Photos and Recipes by Sara Calvosa Olson
In Karuk culture, the shorter, darker days usher in storytelling season, an opportunity to recommit to stewardship practices by teaching the next generation about how the world was made, and how they are meant to care for it—as a relative. Children might learn stories about the Acorn Maidens as Ikxaréeyavs (spirit people); one tells how they each made their hats special as they prepared to meet The People. This story teaches children about the different types of oaks and how to identify which acorns are preferable. Storytelling was more than just a way to pass the time, it was a way to share knowledge. In some instances, stories are also cautionary tales. A tribe may have over-hunted a meat source and realized their mistake the next year, having to subsist on acorns and roots until the game populations could recuperate. They developed stories to pass down from generation to generation for thousands of years to warn future descendants about the consequences of taking too much. Indigenous peoples were undoubtedly the first observational scientists, increasing their knowledge of the world around them—because what is a scientist if not a keen observer of the world over a period of time? In this case, vast periods of time. And the data collected was turned into stories, told every year at a certain time, with rules and taboos, medicine stories that are as alive as we are.
I remembered the story of the acorn maidens a few years ago and realized that I’d been remiss in not connecting my own children to this traditional data and set out to correct my negligence. Fast-forward to today and we are top to bottom acorns, maple sugar, salmon, eels, mussels, venison, and I’m pretty sure we’re just one weird day away from trapping wood rats for snacks. I have had some incredible conversations with my sons about settler-colonialism and the effects of being violently disconnected from the land. I watch their eagerness to learn Karuk ways grow like rising loaves of acorn bread, ideas and understanding percolating like acorn soup, boiling with red hot basalt rocks. I know that someday they will make great fix-the-world-people and carry on in service of our plant and animal relatives. But in the meantime, they have a lot of acorns to crack.
A note for non-Native allies: The information that I’m sharing with you is to help you learn to access the rhythm of your natural environment and to better understand the people and the history of the land that you live on. Please do not gather in public places or parks without consulting your local tribe. Even if it’s a place that you have always had access to, many tribes operate environmental programs that are like tribal Environmental Protection Agencies, and they are constantly compiling information and observations about their traditional lands. They may have information that is important or useful. They may also ask you to avoid certain areas that are reserved for traditional gathering. It’s important, as an ally, to center Native knowledge.
Because of the pervasiveness of government owned traditional lands, technically you can gather wherever you want, but I’d rather you make the effort to find out which places to avoid. In Karuk country, you just have to ask the tribe, and they’ll tell you don’t gather willow down at this river bar, or don’t go up that slope for mushrooms, or down that slope for hazel if you can avoid it. If you are in an area where you do not have access to tribal information, please email me (email@example.com) and I’ll help. Yôotva!
ACORN PROCESSING 101
The winter is pretty much prime time for acorn soup. What is more cozy than a fire, in a cozy nook, with some soup? But first you have to learn how to make acorns edible, because they are so rich in bitter tannins that they must be soaked until all of the tannins are leached out. There are as many ways to leach acorns as there are tribes that eat acorns. The Karuk would dry the acorns for a year, crack the shells with rocks, pound them into meal, put the meal in the center of a pile of river sand, and leach them with water, letting the tannins drain into the sand. I use a Vitamix, some cheesecloth, and glass jars with lids. “Adaptability is a cornerstone of Native ingenuity” is what I always say.
Get a bunch of acorns. But make sure they’re fertilized acorns. If the acorns are very small, and you can squeeze them firmly and the shell gives way, that means there’s no nut inside. You can also take a knife and cut one open, but the squeeze test works pretty well. You can gather acorns in the fall or the spring. Spring acorns are cool because most of the tannins have been turned to sugar to feed the sprouting acorn.
You’ll also want to tune in to the rhythm of your oaks. Are they dropping more acorns one year and less so another? That’s a normal oak cycle. And once you access that rhythm you’ll be able to prepare for those years. You’ll also notice that the first acorns to fall are usually the buggy ones that are heavy with moth larvae. It’s best to gather them up for the burn pile, to reduce infestation for the next year. There will be a second drop of acorns, and those are the ones you want to gather. Any acorn can be made edible with the right amount of leaching; some just take longer than others. Now that you have a bunch of acorns . . .
