Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The nuts in my backyard.

Now, I've always been NorCal in my upbringing and in my roots.  I have a sense of earth and wholesomeness, mixed with the Californian sense of superiority in being able to reduce, reuse, and recycle while still being very Napa-cool about it all.  I appreciate fresh produce, farmers markets, and grassroots good eatin' (pun intended)!

The thing that surprises me the most, however, is just how much of this I really do hold characteristically innate.  Now that I'm no longer working an 8-5 full-time office job--instead researching, writing, and tending to my dissertation full-time--I have schedule flexibility unlike anything else I've ever known.  With that flexibility has come a sudden rush of "homey" activities that awesomely round out my knowledge and experience about food and where it comes from and what you can do with it.

For example, I was out walking the dog this morning and found myself crunching over unknown nuts strewn haphazardly on the ground.  They obviously came from the tress above, but what were they?  I picked one up and studied it's smooth teardrop, yet walnut-like appearance.  I raised it to my nose and sniffed it.  No scent to it; it felt dry enough, so I pocketed it to be researched later in the day.

Researching the nut led me to discover that it is a hickory nut.  Which particular hickory variety, I am not yet sure, although I suspect Shagbark.  I discovered that hickory nuts can be harvested and shelled, much like walnuts.  Apparently, the hickory nut shelling process is quite difficult.  Luckily, the Mother Earth News web site has a good story about shelling hickory nuts and the article's comment section produced an idea I like best: use a vice to crack the shell.  They are said to taste like "a cross between a black walnut or brazil nut and a pecan" and if you do try to buy them, they sure are expensive!  Anyway, I'm going to crack open the one I pocketed and we'll see what it's all about.

From Gif-Favicon
That led me to research another nut that is prominent in my backyard.  It's the acorn and I'm not joking when I say that it is prominent.  A simple breeze causes many to drop from the limbs above; a gale of a wind instills panic in my heart as a million pointy ends come crashing down.  (Getting bopped on the head by a gravity-driven acorn is actually more painful than you would imagine.)  In examining these tress, I started to become interested about the lay of the land in Peoria, IL.  A little research uncovered (a very interesting and educational) a self-tour of the Peoria landscape, The Physical Geography of the Illinois River Valley Near Peoria: An Updated Self-Conducted Field Trip using EcoCaches and GPS Technology.  Within the 22-pages of information presented, this bit captured my attention the most:
An interesting story about the co-evolution of the oaks, the hickorys, and the squirrel must now be told; this story is as true today as it was for the thousands of years it took for the forests to fully develop. This story is ecological and is evidence that everything in this world is part of a system, all the parts of which are interdependent.
These trees produce nuts that are the food for squirrels. Hickory nuts provide more nutrition and are preferred by squirrels, but the nuts are hard to open. Therefore, the squirrels eat hickory nuts in autumn because the have the time required to open them. Acorns from oak trees are less tasty and require less energy to open, but provide more calories per unit of feeding time; therefore, these are eaten during the winter.  Both oak and hickory trees are alternate bearing; that is, they do not bear the same amount of nuts each year. Also, squirrels tend to steal nuts from each other. Therefore, they must bury their collected nuts in the ground in several places for safekeeping; this is called scatter hoarding. Fortunately for us, they do not have very good memories. Buy [sic] burying the nuts of both species of trees, they literally planted the trees that constituted the oak-hickory forests.
From My Other Blog
I knew that my fat, gray, furry friends of the backyard were responsible for the amazing shade coverage I enjoy.  (Thank you!)  What I hadn't realized was the caloric density vs. effort considerations taken into cracking the nuts.  I find that very informational if only because that means I can probably expect the same kind of work involved.  Now, I'm determined to learn more about the acorns ... I dimly recalled the ability to make acorn flour ... I tried to think back to all those years of attending Native American workshops and reservations as part of school field-trips.  Since my memory failed on all aspects except one (that acorns are poisonous due to the tannin), I turned to Google again.  After some digging I uncovered two sites worth mentioning:
  1. Harvesting the wild: Acorns
  2. Ramshackle Solid: Making Acorn Flour
I'm sold on this stuff.  I love learning about these things.  I'm thinking that my next outdoor trip (likely tonight or tomorrow) will involve a collection of acorns for the making of an acorn flour and a collection of hickory nuts for a social "nut crackin' party."