Tuesday, October 25, 2011

California black oak acorns: I was right

Recently I tasted some raw California black oak (Q. kelloggii) acorns - acorns that had dropped from some of the same trees from which John Muir might have gathered up a handful for an afternoon snack.  They had a strong flavor of tannin, but the aftertaste on the tongue was very short lived.  This led me to speculate that the tannins in California black oak acorns are highly soluble in water and could be quickly and easily leached away.

I finally got around to testing my theory.  Turns out - and let me tell you I'm as shocked as you and find myself on completely unfamiliar ground here - I was right.

I shelled a handful of them, and coarsely chopped the nut meats.  I dropped them into a small pot of boiling water, and boiled them for about 3-5 minutes, at which point I drained them and tasted a few.  The bitter tannin flavor was still there, but already greatly diminished.  After repeating the process the bitterness was almost completely gone.  After a grand total of 6 to 10 minutes of boiling I had acorns - from the supposedly bitter red/black oak group - that are sweeter than many of the supposedly sweet acorns of the white oak group I have tried.  Here I'm thinking particularly of English/common oak, (Q. robur).

In "Use of Acorns for Food in California: Past, Present and Future," David Bainbridge gives the nutrient content of California black oak acorns as:

Water - 9.0%
Protein - 4.56%
Fat - 17.97%
Carbs - 55.48%

That will keep you going when hiking/mapping/preserving the splendor of the Sierra!

Monday, October 24, 2011

California live oak acorns: Sweet, aerodynamic

(Click to enlarge)

The acorn of the California live oak (Q. agrifolia) wins the award for best performance in a wind tunnel.  The thing is a beautiful, streamlined dart.

That also means it has a very high ratio of shell to nut meat, which in turn means you have to shell a lot of live oak acorns per pound of finished food.  And yet the Chumash Indians did shell them, by the ton.  Why did they bother?  Here are two good reasons:

1.  The California live oak acorns I have tried (and yes, I finally have been able to beat the squirrels, deer, turkeys, and bears to some of them) are some of the sweetest acorns I have tasted.  They would need little to no leaching, a time savings that would more than offset the added time needed for shelling.

2.  According to Dr. David Bainbridge's awesome paper, "Use of Acorns for Food in California: Past, Present, Future," the nutrient composition of Qagrifolia acorns looks like this:

Water - 9%
Protein - 6.26%
Fat - 16.75% (more than double that of most other California oaks, save California black oak and interior live oak)
Carbohydrate - 54.57%

Of course those silly, uneducated Indians thought that fat is actually a necessary nutrient.  We, of course know better.  We know that fat is evil, and our cravings for fat are merely an evolutionary mistake best sated by consuming kajillions of calories of low-fat foods.  That's why we are so thin with low levels of type II diabetes and they were so... hey, wait a minute!  Could it be that they knew something the people whose fortunes depend on cramming more and more corn-based products down our throats don't want us to know?  Can't be. 

Pass the chips.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

The Oak Wilt Saga Continues: Prologue

In the spring of 1989 I was chosen by my classmates to give the commencement address for the University of Minnesota College of Natural Resources.  I wasn’t sure what I had ever done to them to make them hang that millstone around my neck, but I vowed to repay their cruelty with the longest, most boring graduation speech in school history.  Mission accomplished.

It’s true what they say:  You never remember what your graduation speakers say.  Even if – perhaps especially if – that speaker is you.

I do remember two things I said.  The first is that I quoted Aretha Franklin, something not generally done during a forestry school commencement speech.  Thank you.

The other is that I told a story – a parable really – that went something like this.

A lawyer, a doctor and a forester attend a dinner party hosted by a mutual friend.  Let’s call him Ed.  Over cocktails Ed turns to the lawyer and says, “My company is getting sued by a competitor for…” but before he can even finish his sentence the lawyer holds up his hand to halt him, saying, “Sorry, Ed, but I never discuss legal matters in a social setting.  If you’d like, please set up an appointment with my secretary and I’d be happy to discuss your case at length.”  Ed, ever the genial host, takes no offense and makes a mental note to set up an appointment with the lawyer.

