize). The global economy is simplifying food habits around the world, but the Irish Potato Famine shows the danger of depending on a single crop. Support local farmers and food diversity!


I received interesting email from Pat Kirol who was a neighbor in the Santa Barbara mountains many years ago and now lives in Korea:

Acorns are still a big hit here in Korea. A form of light brown TouFu (Mok according to my wife) is made and eaten regularly. Try some of the Korean food stores in SB and you should be able to find some acorn flour and maybe some Mok.

Thanks Pat, I didn't find acorn flour in Santa Barbara, and I never got around to making my own during the busy holidays. I'm glad to hear that acorns are still valued somewhere.

The bitter tannic acid you leach from acorns before eating is (was?) collected for waterproof India ink! I discovered this many years ago when I took school kids on nature hikes at the SB Outdoor School. Native oaks often develop apple-like galls caused by cynipid wasps. I sometimes slice open an oak gall to show kids the wasp larvae inside. If I then slice an acidic apple or orange for lunch, my knife blade gets black stains. Oak galls are a rich source of bitter tannic acid (just taste one!), and my knife provides the iron to complete the ancient recipe. I found this account and a simple recipe ("oak galls, water, and rusty nails") at Lady Margritte's Period Inks page:
The other popular ink of the Middle Ages was actually a dye, and not a suspension of pigments. Tannic acid, when mixed with iron salts, produces a dark dye that becomes even blacker as it oxidizes on exposure to air. Tannic acid occurs naturally in oak trees, but large concentrations of it can be found in the "galls" that are sometimes produced. When an insect bites an oak, the tree reacts by concentrating tannins in that point... These galls were harvested, soaked in water and mixed with iron salts to produce a fine ink.

"Oak apple" galls on Valley Oak (Quercus lobata).

I've been working on my new World Food Origins page. I think it's an impressive list (with links) of several hundred of the world's food plants, including some others that are important for spice, fiber, or medicine. Here are a few interesting staple foods we don't know:

Amaranth Amaranthaceae Amaranthus cruentus annual seed link link
Cocoyam, Malanga, Yautia Araceae Xanthosoma sagittifolium perennial root link
Ulluco Basellaceae Ullucus tuberosus perennial root link
Maca Brassicaceae Lepidium meyenii perennial root link
Quinoa Chenopodiaceae Chenopodium quinoa annual seed link link link
Cassava, Yuca, Manioc, Tapioca Euphorbiaceae Manihot esculenta perennial root link
Oca, Ysaño Oxalidaceae Oxalis tuberosa annual root link
Mashwa Tropeolaceae Tropaeolum tuberosum perennial root link
Spelt Poaceae Triticum spelta annual grain link
Yam Dioscoreaceae Dioscorea sp. perennial root link
T'ef, Teff Poaceae Eragrotis tef annual grain link
Breadfruit Moraceae Artocarpus altilis tree fruit link link

I could probably add another 50 wild edible plants and herbs that grow within a mile of my home in the Santa Barbara mountains, including some like Miner's Lettuce (Claytonia perfoliata) that I regularly collect for the table because they are delicious.

I didn't include animals either. I gave my stumper to my former student Jacob, who is a local organic farmer, and he immediately answered "bugs!" I know native Americans traveled many miles to harvest Brine Shrimp and Alkali Fly (Epnedra hians, etc.) pupae from Mono Lake and other desert lakes in the west. Sounds gross, but roasted and ground into a meal, I believe this was a tasty and nutritious staple food. What about rabbits, sparrows, guinea pigs, dogs, and horses? Are they wildlife or pets or workers or food? What about all those small shells I see in native American middens that I don't see in local seafood markets? Animals, seafood, and mushrooms need their own lists.

Alkali flies line the shores of desert lakes. Chumash midden at Morro Bay.

My list is somewhat arbitrary, but I don't want the world's staple foods to be lost in the details. Maybe that's the point.

"A staple food is one that is eaten regularly and in such quantities as to constitute the dominant part of the diet and supply a major proportion of energy and nutrient needs.

"Of more than 50,000 edible plant species in the world, only a few hundred contribute significantly to food supplies. Just 15 crop plants provide 90 percent of the world's food energy intake, with three rice, maize and wheat - making up two-thirds of this. These three are the staples of over 4,000 million people."

