Over the last several months, acorns have played a much more significant role in my life than I ever thought they would. I blame Al and Christl.
Frequent Starving visitors know Al and Christl. They’ve done just about everything we do – raised chickens, kept bees, cultivated shiitakes, grown vegetables – and have given us much good advice over the last few years. They’ve also earned Most Favored Barterer status with their raspberries, asparagus, pickles, and, particularly, tomato seedlings, which Christl grows for us every spring.
When we decided to raise a pig this year, and asked a few friends if they wanted us to raise one for them, too, so ours wouldn’t be lonely, we weren’t surprised that Al and Christl were in.
They’ve been frequent visitors since we got the pigs in June, and they always bring treats. I can’t say for sure that Spot, Doc, and Tiny hold Christl in particular regard, but if the bagels-and-sour-cream incident didn’t endear her to them, nothing will.
When our local oaks started dropping acorns, some six weeks ago, Kevin and I began collecting them for the pigs. It seemed like a sensible thing to do, since it was a win for everyone. The pigs get acorns, which they love. The people who’ll be eating the pigs get acorn-finished pork, which is reputed to be delicious. The acorns get turned into high-quality food, rather than simply rotting on the ground. The feed bill gets reduced as acorns replace feed.
Sounds great, right? And, in theory, it is. The problem is that acorns are small and pigs are large. If you’ve ever wondered just how many acorns a pig can eat, I’m here to tell you that it’s a gazillion. Three pigs? Three gazillion. Picking up the acorns that fall on our front stoop just isn’t going to cut it.
I’d almost resigned myself to the idea that acorns would be an occasional treat, rather than a dietary staple, when Al and Christl showed up one day with a big box. A box full of acorns. It must have been twenty pounds. And they weren’t these scrawny, hard-shelled red oak acorns that fall on our stoop, they were huge, smooth, thin-shelled white acorns.
The pigs went bananas. The next day, when I checked on them, I found that they’d put a picture of Christl up on the wall of their house, with an altar and a candle. They worship her.
Until that big box, I’d had no idea that acorns could be acquired in quantity. Christl drew a map to the tree responsible for her haul, and Kevin and I went to visit it couple days later.
Turns out, that tree is on the edge of a small woods populated with white oak, and there were acorns all over the place. It gave us hope that we could, indeed, give our pigs enough of them to make a difference.
So, we started collecting, and launched Operation Acorn, in which we attempted to convince readers to violate all child labor statutes and send their kids out foraging on our pigs’ behalf. (I can’t say that effort was a smashing success, but we’ve got three more weeks and contributions are still gratefully accepted.)
Over a period of about a month, Kevin and I collected a couple hundred pounds of acorns. And I posted a picture of a garbage can full of them, with a turkey looking wistfully on.
That’s when the trouble started. A number of astute commenters mentioned that acorns make excellent human food, and suggested I reserve a few for us. I’d read my Hank Shaw, and I knew they had a point. One particularly persuasive commenter, Clayton, took the trouble to add up the number of calories in that garbage can full of acorns, and noted that those 69,000 calories were, and I quote, “more than your monthly total for all of September from all food sources.”
Thanks, Clayton, for pointing that out.
There was nothing for it but to break out the nutcrackers.
Preparing acorns for human consumption is a tedious business (Hank Shaw gives good instructions). First, you have to remove the meats from the shells. If our acorns hadn’t been the size of my thumb, I would have thrown in the towel after the first twenty minutes. But, since they were big enough that the pile of nut meats accumulated at a reasonable rate, I kept at it until I had about two pounds.
Then you have to leach the bitter tannins out by soaking them in fresh water for an unconscionably long time. And you have to change the water several times a day. Luckily, we all have, in our homes, a container full of water that refreshes itself several times a day, so I put the acorns in a laundry bag and dropped them in the toilet tank. A week later, the bitterness was gone.
The acorns were still tannic, though, so I was not optimistic about turning them into something delicious. But I persevered. I dried them in a slow oven, and ground them to bits in my Vitamix.
(An appliance aside: everyone should have a Vitamix, even though, for a blender, it’s ungodly expensive. There will be a time when you want to pulverize something that resists pulverization, and your Vitamix will overcome all resistance. I have suggested a motto to the company: Vitamix, because you never know when you’ll have to puree the furniture. So far, I haven’t heard back.)
My acorn flour neither looked nor smelled appetizing. It was a dark gray-brown, and it had a kind of wet dog smell mixed in with its nuttiness. If it hadn’t taken so much work to get it to this stage, I would undoubtedly have thrown up my hands and given it to the pigs. But, having come this far, I figured I had to at least taste it, so I started looking at recipes.
Most acorn recipes fall into one of two categories. Either they’re so heavy on the acorns that they can’t possibly be good or – and this is the bigger category – they’re so light on the acorns that you may as well leave them out. An “acorn cake” recipe that calls for three cups of flour and a tablespoon of acorn is just so passive-aggressive.
I turned to Hank Shaw, who has a simple recipe for acorn flatbread. I mixed up a batch.
My dough didn’t look much like his. Some of my acorn pieces were a little too big, and they turned almost black – which made the dark ball of dough look like mocha chip ice cream. I let it sit for several hours, and then cut off a piece, rolled it flat, and fried it a couple of minutes on each side.
I took it out of the pan and looked at it suspiciously. It was dense and it was dark, but it had a few bubbles in it and was crispy around the edge. I cut two pieces off and handed one to Kevin. We each took a tentative bite.
I am increasingly convinced that, in culinary experimentation, low expectations are your friend. If you go in thinking you’re going to give Thomas Keller a run for his money, it will all end in tears. But if you go in thinking that your pigs are gonna love this, there’s nowhere to go but up.
It wasn’t bad. It wasn’t bad at all. It had a nice chew and a nutty flavor. And no wet dog! I served it with some goat cheese and sea salt, and I will go so far as to say it was tasty. Probably not tasty enough that I will be doing acorns again any time soon, but tasty enough that I have not given the remaining acorn flour to the livestock. Anyone got a good cake recipe?
Acorn season isn’t over, and I will be spending more hours on my hands and knees, collecting nuts that are increasingly hard to find as the squirrels abscond with them and the leaves fall over them. But we don’t have quite enough to see the pigs through their last few weeks, and I don’t like to give up on the enterprise (that’s a none-too-subtle hint to all of you who may still have acorn access!).
A funny thing has happened to me as we’ve gone through this acorn season. Whenever I’m around oak trees, I walk slowly, scanning the ground for nuts. That’s good, right? After all, we need acorns. But it isn’t good because, if I see an acorn, I have to pick it up. Even if it’s just one. Even if it’s tiny. Even if we really, really have to be somewhere.
I have, in a few short weeks, developed an acorn neurosis, and I’m not sure not having livestock will cure me of it. Kevin, who doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life with a wife who has to pick up every single acorn she sees, has a back-up plan: acorn pancakes. If those don’t cure me, nothing will.