History and hickory nuts

The humble hickory nut, slightly out of focus.

Hickory nuts, or hick’ry nuts as I pronounce them, and my dad’s side of the family go way back. My great-grandparents gathered the nuts during the Depression from the trees on their farm, sold them, and that money was used to purchase shoes for my Grandpa and his siblings. When my dad and uncle were growing up, Grandpa would drag them out on their farm to the trees on their land to collect them. Grandpa would crack them open with a bench vice (your standard nutcracker wouldn’t touch these puppies) and then everyone would spend hours picking out the flesh while watching TV. My Grandma would freeze them, they’ll keep almost forever that way, and bake them in cookies and cakes. They’re delicious and have a mild flavor, but the effort needed to get to what’s edible would scare away most people.

A hickory nut in its hull, which has to be ripped off to get to the nut first.

Apparently the patience for and pleasure of the mundane was passed on to me because I was beyond excited when I learned our property has a few Shagbark Hickory trees and a Black Walnut tree when we moved here. Last fall I spent several hours collecting an entire 5-gallon bucket full of hickory nuts. Problem was I didn’t own a bench vice to crack them and I never got around to finding the time to crack them open individually with a hammer, so they rotted away in their smooth shells. I’m still kicking myself for that. Walnut trees produce nuts every other year and last year was the “off” year, so I bided my time until this fall.

What’s different about this year is that I gather prepared. I found a nutcracker specifically for hickory nuts and black walnuts at a hardware store. It was $30, but totally worth it because it will crack the shells without a lot of force and flying bits.

A clean black walnut, sans hull and stained hands!

I gathered up a big bucket full of walnuts about a month ago. I wore gloves to get the outer, fibrous hulls off and my hands still got stained. The trick is to smash the nut with the heel of your boot and then tear off the hull, but the stained hands are still unavoidable. The stain faded away two weeks later. I cracked open a walnut a week ago but they still hadn’t finished curing. Nuts have to spend a few weeks drying, or curing, so they will taste and have the texture of nuts and not skunky-tasting leather. I can only think of one thing fouler tasting than an unripe black walnut and that’s an unripe persimmon. If you’ve never tasted either, you’re doing your tastebuds a favor. It’s like swallowing a shot of paint thinner and kerosene.

As for the hickory nuts, I think I missed the boat this year. I picked up about two dozen late in the summer but I’ve been waiting on a frost to bring the nuts down from the trees. I got my frost, but then it rained so hard it flooded our pasture field where the trees are and drowned the nuts. I could try to collect the few that I could find and attempt to dry them out, but I’m afraid I’ll still end up with a moldy mess. Between that and the squirrels, I don’t have a lot of hickory nuts this year. It may have just been an “off” year for the hickory trees this time. Here’s hoping for next year.

The last time I priced English walnuts in the store they were $8 a pound, and here I have their rugged, North American cousins for free! To me, it’s a no-brainer, but I can sympathize with those of you who’d rather just cough up $8 and be done with it.

Do any of you have nut bearing trees on your property? What’s your favorite way to use them?