I’ve always said that success is sweeter when you’ve had to work for it. The same is true with food. Convenience foods just can’t match the culinary quality of vittles produced with tender loving care. This is true with most conventional cuisine as well as foraged table fare.
Take chocolate for example. Numerous convenience foods are made from chocolate, but the ingredient itself is far from a quick preparation. The finished product is so far removed from the raw ingredient it’s almost inconceivable how it was ever refined. Bitter cocoa beans must be fermented and then dried. After that the beans undergo several more steps before the product shows any resemblance to chocolate we recognize.
Olives that we consume bear little resemblance to the raw ingredient. They can’t be eaten fresh. Aging and curing are essential whether olives are devoured green or ripened, and I personally can devour either type. Curing is usually accomplished with a brine solution, but fruits can also be prepared with lye or even cold fresh water.
I could elaborate on many other traditional foods, but I’d prefer to concentrate on my passion of wild edibles. Acorns are a good example and they’re plentiful and easy to identify. Theoretically, any acorn can be made edible. However, some species require more preparation than others. Acorns contain bitter substances called tannins. These tannins must be leached out or the nuts become indigestible.
My favorite species and the only one I bother to collect is live oak. They usually fruit heavily and are one of the tamest. Often nuts can be eaten without any leaching at all. Acorns are also fairly large and crack open easily.
So how do we leach them? I usually shell the acorns, place them in a five gallon bucket and fill the bucket with clean water. Acorns that float should be removed. Either the meat has not developed properly or they have been invaded by insects. Set the buckets in a shady place and change the water periodically.
After a few water changes I check the nuts for bitterness. If they pass the test they’re ready to be dried. Some sources suggest sun drying. However, acorn harvesting season seldom coincides with good drying weather. I place nutmeats in a dehydrator or the oven at 200 degrees until they are very firm.
Nuts can be roasted but they’ll never have the taste or consistency of nuts we’re accustomed to eating. Where they become valuable is as a carbohydrate source. A small minority of foraged foods are high in starch that can be used as flour.
Acorns are usually ground into flour and can add character to some of your favorite recipes. They can even be crushed but not ground and make awesome ‘acorn grits’, which are truly unique with butter and salt or milk and maple syrup. All this is a lot of effort and it’s not likely many people will take the time to do it. I derive a certain satisfaction from self-sufficiency.
Acorn products are just one example of anti-fast foods. Cattail pollen pancakes can be even more work but they’re worth it. Natural is seldom convenient.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.