Sunday, February 11, 2007


Eating Acorns

William Annis argues that acorns in Hesiod, Works and Days 233, are food for pigs, not humans:
Nice fat pigs are a valuable commodity, not to mention tasty. We don't eat bees, but the honey they produce. We don't eat fields, but the grain they produce. I don't see why Hesiod cannot then list acorns as a good, not as a food for us, but for their value for growing fat pigs.
I'm reminded of a passage in Thoreau's Journals (Oct. 8, 1851):
By the side of J.P. Brown's grain-field I picked up some white oak acorns in the path by the wood-side, which I found to be unexpectedly sweet and palatable, the bitterness being scarcely perceptible. To my taste they are quite as good as chestnuts. No wonder the first men lived on acorns. Such as these are no mean food, such as they are represented to be. Their sweetness is like the sweetness of bread, and to have discovered this palatableness in this neglected nut, the whole world is to me the sweeter for it. I am related again to the first men. What can be handsomer, wear better to the eye, than the color of the acorn, like the leaves on which they fall polished, or varnished? To find that acorns are edible,--it is a greater addition to one's stock of life than would be imagined. I should be at least equally pleased if I were to find that the grass tasted sweet and nutritious. It increases the number of my friends; it diminishes the number of my foes. How easily at this season I could feed myself in the woods! There is mast for me too, as well as for the pigeon and the squirrel. This Dodonean fruit.
Dodonean means from Dodona. See Plato, Phaedrus 275b (tr. Harold N. Fowler):
They used to say, my friend, that the words of the oak in the holy place of Zeus at Dodona were the first prophetic utterances.
Thoreau's use of the word mast is also interesting. It might be related to meat, which originally meant just food, as opposed to drink. Here is the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for mast:
"fallen nuts; food for swine," O.E. mæst, from P.Gmc. *mastaz (cf. Du., Ger. mast "mast," O.E. verb mæsten "to fatten, feed"), perhaps from PIE *mazdo-/*maddo- "to be fat, to flow" (cf. Skt. meda "fat," Goth. mats "food," see meat).

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