Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Living with the Seasons

As I continue to un-domesticate myself, I’ve been embracing living with the seasons. They are especially in my mind as the dropping temperatures signal the arrival of Fall here in Washington DC. The seasons have much to offer: the growth of Spring, the heat and freedom of Summer, the rest, quiet and chill of Winter, the colors and harvest of the Fall. As I spend more time outside, I notice the changing seasons more; I gain a different conception of time, and tap into what our ancestors may have felt, before alarm clocks, before a day was a unit of time over which there was some prefabricated expectation about what should be done.

The past two nights I’ve been sleeping with the windows open as the temperatures dropped to the low 40’s Fahrenheit. I have a comfortable bed with plenty of blankets and I like to feel the outside, rather than try to keep it out. This Fall, I am dreaming about what’s falling. Little rain has come from the skies, but the trees are dropping food all around.

Chestnut Oak acorns

For the past couple of years, I’ve been very into acorns: they are abundant and very easy to find. If you know me as more than an acquaintance, you know that I engage in balanophagy (acorn eating). I am extremely grateful for a group of friends that is also into acorns: without them I may have never started. The idea of using acorns as a real food source became more real for me when I met Lincoln Smith at Forested in Bowie, Maryland, United States, who was processing acorns and making baked goods with them. It was at this point that I dove in, with my primary goal to make acorns into something that resembled a meal. I wanted them to be the main event.

Drying the processed acorn meal

Processing acorns is simple: get the shell off, get any skin off, throw the acorns into water and boil in several changes of water until the bitter taste is gone. Or, get the shell off, get any skin off, grind the acorns finely, add cool water, and change the water a couple times a day until the bitterness is gone. There are tips here and there to speed up the process, but these are the basics. In an instant gratification society, most dismiss this all as a poor use of time. I take pleasure in and respect things that take time, knowing that by choosing to take the long route I am working with nature instead of against it. It is the speeding up of everything that allows humans to increase their destructive power.

I echo the sentiments of Sam Thayer in his book, Nature’s Garden: that acorns make him see a beautiful view of the forest not just as a beautiful view, but as a comfortable place with millions of pounds of food there for the eating. I’ve made acorn patties, acorn chili, acorn flatbread pizza, acorn grits, and acorn brown bread. Most have been well received, and none have been perfected! I have even started to delve into pressing acorns for oil. I’ll give it all another shot this year and try out some new experiments.

That's an acorn crust pizza pie!

Eating acorns is not only a great conversation starter, but a way of bringing people together. I’ve sat in my backyard and shelled acorns with friends and family and taught a class on acorn processing. I proudly tell people that I eat acorns. I’m mostly met with laughter and disbelief, but sometimes with genuine interest and acceptance. Sometimes people think it’s cool, and even if they wouldn’t do it themselves, they get why I do it. More are willing to try it when the acorns are made into, say, a pizza. I was recently at a dinner where a renowned chef made acorn falafel, so the acorn is getting at least some air time in the mainstream.

There are other nuts out there this fall, as in nuts like me and nuts like the acorns. In the late summer, I started to notice some very green hickory nuts on the ground with husks still tightly bound. I cracked a few open to find that most had a collection of seeds where I expected to see nutmeat. The seeds tasted pretty good, but not nearly as sustaining as the ripe nuts that are rolling in now. They taste great, and, surprise, no soaking in water! They can be enjoyed straight after shelling. I’m excited to tap into this food source that seems to be largely ignored (at least by people I know/meet and people who write on the internet).

Along with the hickories, I’ve developed a strong affinity for black walnuts. They are bigger than hickories and have a unique taste that I quite enjoy. I've warily sat under a black walnut tree while it was windy - watch out! They land with a thud rather than the gentle dismount of an acorn. Two small challenges with shoveling hickories and walnuts into my mouth: first, the husks of black walnuts die one’s hands brown, so, I usually like to have gloves on hand. Second, the meat of both nuts is difficult to extract using the blow of a stone. This is especially the case with the smaller hickory nuts. Anyone know of any do-it-yourself approaches with simple tools?

Black walnuts in various stages of cracking

I’m starting to see Fall as a time of abundance. If I had to “survive” this Fall, I could probably make a pretty good living on nuts. Maybe some mushrooms, greens, berries, and meat mixed in there if I’m lucky. It wouldn’t be easy with my level of skill or knowledge, but I think it would be possible. I hope to be reflecting on this post in a couple of years with a greater understanding of how to live with the seasons. It will be a lifelong process for a guy that has lived indoors for his whole life, treating the outside as a look-but-don’t-touch museum until very recently. I’m becoming more of myself as I’ve started to interact with and participate in the outside. It feels good.