Later, over hor d’oeuvres, Ed says to the doctor, “Say Doc, I have been having this shooting pain in my lower back and I was wondering if…” but once again he is amicably but firmly cut off in mid-sentence by the physician who said, “Sorry Ed, I never discuss legal matters in a social setting.  If you’d like, please set up an appointment with my office and we can discuss your symptoms in detail.”  So once again Ed makes a mental note to call the doctor’s office the following week to make an appointment.

Just as the main course – a sizzling steak with a piping hot baked potato and perfectly steamed broccoli – hits the table, Ed mentions in passing, “You know, I have an oak tree in the back yard that looks sick and…”  For the third time that evening he doesn’t finish his sentence.  Only this time he is not interrupted.  This time the forester has already put down his napkin, stood up and is heading for the back door to examine the ailing tree.  Reluctantly, Ed takes a longing look at his perfectly prepared steak and follows the forester out the door.

Over the course of the next 45 minutes Ed receives an impromptu tree care seminar, on everything from proper planting and watering, to insect and fungal pests of oaks.  Ladders, pruning saws, and ropes are involved.  By the time they return to the table the forester is dripping in sweat, the dinner is stone cold, and Ed has received about $3000 worth of free advice and services.

My point – and I did have one – was not that foresters shouldn’t be generous in sharing their knowledge and expertise.  It was simply that we should place a higher value on that expertise.  Until foresters start placing a higher value on their own specialized knowledge, how can they expect others to do so?  How can they expect to earn the r-e-s-p-e-c-t (yes, this is where Aretha came in, and no, I did not sing it) deserving of a profession every bit as noble and important as medicine or law?

I think that part of the reason foresters don’t value their expertise more highly is that they are more acutely aware of – and more deeply troubled by – the limits of that knowledge.  Medicine can go from leeching and releasing bad humours to radiation therapy in less than 150 years and still maintain the fiction that they have all the answers, that they have reached the acme of health care.  Lawyers can argue contradictory precedents at $400 per hour, and as long as people pay them to sue others will hire them to defend.

Yes, this is all apropos something, a bigger story.  And yes, it does have to do with oak wilt.  And I will (finally) get to the point... in the next post!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Bainbridge for Nobel Prize

I have long thought that Dr. David Bainbridge should be given a Nobel Prize for his work in  ecological restoration, sustainability and, of course (and most importantly) promoting acorns as a food crop for the future.  In fact it was he who coined the term "balanoculture" to label the acorn eating cultures of the world.
I have been reading his 1986 paper, "Use of Acorns for Food in California: Past, Present, and Future," presented at the Symposium on Multiple-use of California's Hardwoods.

It's pretty much a sentence-by-sentence process, since it is so information dense; each new sentence sends my poor little brain spinning in twelve different directions.  I'll be dissecting the paper in a series of upcoming posts.

Here are a few snippets:

"Acorns have been used as food by Homo sapiens for thousands of years virtually everywhere oaks are found.  The worldwide destruction of the acorn resource by mismanagement may well have led to the development of annual plant based agriculture and to civilization as we know it today (Bohrer, 1972; Bainbridge, 1985b)"

The two papers referenced are listed as:

Bohrer, V.L. On the Relation of Harvest Methods to Early Agriculture in the Near East. Economic Botany, 16:145-155; 1972

Bainbridge, D.A. The Rise of Agriculture: A New Perspective. Ambio.14(3):148-151

I going to try to get my mitts on these two papers, because the idea fascinates me.  I often fall into the trap of viewing our acorn-eating past as Utopia - or more accurately and more specifically as an Eden, and as punishment for our Fall From Grace we were doomed to live by the sweat of our toil and by working the soil year after year after year, despite the fact that everything we need to eat grows on trees.

But here we're being told by a source I respect more than almost any other that in was probably the other way around:  we trashed our acorn resource and were forced to grow annual cereal crops to survive.

This might be a distinction without a difference:  One way or another we stopped relying on acorns and started beating the snot out of the ground to grow grains.  In the end it doesn't really matter how or why it happened, only that it did happen, and only that we knock it off and get back to perennial woody crops like acorns.

