Acorns: Something To Chew On

THE REAL DIRT

October 18, 1992|By MIKE KLINGAMAN

There are 57 trees in our yard, but not one oak. There are maples and spruces and birches, but nary a branch of oak, unless you count the woodpile.

That's the only way I'll buy the mighty oak, cut up in bite-sized pieces for the wood stove. I've managed to reduce this majestic beauty to a bucketful of Btu and a puff of chimney smoke. And all because of acorns.

I don't like to clean up acorns. Do you?

They kill the grass, clog the mower and attract whole armies of squirrels who hide the acorns and then hang around all winter eating expensive birdseed instead of their buried loot.

Obviously, I have no plans to add an oak to our arboreal menagerie. The average oak produces more than 2 million acorns in its lifetime, which can span four centuries. That's a lot of raking. I don't want my descendants damning me forever.

Acorns are OK (oak-kay) as long as they're attached to the tree. It's when they fall that trouble starts. Lawns are quickly covered with thousands of acorns in their little brown caps. Instantly, "The Hat Squad" is all over town.

Acorns are a mess to dispose of. They refuse to be raked. They poke holes in the bottoms of plastic lawn bags. And they play havoc with lawn mowers. They rattle around in the whirling blades, sounding like the kitchen blender before it died.

So how can you get rid of all those acorns?

Well, you could eat them.

I know what you're thinking. Nuts to you, pal. Acorns belong in squirrels' cheeks, not mine.

The fact is, those squirrels may be onto something. Acorns are loaded with vitamin B and protein, and have less fat than other nuts. Pecans are 70 percent fat; walnuts, 60 percent.

Acorns are just 5 percent fat.

One of the few true nuts, the acorn was a dietary staple of both primitive cave dwellers and the Indian tribes that once roamed California. Man learned to remove, or leach, the bitter tannins from acorns. This is done by mashing the nuts into flour and flushing the mixture with boiling water, to make it more palatable.

The same process is used today by acorn-gatherers all over the world. The Turks brew a chocolaty spiced drink from acorns; the Chinese consume acorn products regularly. In North Africa, acorn oil is often used as a substitute for olive oil. Koreans make cakes and cookies from acorn meal.

America has been slow to embrace acorn cuisine, despite the efforts of David Bainbridge. A California ecologist, Bainbridge has long lobbied on the acorn's behalf, extolling its nutritional values and publishing recipes for acorn pancakes and muffins and bread.

(Recipes are available from "The Real Dirt," c/o The Baltimore Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Balto., Md. 21278.)

Acorns vary wildly in taste, says Bainbridge, who has circled the globe searching for the elusive perfect acorn. Some exotic ones taste like cashews; others can be roasted like chestnuts. But most acorns are exceedingly bland.

"Most acorns don't taste very exciting -- sort of like cornmeal with a touch of almonds," says Bainbridge. Generally, acorn meal serves as a building block for other foods.

Coffee brewed from acorns will never catch on. Frontiersmen gagged on the stuff. Acorn beer is reportedly better, with a pleasant, nutty taste.

A word of caution: The nuts of red oaks are more bitter than those of white oaks. Spices improve the flavor.

Anyone with a handful of acorns can make his own acorn meal. For best results, pick them "fresh" off the tree. Or cover the ground with a clean tarp and shake the branches. Discard the imperfect nuts.

Most important, before you begin the harvest, think of a witty response to neighbors' questions as to why you're sitting on the ground, playing with acorns.

Times are tough, and acorns mean money.

"A talented cook could make a satisfactory entrance into the market with acorn chips and crackers," says Bainbridge.

If they fell from the tree that way, I'd plant an oak tomorrow.

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