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Thanks-living off the land

  • WENDELL, MA - November 21, 1012 - Neill Bovaird of Wolf Tree Programs cracks acorns from Black Oak trees to boil and make into flour. Photo by Beth Reynolds

    WENDELL, MA - November 21, 1012 - Neill Bovaird of Wolf Tree Programs cracks acorns from Black Oak trees to boil and make into flour. Photo by Beth Reynolds

  • WENDELL, MA - November 21, 1012 - Neill Bovaird of Wolf Tree Programs cracks acorns from Black Oak trees to boil and make into flour. Acorns are boiled to remove the bitterness. Photo by Beth Reynolds

    WENDELL, MA - November 21, 1012 - Neill Bovaird of Wolf Tree Programs cracks acorns from Black Oak trees to boil and make into flour. Acorns are boiled to remove the bitterness. Photo by Beth Reynolds

  • WENDELL, MA - November 21, 1012 - Neill Bovaird of Wolf Tree Programs collects and cooks acorns from Black Oak trees to boil and make into flour. The flour is very dense and is usually blended with other flours for baking. Photo by Beth Reynolds

    WENDELL, MA - November 21, 1012 - Neill Bovaird of Wolf Tree Programs collects and cooks acorns from Black Oak trees to boil and make into flour. The flour is very dense and is usually blended with other flours for baking. Photo by Beth Reynolds

  • WENDELL, MA - November 21, 1012 - Neill Bovaird of Wolf Tree Programs collects and cooks acorns from Black Oak trees to boil and make into flour. The flour is very dense and is usually blended with other flours for baking. Photo by Beth Reynolds

    WENDELL, MA - November 21, 1012 - Neill Bovaird of Wolf Tree Programs collects and cooks acorns from Black Oak trees to boil and make into flour. The flour is very dense and is usually blended with other flours for baking. Photo by Beth Reynolds

  • WENDELL, MA - November 21, 1012 - Neill Bovaird of Wolf Tree Programs collects and cooks acorns from Black Oak trees to boil and make into flour. These are leaves from different kinds of Oaksin the Wendell State Forest.  Photo by Beth Reynolds

    WENDELL, MA - November 21, 1012 - Neill Bovaird of Wolf Tree Programs collects and cooks acorns from Black Oak trees to boil and make into flour. These are leaves from different kinds of Oaksin the Wendell State Forest. Photo by Beth Reynolds

  • WENDELL, MA - November 21, 1012 - Neill Bovaird of Wolf Tree Programs cracks acorns from Black Oak trees to boil and make into flour. Photo by Beth Reynolds
  • WENDELL, MA - November 21, 1012 - Neill Bovaird of Wolf Tree Programs cracks acorns from Black Oak trees to boil and make into flour. Acorns are boiled to remove the bitterness. Photo by Beth Reynolds
  • WENDELL, MA - November 21, 1012 - Neill Bovaird of Wolf Tree Programs collects and cooks acorns from Black Oak trees to boil and make into flour. The flour is very dense and is usually blended with other flours for baking. Photo by Beth Reynolds
  • WENDELL, MA - November 21, 1012 - Neill Bovaird of Wolf Tree Programs collects and cooks acorns from Black Oak trees to boil and make into flour. The flour is very dense and is usually blended with other flours for baking. Photo by Beth Reynolds
  • WENDELL, MA - November 21, 1012 - Neill Bovaird of Wolf Tree Programs collects and cooks acorns from Black Oak trees to boil and make into flour. These are leaves from different kinds of Oaksin the Wendell State Forest.  Photo by Beth Reynolds

MILLERS FALLS — Acorns are unlikely to be found among the turkey, turnips, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, stuffing and pies circling the Thanksgiving table today in the state that gave birth to the harvest holiday in America.

There is good reason for this: acorns were likely never on the menu, although perhaps they should have been.

Kathleen Wall, Plimoth Plantation’s colonial food expert, said little is known about the specific menu for the three-day feast in September or October of 1621, but acorns were likely absent from the table.

“Acorns are kind of, they need a lot of processing so they’re not the sort of things you eat when there are other things available, they’re the sort of things you eat when nothing else is available,” Wall said, and not only were the Pilgrims celebrating a good harvest but walnuts and chestnuts were abundant in the country at the time.

