Nutritious Acorns Don't Have To Just Be Snacks For Squirrels : The Salt Despite acorns' wide geographic range and long culinary history, few people eat them. But some fans say they're an untapped nutritional resource — if you're willing to do the work to process them.
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Nutritious Acorns Don't Have To Just Be Snacks For Squirrels

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Nutritious Acorns Don't Have To Just Be Snacks For Squirrels

Nutritious Acorns Don't Have To Just Be Snacks For Squirrels

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Our next story is about eating locally. You know the whole farm-to-table phenomenon, except this is more like tree to table. We're talking about acorns. Yes, there are people in Portland, Oregon who are making the effort, and it is an effort, to make acorns a regular part of their diet. Here's Deena Prichep to explain why.

DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: At Laurelhurst Park in Portland, Oregon, the trees are just starting to turn fall colors. But the acorns are already dropping everywhere.

JOHN KALLAS: I mean, just with one grab, I can get two handfuls of acorns.

PRICHEP: John Kallas is a wild food expert who teaches classes on eating acorns.

KALLAS: So they sort of store up the energy. And some produce every two years; some produce every three years.

PRICHEP: Even with that variability, Kallas is able to fill up his bucket in a few minutes, which raises the question - why is he the only one out here? Acorns have protein, carbohydrates, fats and minerals; all the good stuff. But they also have something else - tannins.

PIXIE LAPLANTE: I'll tell you what, an acorn out of the shell is ugh.

PRICHEP: Tannins, as Pixie LaPlante is discovering, make fresh acorns pucker-y in a very unpleasant way. At John Kallas's acorn workshop, LaPlante and others are learning how to process them. First, there's the shelling. Then you've got to grind them up.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: It's a workout.

PRICHEP: Then get rid of those tannins by leaching them out with water. It does take effort. But it's an effort people have made throughout history.

BILL LOGAN: There's a lot of references in ancient Greek literature to acorns. There's some suggestion that in some of the earliest central settlements, there are unexplained pits, which may have been for storage of acorn.

PRICHEP: Bill Logan is an arborist in New York. He traced the history of eating acorns for his book about oak trees. And oak trees are almost anywhere.

LOGAN: All through North America, down into South America, then across the way into Europe and into temperate Russia and south. And then you go on out into China and then out into Southeast Asia.

PRICHEP: But Logan says even though they're so widespread, there's a good reason you're not eating acorns.

LOGAN: I found the taste somewhat insipid.

FRANK LAKE: For me, growing up eating acorns, it was always what you added to it. If it was nice, grilled salmon, if it was huckleberries, if it's a little bit of seaweed.

PRICHEP: Frank Lake comes from the Yurok and Karuk tribes. Native Americans are among the few who still eat acorns. For California tribes, the ground meal is usually made into a simple soup or flatbreads.

LAKE: But because of the changes in forest management and poor acorn quality, it went from being a staple to then being more of kind of a specialty food.

PRICHEP: Lake, who is also a research ecologist with the Forest Service, says the drop in tribal oak orchards is due to a few factors - losing land, not burning off enough of the undergrowth to clear out pests and favoring fast-growing timber trees over a slow-growing oak.

LAKE: I mean, you want to talk about a slow food movement, adopt acorns as a main food source.

PRICHEP: There are many places where oaks are thriving or they've actually been planted because of their nice, picnic-friendly canopies. And there, Lake says, acorns can be a great, untapped resource as long as you leave some for the squirrels. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep in Portland, Oregon.

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