October 22, 2007
Acorn Day Weathers a Crisis


As anyone who lately has strolled the paths about Sutter's Fort State Historic Park in midtown Sacramento knows, a bumper crop of acorns is littering the grounds. That wasn't the case last fall, when acorns, a staple of early Native American diets in Northern California, were in short supply.

Even though acorns best are dried for a year before they can be processed into meal for use in mush, baked goods and other foods, the shortage didn't jeopardize the annual Acorn Day this past Saturday at the State Indian Museum on the fort's grounds.

Here, Diana Almendariz of Sacramento, a Maidu/Wintun Native American active at the Maidu Interpretive Center in Roseville, uses a basket to winnow acorn meat after it has been removed from its hard shell, a painstaking and precise step involving cracking the shell with a couple of rocks. "It's the perfect container," says Almendariz of an acorn's shell. "It's like Tupperware."

The winnowing is to remove the thin red papery wrapping about the acorn meat. If not all the paper is removed, the resulting flour will be speckled with red, a sign of laziness "in the old days," notes Almendariz. A potential suitor surely wouldn't be interested in a woman who couldn't assure him there wouldn't be an red shreds in his meal, she adds.

Using mortar and pestle, youngsters Saturday pulverized the acorns into a fine powder, which then was leached of its bitter tannins with water poured through a mound of the flour arranged atop a cone of sand. The resulting cooked mush was pretty bland and could have used some wild grapes or manzanita berries that Native Americans early on to give it more color and flavor.

Almendariz last year had gathered enough black-oak acorns in Placer County to assure she'd have enough on hand for Saturday's demonstrations. Other participants who had baked loaves of a dark and sweet acorn bread weren't so fortunate. They had to shop for the acorn meal to combine with baking powder, sugar, milk, egg and the like. Thy found it at a Korean market in Rancho Cordova.

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