Published on October 24, 2014 by Amy
Oak trees thrive in temperate regions throughout the northern hemisphere. With more than 600 species of oaks found around the globe, they are among the most widespread trees in the world. In North America, oak trees have provided a reliable food source for native people for generations, particularly in California. Acorns, or oak nuts, are nutritious, abundant and lend themselves to long-term storage, making them a valuable staple crop for year-round consumption.
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Although certain varieties of oak produce acorns that can be eaten raw, most acorns require processing to make them palatable. Tannins, the bitter element present in acorn meat, must be successfully leached in order to enhance the pleasant, nutty taste that acorns are known for. Native Americans had several means of extracting the bitter tannins, but the most widespread method was to soak the hulled nuts in water that was frequently replenished. Another method is to place the acorns in a porous basket or bag, setting it in a creek or river where the flowing water would wash the tannins away. Once leached, acorns can be roasted and ground into meal or coarse flour.
Perhaps the most widespread use of acorns by Native Americans was in acorn mush. Although it is a fairly labor-intensive dish to make, it is nutritious and simple to prepare. First, the acorns are pounded in a mortar and pestle until a fine meal is formed. After transferring the meal into a shallow basket or a cloth sack, it is rinsed several times to remove the tannins. The rinsing process also softens the acorn meat, thereby reducing cooking time. Once thoroughly rinsed, the meal is placed in a water-tight basket or pot with a small amount of water. Heated stones are added to the mixture, cooking it from the inside. The mush is eaten plain, with honey or maple syrup, herbs or a small amount of meat. Cooled acorn mush is sometimes shaped into patties and fried, creating something similar to pancakes or hoe-cakes.
Acorn bread is as diverse in form, flavor and baking method as many modern wheat breads. Although it is possible to bake bread made from pure acorn meal, native people often mixed it with lighter, more glutinous flour like cattail or wheat flour to prevent the bread from crumbling. The most basic form of acorn bread is made with coarse meal, water and a small amount of animal or vegetable fat. The ingredients are mixed and formed into a loaf, then placed among hot coals to bake. Another variation of acorn bread is made in a fashion similar to Boston brown bread. The acorn meal is mixed with maple syrup, fat and water and steamed in a small container. It produces a moist, sweet bread that is similar to cake.
Native Americans frequently utilized acorns to produce a drink similar to coffee or hot chocolate. Once hulled, the nuts were lightly leached to remove some but not all of the bitter tannins. The acorns were then roasted until completely dried-out and ground into a fine powder. Added to hot water, the powder makes a drink with a taste similar to coffee but with the thick texture of hot chocolate or chicory coffee. The small allowance of tannins left in the acorns creates the coffee-like flavor, since coffee has a moderate tannin content.