Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Gamekeepers: Deer Eat Better Than We Do

The good folks at Mossy Oak publish a magazine called Gamekeepers.  It must have been a proverbial "slow news day," because for some reason I am sure they will come to regret they published an article written by me.

I have written before about how a growing number of hunters truly have it right, and are providing food for wildlife in a way that is much more efficient and sustainable than the myriad ways in which we feed ourselves: They are planting permanent "food plots" of nut- and fruit-bearing trees.  They are also much more diligent and careful than most landscape or timber tree planters when it comes to protecting and tending their young trees in order to achieve optimal growth.  In short, hunters planting oaks for deer and turkey habitat are growing those oaks faster than most farmers grow corn.  I will be spotlighting the amazing results of one particular hunter/tree planter in an upcoming post.

I find the name of the magazine - Gamekeepers - both apt and ironic.  Wikipedia defines a game keeper as:

... a person who manages an area of countryside to make sure there is enough game for shooting, or fish for angling, and who actively manages areas of woodland, moorland, waterway or farmland for the benefit of game birds, deer, fish and wildlife in general.
Typically, a gamekeeper is employed by a landowner, and often in the UK by a country estate, to prevent poaching, to rear and release game birds such as pheasants and partridge, eradicate pests, encourage and manage wild red grouse, and to control predators such as foxes, to manage habitats to suit game, and to monitor the health of the game.

The magazine title is apt in the sense that there is a growing number of folks who take a very active role in making their land as attractive and nourishing as possible for wildlife.  This generally means managing for game species like deer, turkeys, grouse, pheasants, etc. but the "unintended" consequence of this management is a huge amount of habitat for non-game species.  And from personal experience I know that even the most hard-bitten deer hunter takes tremendous pride in the multitude of non-game species his or her land supports.

And, as I say, people growing food for humans could learn an awful lot from the way that these intensive wildlife habitat managers - these gamekeepers - are growing food for wildlife.

It is ironic from a historical standpoint.  As per the Wiki definition, the game keeper was typically the dude in the employ of the local aristocrat charged with keeping the riff raff from "poaching" the earl or duke's game.  Well now the descendents of that riff raff, transported across the pond, are all aristocrats (which also means that none are aristocrats) and are all lords of their own manors, managing their own land for wildlife.  And that is a very good thing.

There is no online version of Gamekeepers.  The publishers were kind enough to give me permission to reprint the article here on this humble blog.  Here it is:

How to eat as good as your deer
Making acorns a part of your diet

By Christian Siems

Jeff Foxworthy is a very funny man, and a few years ago he delivered a very funny keynote address at the Quality Deer Management Convention.  He spoke about his lifelong love of deer, and how he admires QDMA experts in the same way many folks admire Hollywood stars.  Toward the end of his talk Foxworthy told a series of  “… you might be a quality deer manager” jokes along the lines of the “… you might be a redneck” jokes for which he is famous.  I really liked this one:  “If your deer have new bedding but your wife doesn’t, you might be a quality deer manager.” 

But this is the joke that really struck a chord with me:  “If your deer eat better than your children do, you might be a quality deer manager.”  Another laugh-out-loud line to be sure.  But I doubt Foxworthy realized how true his words were; deer really do eat better than people do, for this simple reason:

Deer eat acorns, and we don’t.

Acorns were once the Staff of Life for humankind.  Humans have consumed more acorns than wheat, rice and corn combined.  Acorns remained a dietary staple until very recently in parts of Europe (in parts of Spain and France acorns accounted for 20% of caloric intake until the late 19th century), parts of Asia (notably Korea), and California among the indigenous people.  The naturalist John Muir called the dry acorn cakes eaten by the local native people, "the most compact and strength giving food" he had ever used.  I might be romanticizing a bit here, but it is my belief that the healthiest, happiest and most peaceful people who have ever lived on Earth were acorn-eaters. 

Why did we humans eat acorns?  The answer is easy.   Acorns are incredibly nutritious and easy to gather.  Acorns are rich in protein, amino acids, carbohydrates, but most importantly fat.  People once inherently understood that fat is an essential nutrient, back before dietary geniuses told us that fat is evil (and before we all got fat trying to avoid eating fat).  Communities who subsisted largely on acorns could gather a year’s worth of nutrition in just a few days of work.  In my research I have noticed that European regions that rely heavily on tree crops (these days it’s more likely walnuts and chestnuts than acorns) have an awful lot of leisure time on their hands.  Bocce ball is huge among nut eating cultures.  So is sitting in the shade, drinking coffee and chatting.  For hours.

I have also found a study from Korea suggesting that eating sawtooth oak (Quercus acutissima) acorns can delay the onset of dementia.  You realize what this means, of course:  With the widespread planting of sawtooth oak for wildlife habitat, our deer and wild turkeys have better memories than we do.  Then again, hunters already know that.

Why did we stop eating acorns?  That answer is considerably more complicated.  An acorn diet was truly “easy street” in terms of nutritional value per man hour expended.  So why break our backs working the soil to produce annual grain crops instead?  Two dueling groups of anthropologists (and trust me, there’s nothing more fierce and scary than a dueling anthropologist) have filled a lot of research papers trying to explain the transition from acorn to agriculture.  One group claims that annual crop agriculture made permanent settlements – a.k.a. “civilization” – possible.  The other group claims that permanent settlements over-taxed local acorn resources causing catastrophic food shortages that necessitated the development of annual crops.

