Sunday, March 23, 2014

Acorn atole -- not a convenience food

Coast live oak near San Luis Obispo, California.  Photo by Giovanni LoCascio, used with permission.
The theme for March’s Berry Go Round is unusual edible plants, and all month I’ve had my ear to the ground for ideas.  Then last week while in California I read about Indians collecting, preparing and eating acorns.  I was struck by the oddity of it all.  I chose the coast live oak as my unusual edible plant but when I started to write, I realized there wasn't anything unusual about it.  Coast live oaks are common and the acorns are commonly eaten by wildlife.  They also were used by Indians to make a thick soup or mush, which the Spaniards called “atole” (ah-toé-leh) back in the 1700s.  It’s said to have been one of their most common foods.
Acorns of the coast live oak, Quercus agrifolia, were among the most prized for making atole.  Source
But times have changed and therein lies the explanation for why the oak seems an unusual edible plant.  In my world we rarely think about eating to survive.  Instead we search for food that's tasty, and usually convenient to prepare.  We wouldn't bother with acorn atole.

In fact, compared with atole, everything I eat is convenience food!  Converting tough bitter acorns to something edible was a long and tedious process.  Here’s a typical recipe, compiled from several sources (italics added for emphasis):
In fall, if the oaks have produced acorns, collect as many as possible, at least several hundred pounds.  Dry thoroughly in the sun and store.
Remove a small batch of acorns from storage, enough for the day.  In a stone mortar, grind a few at a time using a pestle or any suitable stone. When all acorns are ground, sift or winnow meal to remove coarse material.
Put the meal/flour in a depression in sand.  Rinse repeatedly with water.  This will require the greater part of a day unless hot water is available.  [Leaching removed bitter tannins.]
Pull out the sand-free center of the dough and bake as bread.
Use the remainder of the dough to make atole.  Mix with water in a woven bowl.  Drop in hot stones, stirring frequently to prevent scorching of the bowl.  Cook until desired consistency is obtained.
Methods of preparation varied somewhat.  Here Maggie Howard, a Paiute, shells and skins acorns into special baskets (Sierra Nevada, 1930s).  Elsewhere, acorns were simply dried and stored whole.  Source
“Grinding acorn meal.  A modern-day Indian woman gives a demonstration of the technique and tools employed by her forebears ...”  Source
Was atole tasty?  If so, maybe it was worth all that effort.  Saunders (1920) described the flavor as “rather flat but with a suggestion of nuttiness that becomes distinctly agreeable.”  Balls (1972) said it had a “slightly sweetish but rather insipid taste.”  Some visitors had problems with residual sand from leaching, and ash from the cooking stones.  But I think it's impossible for us to judge atole's appeal.  That was a place and time of limited fare, quite unfamiliar to us.

In any case, there were other reasons to eat atole.  Acorns are nutritious and rich in calories, especially compared with many wild plants.  They contain “up to 18 percent fat, 6 percent protein, and 68 percent carbohydrate” (CSUS no date).  They're large, and fairly easy to harvest.

Still, I was skeptical when I read that atole was an important staple, because acorns are so unreliable.  Oaks produce substantial yields only during mast years and these are unpredictable (Harper et al. no date).  This is good for the oaks.  During mast years, seed predators generally are swamped with food, and it's likely that some acorns will produce seedlings rather than be eaten.  However human seed predators had a counter-strategy -- storage.  Dried acorns are long-lasting, and Indians regularly stored them for several years or more (one source says up to a dozen).
Acorn woodpeckers also store acorns, but not as effectively as humans once did.  This one is stocking a "Granary Tree".  Source
Acorn atole has not disappeared.  It’s still prepared on special occasions, as a link to the past and in celebration of traditions and culture.  Fortunately, today’s cooks have access to modern conveniences:
“instead of the mortar and pestle, the electric blender or a meat grinder may be used to produce flour.  Cloth might substitute for the leaching basin, buckets may replace baskets, and a slow drip in the kitchen sink may flush the tannic acid.  For cooking, the stove and a metal pot might replace heated stones placed in baskets.  Whatever the preparation techniques, acorn is special: a tangible connection to the old ways, a nourishing food, and a commitment to the future” (from Past and Present Acorn Use in California)
Modern day mortar and pestle for making atole.  Source

NOTE:  Acorn atole is not related to the atole of Mexico, which is made from corn.

This month's Berry Go Round is hosted by Emma the Gardner.


Balls, E.K.  1972.  Early uses of California plants.  University of California Press.

California State University, Sacramento (CSUS).  No date.  Past and present acorn use in native California.

Harper, J.M. et al.  No date.  Acorn production by California oaks.

Saunders, C.F.  1920.  Useful wild plants of the United States and Canada.  New York: McBride & Co.

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