(FAO - "Staple foods: What do people eat?")

Food plants are a cultural legacy. I worry that the world's food diversity is being threatened by global economic forces. This is a cultural loss as well. Culture and agri-culture both thrive with diversity and are vulnerable when simplified.

I'm intrigued by the idea of denigrated foods. To denigrate is to belittle or attack the good name of something. That's my word. I also hear of marginalized foods, which means to push something to the edge and out of the mainstream, like the margin of a page, and maybe that's the same thing. I'm struck how some of the world's staple foods are now denigrated or marginalized as snack or breakfast foods at home and indigenous "poverty foods" around the world:

Maybe I'm being hasty. (*Hroom*) Popcorn and chips are snack foods, but corn tortillas and baked potatos are my everyday staple foods along with beans and hearty soup. Maybe it's breakfast and lunch and soup themselves that are denigrated in favor of dinner and snacking? Pancakes and oatmeal/porridge and peanut butter and hearty soup may well be the real foods that get us through the working day at breakfast and lunch as opposed to the big American evening meat/potato/pasta/salad/dessert dinner that puts on extra pounds we don't need.

Are traditional staple foods around the world being denigrated or marginalized by a few successful commercial crops favored and promoted in world trade, and maybe owned and patented by global companies that might also control the media, marketing, shipping, and even the local water supply that all agriculture depends on?

Think about hardware stores to appreciate the economic forces. Local hardware stores disappear when the "big box" stores like Home Depot and CostCo move in. You can save a few bucks on power tools, but something is lost in service and trust, and I can no longer find those nice brass hooks I use on my boxes. What about the economic impact of on local bookstores? (Ouch) The cheapest price may come with the hidden cost (and karma) of human rights violations. These companies are not locally owned, so money leaves our community with every purchase, and it's not spent again (and again) passing from person to person close to home. The only store in town that still sells CDs may be the Wal-Mart that sells bowdlerized versions, and there are movies you won't find (at least not complete) at Blockbuster or Hollywood Video. What happens if the big Kmart is the only store in town, and it goes down after the competition is gone? These are local issues, but it's happening around the world.

The consequences if corn or rice or wheat go down would be catastrophic. But that's posssible if the biotech industries succeed in supplying world agricultural markets with a just a few genetically modified (GM) and patented seed types. Isn't it a business rule not to depend on a single source? (Or is that OK if you control it?)

Supermarkets and fast food will reduce our food choices if they drive out local farmers, neighborhood markets, and regional restaurants. We'll pay with rock-hard (but all year) tomatoes and crappy hamburgers without chilies, and we'll never taste a sun-warm tomato or sweet corn that spits in your eye or other foods that might be even better.

I'm worried this is happening across America and around the world. Consider these statements from a 1999 UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report on the effects of GATT/GATS and the Uruguay Round Agreement on Agriculture:

"Some regions seemed to be facing difficulties coping with import surges of these products, with detrimental effects on the competing domestic sectors."

"While trade liberalisation had led to an almost instantaneous surge in food imports, these countries were not able to raise their exports."

"A common reported concern was with a general trend towards the concentration of farms, in a wide cross section of countries. While this led to increased productivity and competitiveness with positive results, in the virtual absence of social safety-nets, the process also marginalised small producers and added to unemployment and poverty."

"On trade trends, imports of food and live animals almost doubled between 1994 and 1998. There is the fear that without adequate domestic market protection accompanied by agricultural development programs, many commodities that have historically been produced domestically (e.g. milk, poultry, fruit juice, beans, peas, cabbage and carrot) will be imported and the domestic diet will increasingly shift toward greater dependence on imported food products."

"The surge in imports was also followed by a decline in domestic production in a number of food products, resulting in a clear drop in rural employment."

It sounds to me like Wal-Mart coming to town. The simple alternative is to buy local. It will cost a bit more, but it's worth it in the long run. Support your local farmers and markets and food co-ops, around the world. All the better if they practice sustainable, organic farming methods that maintain the land. It's easy, and it's our choice, and our destiny.

I have a lot to learn about these issues. Here are some links for more research:

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