Sort out the buggy ones. Throw out any acorns that have a bore hole/holes: They’re carrying moth grubs. If you want you can eat the grubs, but I’m not that NDN. #britneyspears.gif
You can also pour all of your acorns into a tub of water and throw out the floaters. Just be sure to lay the acorns out to dry thoroughly, otherwise the moisture will encourage mildew. If you’d like to jumpstart the drying process, put them in an oven on the lowest setting with the oven door propped open with a wooden spoon. Once they’re dried (you’re going to have to judge this for yourself—keep an eye on them), you can put them in a basket and let them sit until you want to use them, or you can start cracking and cleaning them for leaching.
Cracking and cleaning is the time I like to really think about how important this staple food was to our ancestors. The sound of acorns being cracked every morning, echoing up and down the river, would have been something to behold.
I use a little machine to crack the acorns one at a time. I know industrial-sized grinders exist, but I like to inspect every individual acorn and make sure all of the red testa is removed. I’m sure this will get old and eventually I’ll upgrade, but right now I use my cracker and a chestnut knife, and they work for me. You can also use a hammer and a blanket to crack the acorns (put the acorns under the blanket), and clean them with a paring knife. A walnut pick isn’t a thin enough utensil to be effective. Often after drying, the red testa will come off with some rubbing and you don’t need to clean up as much; the acorn will feel kind of rubbery.
As I’m cracking, I throw the nuts into a jar half full of water to keep them from darkening.
Once you have a blender sized jar of peeled acorns and water, put them in your blender and grind them into a milkshake. The finer the grind, the easier it is to leach, I’ve found. Pour your blender of acorn milkshake into a jar, cover the top of the jar with cheesecloth, and put it in the refrigerator. Once the meal settles to the bottom you’ll start to see dark tannin water at the top.
Pour off the tannin water through the cheesecloth to keep your good fats and meal inside the jar, then refill with cold water, stir or shake it up, and put it back in the fridge. Sometimes I rinse out the cheesecloth and put it back on and/or wipe around the inside of the jar to keep mold from growing on those areas that aren’t covered in water. I pour off once a day but you can do as many times as you are able. After a few days, your tannins will fade and you’ll want to taste the meal. It should smell like almond milk, and it may taste good for a second but then those bitter tannins will kick in. Just keep leaching, and eventually you’ll just have a soft nutty, earthy flavor.
Now the tannins are all leached out, line a bowl with cheesecloth and pour the contents of your jar into the bowl. Pull up the sides of the cheesecloth, and strain the acorn milk out of the meal into a ball. You can drink acorn milk, put it in your coffee, mix it with some roasted pepper nut powder for cocoa, it’s delicious but very perishable. Once you have a strained ball of meal you have some options.
You can dry it up to rehydrate at another time (this is how you make flour), or you can make soup with it immediately, or you can freeze the meal and decide another time.
If you have a dehydrator with fruit roll silicone donuts, you can use it to dry out the meal, and when it’s completely dry, put it in the blender or a spice grinder and blitz it until it’s fine flour.
COOKING WITH ACORNS
I’m passing along some recipes using a couple of traditional Indigenous ingredients mixed with contemporary ingredients. Food is an excellent way to connect to your natural environment. A good way to start is by choosing one ingredient and learning as much as you can about it. If you’re Native, ask your elders about their favorite ways to prepare these traditional foods; it can be so surprising! One of mine said, “Oh, a lot of us older people still like to dig a píshi (pan) hole near a stream,” where they let the acorns ferment as the stream naturally leaches out the tannins. If you’re non-Native, study the history of that ingredient, as it was used by the people whose land you are residing on. The more you learn about how labor intensive these incredible Native superfoods are, the more you understand how deeply connected the people were to their traditional lands.
Sara Calvosa Olson is a Karuk writer living with her soulmate, raising two large teenage sons. She has a regular column in News From Native California that explores California Indian foodways and reconnection to traditional Indigenous ingredients. Chími nu’am! (Let’s eat!)