Either way, it’s our great loss, both in terms of health and in terms of energy expended (both human and fuel) per calorie consumed.  It’s time to rediscover the benefits of adding acorns to our diet.


If you eat acorns raw you will notice that after an initial sweet, nutty, sometimes buttery taste your tongue will quickly start to go numb, as though you have been sucking on boot leather for an hour (I’m guessing here – I haven’t actually sucked on boot leather, and anyways it wasn’t for a whole hour).  That’s the tannins you are tasting – tannins which, coincidentally, are used in tanning leather.  Luckily those tannins are water soluble and are easily removed.

Instructions for making acorn flour (borrowing heavily from an awesome web site – a must for all sportsmen who love food –

1) Gather acorns.  Acorns from the white oak group (bur oak, swamp chestnut oak, overcup oak, etc. – the ones with the rounded leaf tips) tend to be less tannic, but that’s a generalization.  Try various types of acorns, from various trees; you’ll notice enormous variation in sweetness between acorns of the same species, with some that can be eaten right off the tree and some that really curl your toes.

2) Shell the acorns.  The high tech tools I use most often to do this:  A hammer (pounding the top of the acorn where the cap used to be) and my teeth.  Don’t tell my dentist.

3) Leach the tannins.  Grind the raw acorn nutmeats into fine meal – a coffee grinder works, or you can go “old school” with a mortar and pestle.  Mix 1 cup of the meal for every 3 cups of cold water, and pour into a glass jar with a lid.  Once each day shake the mixture, wait 12 hours, pour off the water (and dissolved tannins), and replace the water.  Repeat for 1 to 2 weeks until the flour has lost its tannic bitterness.

4) Dry the flour.  Pour the acorn/water mixture into a cheesecloth strainer and gently squeeze out the water.  Spread the flour in a thin layer on a cookie sheet and place in an oven with the temperature set as low as it will go (a food dehydrator also works).  Dry the flour, mixing from time to time.  When completely dry put it in a blender with a dry blade and grind into flour.  Sift through a fine mesh sieve to remove any lingering large pieces.

5) Store finished flour in the fridge.

Another way to leach and save a larger quantity of acorns is to boil the nutmeats whole, changing water each time it darkens (repeat 3 to 6 times, until the acorns taste like chestnuts).  Then dry the acorns in a 300 degree oven for approximately 30 minutes.  Roasting in this way brings out the sugars and helps preserve the acorns.  These acorn pieces can be eaten whole, oiled and salted, or added to soups and sauces.


Acorn flour can be substituted for a portion of the wheat flour in most baking recipes.  At my house we substitute a cup of acorn flour for one of the three cups of flour in our favorite bread recipe.  We also substitute ½ cup of acorn flour for wheat flour when we make pizza dough.  In both cases the result has a mild nutty flavor, is less “carby,” and is a lot more satisfying.  Here are a couple of specific recipes I have made and really like:

Acorn Maple Syrup Cookies

Preheat to 350 degrees

1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp almond extract
2 eggs
1/2 cup acorn flour
1-1/2 cup all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder

Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl.  Melt the butter then add the syrup.  Add the rest of the wet ingredients to the butter/syrup mixture.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients.  I sometimes find I need to add 1 to 2 more tablespoons of wheat flour if the dough is too gloppy (to use a technical culinary term).  Drop spoonfuls onto a parchment lined cookie sheet and bake for 13 to 15 minutes.

Acorn Walnut Bread (adapted from

Preheat oven to 350 degrees
1 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 cup acorn flour
1/4 cup milk
1 cup maple syrup
1 cup applesauce
1/2 cup crumbled black walnuts
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/8 cup vegetable oil
1 1/2 eggs (great reason to double the recipe!)
Mix flours and baking powder in small bowl. Combine milk, maple syrup, applesauce, vegetable oil and eggs in large mixing bowl. Mix well and stir in dry ingredients…adding black walnuts at the end. Pour into small, buttered bread pan and bake for roughly 45 minutes.

You get the idea:  Anything you can bake becomes tastier, healthier and more satisfying when you substitute acorn flour for a portion of the white flour.  After eating you will be amazed how long you feel full. 

Adding acorns to your diet is good for your health, but it can also be good for your hunting.  Viewing your oak trees as a food source forces you to be more in tune with when the acorns from various trees tend to drop (early or late), and how much competition there is from wildlife for the acorns of certain trees.  You will begin to view your property in much the same way that deer and turkeys view it, which in turn will help you better understand their dietary needs and movements.


Christian Siems is a forester with Wilson Forestry Supply and author of the blog  Chris collaborates with Mossy Oak’s Nativ Nurseries on tree tubes for protecting oak seedlings from deer browse, so they grow faster and produce acorns (for deer and people) sooner.  Chris welcomes your questions and ideas about eating acorns and can be reached at

1 comment:

  1. Bill Mollison (father of permaculture) gives another reason that we moved away from tree crops. Paraphrasing, he says that trees were getting cut down for war and building by large governments and armies, so people moved to food sources that could produce every year and avoid the risk of planting something that would take years to produce and be attractive building material for others. He gives the example of Ireland, which he claims was a forested people till England decided they needed the wood.