Acorns represented life for Indigenous Peoples, figuring prominently in the diets and daily lives of countless generations—gathering acorns, processing them, cooking them, storing them, and ultimately, eating them.
“No other food has sustained the human race to such an extent as the acorn,” says biologist/herbalist John Slattery, author of Southwest Foraging. “If you took a gigantic table and laid out all the foods humans have eaten across the globe and over time, making an individual pile for each foodstuff, acorns would be, by far, the largest pile on the table.”
In pre-contact times, acorns were the preferred food resource because of their availability, productivity, storability, and nutritional content. In California, for instance, one anthropologist reported that annual production exceeded subsistence demands despite the fact that more than three quarters of the entire population relied on acorns for food on a daily basis.
While acorns still play a part in autumn festivals, they aren’t used that often as a major food source, but do continue to represent a link with traditions of the past.
“Today, few are even aware acorns can be eaten,” says Slattery. “How can such an abundant food go unnoticed for so many generations? Fortunately, we are entering the Age of Acorn Renaissance, reawakening to the vitality and nutrition present in a variety of culinary delights based on acorns.”
In southern Arizona where Slattery lives, white, Emory, silver leaf, and shrub oak acorns have been gathered for centuries by Yavapai, Pima, and Tohono O’odham tribal members who ate them raw or shelled, leached, roasted, and ground into a sweet-tasting meal used for stews or bread. Ground acorns were also roasted and brewed into a coffee-like beverage and the bark of the green oak was made into a tea used as an astringent.
In northern Arizona high country, Apaches still search out what they call, “The Kings Food” or Chichle, a key ingredient in traditional harvest recipes passed down for generations. Says one collector with many years experience, “When rains come and acorns drop in August, we know collecting time is here.” Once gathered, they are cleaned and sun-dried, then ground into a paste for soups and gravies, eaten as a shelled nut snack, or used as a base for mutton. If not purposed for eating, they are also used in annual Sunrise Ceremonies that mark the transition of adolescent girls to full womanhood.
Navajo/Apache chef Nephi Craig, founder of the Native American Culinary Association gathered acorns with his family as a child and supports the theory of cooking with what nature provides. Craig, who enjoys his home-cooked Western Apache acorn stew and racket bread, says: “Taste is mnemonic, it allows a person to recollect situations, feelings, and places, and to reconnect with the past.”
There are well over 400 species of oak worldwide, some 30 species in the U.S., all quite nutritious because of carbohydrate and protein content and all eight essential amino acids. All contain tannin that tends to make them more or less bitter. “Not all acorns are created equal,” Slattery says. “Polyphenyls are more refined in some, making acorn consumption an acquired taste. Emory oak or bellotas have so few tannins present that some people eat them out of hand and would choose acorns over Cheetos or Doritos.”
Navajo chef Freddie Bitsoie is a traditionalist cook who relies on locally-sourced items, like acorns, for his acorn stew recipe. “Food is an extension of culture,” Bitsoie, who recently became executive chef at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, says. “Taste memory is important because foods are the carrier of ancestral knowledge.”
For those who would like to become a balanophagist (a person who eats acorns, according Cooksinfo.com), prepared flour is available. For those who like their adventure from forest to feast, start foraging with the knowledge that an average adult oak produces about 2,000 acorns per season and two gallons of usable acorns in the shell only yield about one gallon of nutmeats.
Dry acorns in the sun for a week or more until the shells crack easily. They can be stored, unshelled, in a cool, dark place before processing. Depending on your patience level, shell by hand or with an acorn harvester, which can crack open two gallons of acorns in a matter of minutes.
Leach out the tannic acid by grinding nutmeats in a blender into a course meal, soaking it for several days in many changes of cold water. Option two is boiling the acorns, which retains some of the tannins but loses some of the nutritious oils. Or, if you’re in no hurry, bury them whole in a riverbank, which turns them dark and sweet and good for roasting.
Leached acorn meal can be used to make bread, biscuits, pancakes, mush, soup, and other treats.
For acorn bread, mix 2 cups of acorn flour with 2 cups of white flour, add 3 teaspoons of baking powder, 1/3 cup of sweetener, 3 tablespoons of olive oil, ½ cup of milk, and an egg. Whisk it all together and bake in a pan at 400 degrees for 30 minutes or until done.