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The Secret Ingredient: Acorns
"How do I support the landscape so that it supports me in turn?"
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I met Candace in the early days of the pandemic, when we were dismantling the JetBlue milk crate garden at JFK to distribute the milk crates to people who could grow things out of them at home. It was an eerie dystopian bright spot of activity during those eerie first months.
That’s approximately the space that Candace tends to inhabit, whether it’s creating something useful out of an abandoned garden at an empty airport, or caring for a park in Manhattan as it gets bulldozed for a new sea wall. As the land steward at Solar One Stuy Cove Park, she works to educate people about the ecosystem here in our city and, once the park is back in action, to help it grow edible wild food. We talked about her relationship to wild foods and what it means to shape the land to support them.
My ingredient is acorns. So few people even know that you can eat them. I read this book Oak: The Frame of Civilization, and now they believe that a lot of civilizations subsisted on acorns for some of our evolution. We always hear this narrative of like: People were hunter-gatherers and then all of a sudden they just started growing wheat. The author complicates that and is like, No, we farmed in different ways. We had different ways of engaging with land and utilizing the things that grew there.
When you’re looking for acorns, you want them to be as big as possible, because there’s no point in sitting and having to shell anything tiny. Here in America we have red oaks and white oaks, and white oaks have less tannins which makes them easier to process but with red oaks, the flavor is better. Red oaks take longer to germinate, so those tannins are what help preserve the acorn in the ground.
I mostly make acorn flour. You bring them home, stick them in the freezer, which not only keeps them until you’re ready but also helps shrink the meat away from the shell. Then you sit down with a hammer and some buddies and a movie and you crack them. You put that nut meat into a blender with some water, you basically make an acorn milkshake. You let it settle. The water pulls the tannins out. It collects on the top and you pour it off every day. The flour and starch settle out separately. Then once it's ready, you dry out the flour and grind it up.
I’ve made muffins, I’ve tried to make bread but it did not go well. I've made brownies, I've made crackers. This is my second year making acorn liquor and that’s really nice. Last year when I was deshelling everything I just threw a handful of nut meat into some vodka with maple syrup and let it sit. And it came out amazing. It became this really dark brown rich liquor that tastes nutty and kind of caramel-y. This [batch of acrons] had an insane amount of starch. So last night, I did a new experiment and I made Korean acorn jelly out of it.
My thing is I'm interested in wild foods and acorns are an excellent protein and carbohydrate source. So the author [of the Oak book] made some grits and he was slightly underwhelmed — it's fine but it's just flour right? — and said that it was only at 3 o’clock in the afternoon when he still wasn’t hungry that he realized what their value is. They have probably been a very important sustenance source for peoples across the globe. So if we're thinking about a future where we want to eat in a way that is more sustainable and increase our forest canopy, then, you know, I'm not suggesting we run the squirrels out of their homes but I think we can be making use of that abundance.
Kate: How did you end up working with wild foods like this?
My family always had a garden, they've always fished and hunted. That's just how Appalachians had to survive for 200, 300 years. It wasn't a cute thing. It was a necessity. We lived in Florida for awhile and we were broke, so my father fished a lot of our food and it was my job to go out and help him check the crab traps. We had this tiny little rusty ass boat and we’d take our extra bait fish and feed the dolphins and get to pet dolphins and see manatees. And then we’d see people throwing trash into the water where we’re fishing, you know what I mean? Where my food is coming from. We saw a manatee once that — somebody hadn't obeyed the no wake zone and then had decimated it — and it was dying slowly in the water. And as a seven-year-old, you see some shit like that and it really rocks you. So I think those things were very formative for me. I became an adult and started grappling with the big scale version of a manatee dying in the water. Going back to that way of relating to food and lands felt like a good medicine.
Around eight years ago, I just started looking around at all of the plants that grew around me and I wanted to know who they were. I started learning what you could do with them and where they’re from and who might have brought them here, accidentally or intentionally, and it gave me a way to approach my climate grief. It gave me a way to engage with my landscape better. It also just felt like a real good-ass practical skill. And it rekindled that childlike excitement for me, it kind of spiraled into all of these different questions. Like, Wow, that's wild spinach growing in this tree pit where my dog is taking a shit. I wonder if I could eat it if my dog wasn't shitting on it. And I wonder what would be in the soil that would make it so that I couldn't eat it? Then you learn more about it and like, Wow it’s super drought-tolerant. Why don’t we grow it as a crop? And then you meet a friend from Bangladesh, and she’s like, My mom grows it in our front yard in Queens. Food touches all of the things. Give me any one of those plants and I can draw 1000 mycelial nodes that lead you to different thoughts about just how big and complex our world is, you know. So that stuff keeps me very engaged and excited to keep doing this sort of silly stuff.
Kate: Has your relationship to the land as a food source changed now that you have this more academic understanding of it all?
Even more than the reading, what’s changed is that I am an actual Land Steward as my day job. It’s very different to be a forager, where you’re just like, Oh this happens to be here, I will make use of this thing. Now I'm actively looking around being like, What plants do I want to make sure are here? And now that I’m privileged enough to own some land, I’m not going to go fill it up with a bunch of shit that’s not from there. Like, what would grow on a north-facing Catskill forest? Ramps, goldenseal, ginseng, so let’s go find them. It’s gone from treating the woods like a supermarket, with respect (I pay my grocery bill by picking up trash), to now like, How do I make the landscape? How do I support the landscape so that it supports me in turn?
I don’t want to say it was not how my family approached it, but they come from a far more Protestant idea that the land is a thing you work. The land is the thing you do upon, as opposed to a thing you do with, an ecosystem and a living entity. So I think that’s a big shift for me.
Kate: I feel like this goes back to what you were talking about earlier, this middle space between growing and foraging.
There’s a lot of thought these days about how that’s how indigenous people stewarded this continent for a long time. Like when Europeans came into it, they didn't realize they were looking at a farm because it didn't look like one. It is very intentional, but it’s not in rows. It has to be part of its own system. It has to be based in what that landscape will support.
When we first got our land, I in my ignorance would look around and just be like, Look at all these beautiful trees. And now because I know just how poorly our forests are doing, I see the beech blight and I know about this lantern fly, and I’m just like, Oh my god, if one more pest arrives there will be nothing left. That’s that whole other dying manatee feeling all over again. Like I find these hopeful moments and then learn another thing and am like, Oh God. And then try and find the hopeful moment in that and then have another crash. It’s an ongoing up and down roller coaster of emotions.
It's a little weird and devastating to be carving a hole in the forest canopy. That’s another shift in my land stewardship practices. I’ve been talking to more people who work in forestry about how disturbance is part of it. If you want to be able to give the oaks and the chestnuts a chance, you have to weed the forest. You gotta tell the birches and the beeches and the maples to chill. But every time we take down another tree it’s this feeling of, I can't believe we're here doing this. Like we moved to the forest, why are we taking down trees? But again, it's just a garden on a bigger scale. It's not that the tree itself is bad. There’s no such thing as a weed. But it’s like, Where do you want certain things to be? How do you want to have them all work together? I’m trying to think in those systems ways. And see the forest for the trees.
What I’m Cooking
As I mentioned above, this versatile, free-form galette would be a great way to use foraged greens — I used ramps in mine, but lamb’s quarters, field garlic, mugwort, would all work well with the crust and walnut cream.