Bringing Balanoculture Back (or how to eat an acorn)

napping under bear mound oaks
napping under bear mound oaks

I was sitting under a giant bur oak tree on the bear mound hill in the Vilas neighborhood. I had been dozing for a while when the tree started laughing. “What’s going on? Are you laughing at me?” I asked. Of course she was. “Crazy human! You’ve cut down most of my kind, plowed up all the grasses and flowers and poisoned the insects. You plant your own grass instead, and you turn it into food that makes you unhealthy. Why?”

“Well, I don’t know,” I said. “My people have been clearing land and planting grasses for 10,000 years. It’s how we became civilized. How else can we feed ourselves?” I asked.

She replied, “Don’t you know that we oaks fed your kind for much of your history as a species? Look at these seeds scattered around your feet. They’re full of nutrition and easily harvested and stored. Why do you need to deforest, plow, and cultivate? There could be plenty of food for you if you help keep the land open, make sure we get plenty of sunlight, and allow us to regenerate. All my brothers and sisters have either been cut, or are now choking in a forest because the fires no longer burn to keep the land open, and they are sick because they no longer get the sun they need. Our kind will soon be gone from this place, and if you continue plowing for food, yours will be too.”

When you’re ready to listen to the trees, you gotta be ready to hear what they have to say.

balanoculture

“Balanocultures were among the most stable and affluent cultures the human world has ever known.”         -William Bryant Logan in Oak: the Frame of Civilization

Balanos is Greek for acorns, and balanoculture was coined in an article by David Bainbridge to describe cultures who derive significant subsistence from acorns. Bainbridge argues that prior to the granocultures that emerged with the advent of agriculture, societies in the Middle East, China, Mexico, and California, were largely dependent on acorns as a staple crop. Gathering and processing time for acorns is minimal relative to the labor required to grow annual cereal grains. He argues that the domestication of goats which prefer to browse oak seedlings, rising populations afforded by abundant acorns, and the cutting of trees for fuels, led to the demise of the great oak woodlands of the Middle East and China and the balanocultures they supported. Immediately following was the emergence of agriculture and the birth of granoculture.

sketch of California Indian harvesting acorns
sketch of California Indian harvesting acorns

In California and the Eastern United States, American Indians utilized acorns as a staple food source for at least the last 8,000 years. Here in the Midwest, Indians actively discouraged mesic forest succession, maintaining oak savanna/woodland for several thousand years as an ecological anomaly. Without their burning (and likely silvicultural) practices, oaks would have vanished from the region as modern climate patterns took hold 3,000 years ago. When the first European settlers arrive here, oak savanna was the most prevalent ecosystem in the Midwest. Nearly 90% of Southern Wisconsin was oak savanna in 1850. Today the savanna ecosystem is functionally extinct.  

Even though the Midwest has lost more than 99% of its oak savanna/woodlands, there are still plenty of good oak, hickory, and walnut trees around. We’re lucky in Madison with groves of giant white and bur oak trees common on campus and around the city, especially in parks like Orton, Olin, and Vilas.

how to eat an acorn

Acorns are abundant, and exceptionally nutritious; full of protein and fatty acids. But they don’t come free. You gotta harvest, leach, shell, and dry them before you can eat or cook with them. It may sound like a lot of work, but it’s fun, an excuse to explore new places, and the results are delicious and satisfying.

cap city trail harvest
cap city trail harvest

harvest: The best place to harvest is under open-grown trees with short-grass understory. Many oaks are in mesofied woodlands where dense brush makes harvesting difficult. Parks are a great place to start, because they often keep the grass mowed. I found this nice grassy area in a bur oak grove along the capitol city bike trail. Acorns everywhere. In less than an hour, I filled up a milk crate and my backpack.

cracking and shelling hickory nuts and acorns
cracking and shelling hickory nuts and acorns

shell: The next step is to crack the acorns and remove the nutmeat. I dumped some of the acorns and spread them out on the driveway. Then I took a large block of wood and pounded the acorns, cracking the shells. Any large blunt object, like a stone, would work. With the right amount of force, you can crack the shells without pulverizing the meat. Then, I went through by hand, separating the meat from the shells. I read that some Indians would dump pulverized nutmeat and shell into a pot of hot water and the shells float while the meat sinks. Brilliant.

makeshift river
makeshift river

leach:  All acorns have tannins. But members of the white oak tribe (white oak, bur oak, swamp white oak, chestnut oak, many more in California) have fewer tannins than members of the red oak tribe (red oak, black oak, etc.) Tannins are plant defense compounds which are bitter and cause sickness if eaten in sufficient quantities. So acorns need to be leached; white oak much less than red. Indians would often place baskets of acorns in rivers or streams. Flowing water quickly removes tannins. As skeptical as I am of our tap water, I trust it a bit more than the Yahara River. So I chopped up the nuts in a food processor, and placed the grounds into a pot with water. Chopping increases the surface area in contact with water. Swirl the grounds a bit and the water turns brown. These are the tannins. I stirred, drained off the brown water, and replaced with fresh water several times a day. By the 4th day or so the water stayed clear and the tannins were gone. You could leach in several hours by boiling them and continuously changing the water. But this would be water and energy intensive, and you’d probably lose some of the good oils in the process.

dried chopped acorns
dried chopped acorns

dry: Next you have to completely dry out the grounds. If you don’t, they’ll get rubbery and eventually mold (learned that the hard way). Drain the water from the pot, and spread the wet chopped meat somewhere to dry. I used a baking stone in the oven for a day or two. Placing them on a screen outside would work well, too, just watch out for squirrels. Once dry, they’ll store for a long time.

balano chocolate chip cookies
balano chocolate chip cookies

eat: Acorns are great on their own. A little sweet and a little nutty. Roasting on a fire or in the oven is also great. I’ve been using them in granola, chocolate chip cookies, and pie crusts. They add subtle nuttiness and substantial hardiness. Grind finely and they’re a great flour substitute in most baked goods. Coming up next is acorn flatbread.

viva la balano!

references:

Bainbridge, David. 1985. The Rise of Agriculture: A New Perspective. Ambio 14(3): 148-151.

Logan, William Bryant. Oak: The Frame of Civilization. W.W. Norton, New York: 2005.

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Comments

Brian Kaufenberg

I’ve always wondered why acorns are never eaten like any other nut. Good article Peter. Wish I could partake in the acorn-goodness, but alas an allergy to tree nuts precludes me.

Brynn

I am wondering if the acorns become negative-calorie food at the end of this process if an individual is undertaking the endeavor?

pclarkallen

Depends. If you include the energy I spent biking, than the return on investment is definitely lower. But I was biking anyway, so I wouldn’t count that. If you include the embedded energy in tap water, and the energy in roasting, the return might be negative. If you harvest enough, use cold water to leech, and dry in the sun, than there’s a huge positive energy return in acorns.

Will K.

It shouldn’t take as long to leach the acorn meal as it’s taking you. I typically grind the nutmeats into a slurry in a blender (nutmeats about 3/4 full with water almost to the top). Then, I pour the contents into a colander lined with cloth. I then set it in the sink and run cold water through it while stirring with my hand. I taste it periodically to see if the meal has lost its bitterness. This usually doesn’t take more than 15 minutes. I’ve used this method with white oak, chestnut oak and northern red oak with equal success. If it’s taking you that long to leach, you may need to grind the meal a bit finer. You should check out Sam Thayer’s book “Nature’s Garden”- it’s got an excellent, exhaustive chapter on acorns and acorn processing.