Soon, however, little was available.

The Pilgrims starved that winter in the company of new settlers freshly arrived from Europe without provisions of their own.

“Suddenly what is enough, what is a good amount is not enough,” Walls said. “So probably in 1622 they’re looking at acorns and trying to figure out how to eat them, but probably not before then.”

In his yard on Wendell Road, Neill Bovaird adds a double handful of acorn meat to a pot of water boiling in the fire pit and sits down to crack more, splitting the thin shells between a log and a flat rock and setting them aside to pry out the meat.

Informed by personal experience, Bovaird holds a higher estimation of the nut’s place in the food hierarchy.

“We don’t know, we weren’t there, and if they had acorns they probably would have used them,” Bovaird said.

Bovaird said the nuts are highly nutritious, full of complex carbohydrates, protein and fat, and not as difficult to process as they might seem.

“It’s time intensive but it’s not labor intensive,” Bovaird said. “There’s a lot of waiting around.”

The waiting around is a result of the tannins which give acorns their bitter flavor.

Acorns are edible, if not palatable, in their raw form but Bovaird said the raw nuts, while not necessarily damaging, would result in a stomachache if consumed in sufficient quantity, necessitating boiling or heavy rinsing to remove the tannins.

Bovaird is the director of Montague wilderness skills training company Wolf Tree Programs.

Processing acorns to bake bread and muffins is among the skills Bovaird teaches, alongside bow making, archery, flintknapping and medicine gathering.

The first lesson Bovaird offers on acorn gathering is that not all are created equal.

There are eight oak varieties in the area, each with different acorn properties. Nuts from the white oak have lower tannin levels but don’t keep as well and must be gathered early, nuts from the black oak require more processing to remove the tannins but can last through the winter intact and carry more fats and carbohydrates.

When gathering acorns, holes in the shell indicate a weevil has been at the nut, black stripes indicate mold, and an attached cap is a sign of poor health.

While the classic image of an acorn includes the scaled cap, Bovaird said the cap is meant to release the nut rather than fall with it, and is therefore a sign the tree has discarded the seed.

“The squirrels know that, they can sniff it and they leave it alone,” Bovaird said.

The prime time for acorns this year was about a month ago, Bovaird said, and a quick survey of woods in the Greenfield area turns up mainly specimens that are soft and rotten, pre-chewed by the local rodent population or still carrying their caps.

Bovaird has brought his own, collected earlier in the season, in a tulip tree bark bucket.

Meanwhile, the acorns are slowly leaching their tannins into the boiling water.

The tannins will eventually turn the water red, and the water must then be replaced until it does not boil red or the acorns are no longer bitter to the taste.

Draining off the water will also wash away the hairy husks of the black oak acorns.

It will take several changes of water before the acorns are ready to be pulped and used, whether ground into flour or eaten directly as mush.

Bovaird says acorn flour can be used exactly as you would use standard wheat flour, but should be mixed with an at least equal quantity of regular flour because it bakes hard. Recipes specifically tailored to acorn flour baking are also easily found on the internet.

Other, slower, methods of leaching the tannins include leaving the shelled acorns to soak in frequent changes of cold water or bagging them to hang in a waterfall or other flowing water, such as that of a stream or garden hose.

Whether or not acorns featured in the first Thanksgiving feast, they will not feature in Bovaird’s this year.

The meal will however feature venison from deer he shot and cranberry sauce made with berries from a wild bog in the nearby forest.

Bovaird’s interest in nature was about survivalism at the start, he said, nourished by childhood memories of Jean Craighead George’s “My Side of the Mountain” novels, but evolved into a desire to be more connected to where he lives.

“I’m sure I could go live in the woods for the rest of my life, but it’s not reality, it’s not what I want; I like society,” he said.

Now, he lives on the edge of Wendell State Forest with his wife and infant son in, he notes, a house, and looks forward to not teaching his son about acorns.

Bovaird and a group of friends taught themselves in college, but he intends for his son to learn organically.

“For him it will be every fall we make acorn bread, this is what we do,” he said.

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