It would surprise me not at all to know that mankind wrecked the acorn resource.  I have always been searching for the great Why? of acorns - why did we stop eating acorns which are gathered with minimal work, which provide more nutriment than grains, and which can be stored for years?  My working theories have focused on control - on how reliance on annual grains allows for divisions and stratifications within society, and allow a small number of people to control the actions of large numbers of underlings by tying them to an annual cycle of toil.

I always love learning more about this - even if it is only to learn for the 7 millionth time how short-sighted man is.

On to a couple more excerpts:

"In Spain and Italy acorns provided 20 percent of the diet of many people just before the turn of the Century (Memmo, 1894)."

Think about that!  Not much more than a century ago there were places in Europe where acorns provided 20 percent of the human diet.  I find this fact astonishing - the great grandparents of many Americans subsisted largely on acorns, and yet it is completely forgotten as a food source.  I also find this fact encouraging - it really shouldn't take much to reinfuse acorns back into the "modern" diet.

"Acorns were perhaps nowhere more important than in California. For many of the native Californians acorns made up half of the diet (Heizer and Elsasser, 1980) and the annual harvest probably exceeded the current Califonia sweet corn harvest of 60,000 tons."

I find draw great strength and inspiration from the thought that I am now sitting and typing on ground once inhabited by people whose diet was 1/2 oak!

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

"... one of the puzzles of history..."

It's been too long since I have done a reading from the Holy Scriptures, Tree Crops, A Permanent Agriculture by J. Russell Smith.

From the chapter entitled "The Oak as a Forage Crop" (and quoting at a length that I'm sure exceeds "fair use," a consideration which I - and I'm sure the brilliant J Russell would agree - is superseded by the benefit of committing these words to pixels and spreading them across the ether):

The genus of oak trees hold possibility, one might almost say promise, of being one of the greatest of all food and forage producers in the lands of the frost.  Why has it not already become a great crop?  that is one of the puzzles of history, in view of its remarkable qualities...

... As the pioneer farmers of Pennsylvania pushed aside the flowing stream of oil from their springs so that animals might drink water, so the modern world has pushed aside this good food plant, the oak tree.

There is a strip of hills from New England to Minnesota, from New England to Alabama, from Alabama to Ohio, from Ohio to Missouri, and from Missouri down to Texas.  On these hills men have been making their living by growing wheat, corn, clover and grass.  Yet I am confident that in every county there are oak trees of such productivity that if made into orchards they would in any decade yield more food for beast and possibly man than has been obtained on the average in any county in any similar period on the hill country of this wide region.

Word first written in 1929.
I often focus on acorns as a human food - and rightly so given the fact that humankind has eaten more acorns than all grain crops combined. 
However, given the fact that most soil-killing and fossil fuel-consuming grain crops are grown to feed livestock (whether the animals' digestive systems evolved to eat grains or not), the idea of using acorns as a forage crop takes on new poignancy. 

Monday, October 10, 2011

Horizontal Giant Still Going Strong

My new favorite tree in the whole world:  Coast live oak (Quercus agrifolia), San Luis Obispo Cty, California:
(Click to enlarge)

Yes, it is still alive:

(Click to enlarge)

This dude tipped over a long time ago and not only tenaciously clings to life, but continues to thrive - geotropism be damned.

Foresters generally measure d.b.h. - diameter at breast height.  They don't normally need to do this while in the prone position.

I'd give a week's pay for an increment boring of this tree.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I'm glad that someone in my family can write

A little light reading for you... coming soon to a bookstore near you... http://www.orbooks.com/our-books/the-torture-report/
Based on... http://www.thetorturereport.org/blogs/larry-siems

Well done, hermano.

It stinks being the 7th smartest sibling in a family with 6 kids.

Fool Proof Test of Acorn Ripeness

Today on my lunchtime hike through the coast live oak scrub in the hills behind my home I brilliantly developed a 100% accurate test to determine the moment coast live oak acorns are ripe.
Here's how you know they are ripe:  They are gone.

I have been watching green acorns for weeks, watching for the precise moment when they get ripe enough to pick to eat and/or plant.  I have discovered that there are precisely three types of coast live oak acorns:  Green ones, bug eaten ones, and empty acorn caps.

I might have to just stand next to a tree for a few days and fight off the jays and squirrels.  I don't mind; the view of Morro Bay from there is awesome.