By Carly Leusner | Photography by Pascal Baudar, courtesy Chelsea Green Publishing
Growing up, I celebrated my birthdays with Rainbow Chip frosted cakes from a box. There is more vapid pleasure than lasting gratification in those cakes, and no matter how much Rainbow Chip frosting I eat, I always long for more, chasing the first taste like a hungry ghost. I learned in 2009 that food indulgence could be a multidimensional experience: nutritive, richly delicious, decisively satisfying, and spiritually sea changing—a revelation to my processed-food youth.
My dearest friend Felix made an acorn birthday cake to commemorate my 23rd trip around the sun, using acorns he had shelled, leached, and ground, made creamy and smooth with rendered tallow from a bison he personally assisted in butchering. He frosted this gem with hand-picked wild autumn olive berries, mashed and milled with local honey. The flavor was unforgettably earthy and sweet, like fallen leaves, alongside a fudgy richness that filled me solid with promises of forever wholeness. Made strictly of ingredients Felix foraged or found locally (save the salt), each ingredient’s origin story was a prayer he folded carefully into the batter. Yet amongst the more storied pieces, the most decadent element of this cake was, in our modern age, time.
Yes, Felix’s cake was artisanal with a capital A, a word that’s come to have strong associations with the foodie bourgeoisie. If he tried to buy that cake in the store, he couldn’t afford it, yet having time to indulge a hobby in the deepest measure is also a luxury. Being the Little Red Hen is something most people just can’t afford—in the sense of time, money, or interest. How humans have related to their food for millennia as a necessity, knowing and engaging intimately with each morsel that crosses their lips, has gone from common to exotic.
While acorn bison birthday cakes are not realistic for most, perhaps a little taste of acorns can help us see the potential for them in our pantries. Acorns can offer dense nutrition, locally and more sustainably than some of our other sources of bulk calories. Large-scale cultivation of corn, wheat, and soy, our main staples in the U.S., are reliant on agricultural practices that use petroleum-based fertilizers, destroy soil fertility, reduce biodiversity, and lead to erosion through over tilling. In his 2011 article “Acorn: the Perennial Grain,” in The Permaculture Activist #82, Kyle Keegan sees another way. He writes, “In contrast [to these agricultural practices], long-lived oak trees provide not only sustenance, but also stabilize soils and climate while offering shade, shelter, fuel, and medicine.”
Due to their deep roots, oaks also use far less water and fertilizer than a wheat field. Faced with much more erratic weather and increased threats of drought, less resource-intensive food cultivation is urgently necessary. Acorns deliver more fiber than corn or wheat, are a complete vegetable protein, and offer an array of micronutrients like calcium, magnesium and B vitamins after proper processing.
Time is a required input if we want to move away from the industrial food system, but the work can be made lighter with more bodies and the right tools. Alternatives have little chance of relevancy or accessibility to the mainstream so long as we work as solitary enthusiasts. Investing in the commons—common tools, community food processing gatherings, and more public access to nut trees—eases the burden of “extra time” that real, wholesome, fresh food demands.
Felix helped found Help Yourself, a nonprofit that designs and plants free and publicly accessible food gardens and orchards around the Pioneer Valley, to help make edible landscapes a reality in urban and suburban spaces. I’ve often broken rules in parks when harvesting invasive species and taken for granted that I can forage most places, sometimes trespassing, knowing that my white, gender-conforming appearance will incite more curiosity than suspicion. Until we update laws around land use and access, and multiply public groves of food so that foraging is safe and inclusive for all, we can at least work with groups like Help Yourself to transform public spaces into grounds for shared knowledge, resources, and common good.
Kyle Keegan, “Acorn: the Perennial Grain,” Permaculture Activist, no. 82 (2011): 47.
If you’ve never tasted acorns, do yourself a favor and cook some up, then share your creation with a friend. It’s time acorn eating became common again. Check out our tips on foraging acorns, our review of The New Wildcrafted Cuisine, and more acorn recipes like Carly Leusner’s acorn-potato flatbread.