How far would you go to research a subject for a book? My current work in progress is a time travel novel set in 500 BC
. The hero and heroine are flying a cargo plane of supplies to the heroine’s missionary brother when the plane is struck by lightning and crash lands in up-state America , back in time. New York
Obviously, they have the contents of the plane to help them get started with their survival, but after that they’re on their own with only the resources they discover in their surroundings. So I decided to explore the local wild grocery (empty corner lot) while walking my dog.
One area where we walk had two enormous oak trees that were just beginning to shed their acorns. I knew from previous reading that acorns were edible so I stashed a handful in my pocket intending to try them out.
The next step when I returned home was to investigate what I needed to do to make them safe to eat. And thus began my odyssey. Acorns require quite a bit of processing. Bearing in mind the conditions my characters were going to be living in, I determined to use no technology that couldn’t be duplicated in the wild.
Step One: Roast the acorns in the oven. Okay, I cheated a bit on this one as I live in an apartment that has a “no grilling” rule. But it seemed to me that a reasonable substitute would be a cast-iron pot parked in coals, so I felt like I had that step conquered if I found a way to incorporate a cast-iron pot or skillet in my story.
Step Two: Peel the acorns. Actually, this was more tedious and difficult than I imagined it would be. For one thing roasted acorns don’t have brittle shells. Instead, the shells are “springy”. My hammer (substitute for a rock) just bounced when I tried to crack the shell and that was hell on the fingers.
My husband decided that he could do a better job than I could so he took over the acorn shelling while I went back to writing. It seemed like a fair division of labor—and exactly what my hero would do. I cautioned him that he could only use tools that the characters were likely to have with them.
It turns out that a knife inserted near the top of the acorn will split the shell with relative ease because the shell is soft and springy. So that solved that problem. However, I discovered that it takes more than a pocketful of acorns to end up with any useful amount of end product.
Baskets in hand, my husband and I returned to the oak trees to gather more acorns. I can seriously tell you that this is a back-breaking job with minimal return. It takes a lot of acorns for serious food productions. Walking around bent over with your eyes glued to the ground is tough. We returned with about four cups of acorns. And began back at step one.
Step Three: In the meantime, I had to do something with the shelled acorns we had because if they aren’t processed pretty quickly, they mold. This step is called leaching. It requires a pot and water. Boil acorns, strain, rinse, boil acorns, strain, rinse, etc., until the water is clear. It isn’t a difficult task, but my characters are going to have to haul water from their water source, so that‘s something to factor into the story. And that leads to…
Step four: Dehydrating the boiled acorns. Technically, acorns are edible at this point though they have very little taste. If you plan to preserve them for long-term use then they must be dehydrated. They need to completely dry out until they’re hard. This requires a) something to spread them out on and b) someplace to keep them. I have several large cookie sheets which I used to spread out the acorns. Air drying takes approximately five days. Five days with cookie sheets sitting on every available surface.
I had to meditate on how my characters were going to deal with this step as they would also have to contend with wild critters trying to steal their harvest. I’m still working on this problem.
As I was working through the acorn dilemmas, I reported my progress on my blog. Some of my husband’s co-workers read my blog and one of them loves acorns. He decided to “help” out by bringing two boxes of acorns to work so that my husband could deliver them to me for my experiment.
Well. After a while, we got into a rhythm. Roast, boil, dehydrate, roast, boil, dehydrate… I still have one more sheet of acorns dehydrating.
Step five: Grind dried acorns into dust—I mean flour! The recommendations from those in the know were to use a coffee grinder. I determined that there was such a thing as a hand-cranked coffee grinder. And I could even figure out a reason for such an item to be included in the cargo of the plane. However, I do not own a coffee grinder so I had to come up with a likely substitute for my use. Eventually, I settled on a food chopper. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked. It was noisy and I burned up two of them as I discovered something the hard way—it’s best to break up the acorns in small pieces while they’re still damp.
My modern eye was admiring all my beautiful intact acorn meats when the most practical thing would have been to chop them us as finely as possible while they were still soft and pliable. I quickly learned that the intact meats were a real bear to grind up!
Step six: Strain the chopped acorn meats. You end up with two end products. One is a fine texture, close to that of cornmeal which can be used for baking. The other resembles tiny gravel like the stuff used in fish tanks. That product is suitable for incorporating in things like chili, meatloaf, or stews.
I suppose you’re wondering why someone would go through the aggravation of processing acorns. Well, according to my research, acorns provide one of the most difficult dietary items to acquire under survival conditions—fat. In our high-fat consuming culture it’s hard to imagine that fat reserves would be difficult to maintain in true survival conditions, but it’s true. Wild meat has very little fat. With the exception of bears—prior to hibernation—wild animals do not provide enough fat for survival without something to supplement the diet. So acorns will do the trick. Hence, acorn-squirrel stew, a dietary staple in the early colonial days.
Step seven: Actually bake something with the flour. I chose to make muffins, purely as a taste test. No, I don’t think my characters will have muffin pans or other baking paraphernalia on the plane. But since I was the one eating the acorns, I decided I would make something I would enjoy eating. I found a recipe for maple acorn muffins that also used grated apples, raisins and chopped nuts. And? They were delicious.
I learned a lot from the experiment. And if I’m ever stranded in the wild with an oak tree nearby—and its autumn—I’ll be in good shape.