Thursday, October 7, 2010

Still there and ready to be used again...

In The Omnivore's Dilemma author Michael Pollan goes morel hunting on National Forest land somewhere in the Sierra. He loses his way and accidentally ends up on private forest land. A company forester tells him he's welcome to continue hunting morels - so long as Pollan agrees to tell people that logging companies aren't always evil.  After dutifully (and with what is either a hint of sarcasm on Pollan's part or of knee jerk self defensiveness on my part) stating "Logging companies aren't always evil," Pollan goes on to write:

"The forester, evidently thrilled to have someone to talk to (editor's note: we're just thrilled to have someone listen to us!), told me to keep an eye out along the creek - it was called Beaver Creek - for large boulders with blackened hollows scooped out of them to make bowls. It seems the Washoe Indians would wash and mash acorns in these bowls and then bake them into a kind of flat bread.

"I never did find one of the Indian bowls, but hearing about them made me realize that this forest had been part of a human food chain for hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. The Indians understood that you could work out relations with wild species that didn't necessarily involve bringing them under your roof. Oaks have always refused the domestic bargain, clinging to their bitterness in the face of countless human efforts to domesticate them. But the Indians found a way to live off these trees even so, by devising a way to detoxify the acorns."

Michael Pollan is one of my heroes, and it's fantastic to have acorns as human food mentioned in one of the best-selling and best-written books on diet and where our food comes from to be written in the last 25 years.  But even so I have several bones to pick with Pollan about this passage:

1. Oaks have not refused the domestic bargain, and many are not bitter.  If humankind would invest 1/1,000.000th of the time and energy in selectively breeding oaks that has been devoted to corn over the last 8,000 years we'd have acorns so sweet you'd get tooth decay upon first bite. 

2. There have not been countless human efforts to domesticate them.  There have been periodic efforts by a small number of visionaries (Ness, Cottam, Ashworth and others) who were largely viewed as crackpots or oddities during their own time, and whose work was largely forgotten when they were gone.

3. Most all, Pollan didn't gather or serve acorns in any form as part of the Foraging Food Chain meal he prepared at the end of the book.  Yes he did serve a wild pig he hunted himself & whose diet consisted largely of acorns, but not acorns themselves.

Even for the man who has done more than anyone to reconnect Americans to our food eating past & traditions, acorns don't seem to be taken seriously enough to become part of the modern dinner table.

That is about to change.

UPDATE: I just realized I didn't do a very good job of tying the post to the title I gave to it... shockingly, I strayed from my original point.  I meant to say that the mortar and pestles carved from stone by indigenous people throught the west are still there, ready to grind acorns again.

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