In Indiana, fall is a season of abundance. The harvest is in, we are enjoying the fruits of our labor and the labor of farmers and growers who provide us with delicious produce. At Hilltop, gardeners who planted family plots and children who attended workshops on growing and tending to vegetables and flowers are enjoying the results of their work. The small orchard has also provided some fruit.
Apples and acorns share an interesting history. Both have fed the world for a thousand years, yet today in our own society there is a vast and decidedly distinct division of opinion about them. We adore one; we abhor the other. We are constantly thinking of new ways to use apples and propagating, new varieties. The lowly acorn, so abundant on the thousands of oak trees in our state go shunned and ignored.
Of course, the apple is a very visible crop in Indiana. It is easy to pick the fruit from the tree and eat it or use it immediately. Not so for the acorn. It takes a lot more work to make it palatable, so we are not inclined to eat it. When times were hard and food was scarce, it was primarily apples and acorns that kept people alive. Native Americans respected and used the acorn.
Wild food specialist Euell Gibbons, in his classic book, Stalking the Wild Asparagus, writes fondly of the acorn (Quercus species). He cites the black, red and willow oaks with bristly terminal tips and leaf lobes as producing more edible acorn bi-annually. Those species of oak with smooth, rounded leaf lobes, like the white, post and chestnut oaks produce a more bitter, less edible acorn yearly. There are over 90 species of oak in the United States. Mankind, when in a pinch for food, ate both kinds, but preferred the better ones when available.
Apples have earned our hearts with their sweet, versatile, and colorful fruit. We have legends built around the apple, and, of course, many of us remember the stories about the itinerant nurseryman, John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, who’s grave is even in our state. While many people think that Johnny Appleseed planted orchards across a big swath of America, what he mostly did was gather the seeds squeezed from apple cider presses. He germinated the seeds and grew nurseries of small sapling trees, making it much easier for the settlers in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa to transplant the young trees and grow apples for the drink of the day – hard cider.
Today most people don’t consider acorns a food, although they are still consumed in parts of southern Europe and North Africa. Acorns take a more involved preparation to make them edible. The bitter tannins and astringent properties in the acorns are toxic in large amounts and must be removed before it is safe to consume the nut kernel. So, don’t attempt to eat raw acorn kernels.
Acorns must be checked for worm holes, must be cracked open, or the shells boiled, and the kernels removed and inspected. Kernels are then boiled through several changes of water to remove the bitter principles. Repeat this process until the water no longer turns dark. The boiled kernels are then dried in a slow oven. There is also a no-boil slow process of putting the kernels in a jar in the fridge and changing the water when it darkens until the process is complete. Check the internet for full instructions.
The kernel can be candied to closely resemble a candied chestnut. Dried kernels can also be ground into meal that can be used in bread or griddle cakes. Not many people take the time to make such preparations today. We made the switch to the more readily available and easily processed cereal grains. Still, it is good to know about some of the wild food around us.