A Nutting Expedition

From Gene Logsdon

(Photo: Hickory nuts are extremely variable from tree to tree. All these nuts came from a little four-acre woodlot. The cracked ones below the row of nuts are from a favorite tree my sisters call “Old Reliable”. Note that though the nut is only average size, the nutmeats crack out in whole halves. Above the row of nuts are four still in the husk to show variability of husk too. Above these nuts is a little pile of hickory bark that I use to give grilled meat and vegetables a hickory smoked taste.)

Those of us lucky enough to have grown up on self-subsistent farms were not surprised to learn in our schooling years that the literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was full of references to “nutting expeditions.”  That might seem a strange phrase for the very pleasant pastime of going to the fields and woods to gather nuts in the autumn but the Victorians knew that “expedition” is exactly the right word. One does not simply pick up nuts from under trees. That is a small part of a grand adventure of discovery, especially for hickory nuts, my very favorite of all wild foods. Hickory nuts vary exceedingly from tree to tree even within a small Ohio woodlot, and the secret of the successful hunter is to journey forth over yon hill and dale (to use some more Victorian language) to find, hopefully, the “perfect” tree from which to gather. We are lucky (well, not really— we and our neighbors preserved our woodlots deliberately, buying some of them to save them from the bulldozers of the corn culture) to have at our expeditionary disposal about 10 woodlots comprising about seventy acres scattered over several sections of farmland. I suppose there are at least 250 bearing hickories in our close range, many of them a hundred years old. In our neck of the woods, the wise old farmers left good producing hickories when they cleared the land or harvested timber, especially along the country lanes, and townspeople without their own woodlots often gather these nuts as they fall now on the rural roads and road banks.

Gathering hickory nuts really is something of a scientific expedition. Not only do the nuts vary from tree to tree, but from year to year sometimes. The veteran hunter learns that success comes from searching out and collecting nuts that yield the most nutmeat for the least amount of work. Some trees bloom earlier in spring than others and frost often keeps them from producing nuts. Some trees hold their nuts into winter while others drop in early autumn. In most cases individual hickory trees fruit only every other year.

The nuts themselves are extremely variable. Some are shaped long and narrow, sort of like a pecan, which belongs to the hickory family. Some are oval to almost round. Some are more flattish than others, some more squarish. Size varies (see photo). A larger nut may not have any more nutmeat than a smaller one. A thick hull does not necessarily mean that the nut inside will be bigger either. Sometimes a thin husk encloses a large nut and sometimes a thick hull encloses a small nut.

Thickness of shell varies too. The thinner the shell, the easier it is to crack the nut. Ratio of nut meat to shell also varies, sometimes quite dramatically. Nut meats vary in taste, the lighter-colored meats almost always tasting better and storing better than darker meats. Meats with a sort of furry skin need to be used first since they don’t store well.

Compounding the variability of the nuts, botanists distinguish several species of hickory. The pecan grows wild in the southern Mississippi valley. The shagbark, (Carya ovata) is native to almost the whole eastern half of the country and over the years has been transplanted also in the west. It is the best for nut gathering. The shellbark hickory (C. laciniosis) is like the shagbark but with less shaggy bark. Its nuts are generally larger— we call them bullnuts— but are harder to crack and usually have less meat in them. But you can never tell, so you need to check them out. I carry a hammer in my nut bucket, so I can crack a few nuts of every tree I encounter. I am not only checking for easy cracking and large nutmeats. If three out of four nuts under a tree crack are wormy I move on to another. Normally, about 5% to 10% of the nuts will have worms in them and if the worms have already exited when you are gathering, you can spot the hole and discard those nuts.

Other hickories with edible nuts are the mockernut (Carya tomentosa) and the red hickory (Carya ovata). All the hickories have varying colloquial names. And we have our names for some trees:  Old Reliable— that’s the one that cracks out the whole halves regularly in the photo—,  Big White, Plumpy, Momma’s Tree, Papery Shell, etc. The red hickory is hard to distinguish from the shagbark except the nuts are smaller. Mockernut hickories do not have the pronounced shaggy bark, and the nuts are smaller and thicker-shelled than those from shagbarks. Bitternut hickory (Carya cordiformis) and pignut hickory (C. glabra) are hard to tell apart and are usually bitter. But the savvy hunter will crack and taste these small, thin shelled nuts because sometimes they are quite edible and crack out large pieces.

But in a practical sense, the hickory nut hunter concentrates on shagbarks, the shaggier the bark the better,  unless he has found shellbarks that crack out a large nutmeat. What you are hoping to find is a thin-shelled nut with a plump, light-colored nutmeat, that when you stand it on edge and strike it with a hammer, will break easily and yield at least one “whole half” and hopefully two.

To embark (no pun intended) on a nutting expedition, we like to wait for a nice warm day in October after frost (no mosquitoes, deerflies, etc.) when most of the nuts have fallen and the hulls have separated from the nuts. Although shagbark hickories are the focus of the hunt, we keep an eye out for hazel nuts in old fencerows, black walnuts along creeks, (a subject worthy of its own article), small but luscious beechnuts if the squirrels haven’t eaten them all already, and even chinquapin oaks whose acorns are bettter tasting than the bitter ones from other oaks. I also peel off a few strips of shagbark from the tree trunks to use back home when I’m grilling. Two or three pieces of bark on the hot charcoal lends a wonderful smoked hickory flavor to both meat and vegetables.

Back home from an expedition, you may want to toss the nuts into a bucket of water to separate out those in which the nutmeats have not developed. These will usually float to the top.  After you have handled thousands of nuts, however, you can often tell (so can squirrels) which ones are rotten or undeveloped just by the light weight and so discard them as you gather. The good nuts should be stored for a week or so to dry better before cracking them out. We may store nuts in the freezer that we aren’t going to get cracked for a month or more. That keeps them fresher. Nutmeats separated out of the shells should by all means be stored in the freezer until use.

We have found that it is faster to crack out a panful of nuts and then pick out the nutmeats rather than crack and pick out each nut singly. You can crack nuts in a vice, but hickory nuts get mashed too much in the various nutcrackers available. That’s why hickory nuts are seldom found in commercial markets. We use a hammer and a solid, hard surface, like an anvil setting on a cement floor. The solider the surface, the easier the cracking.  A hickory nut, even the rounder ones, are sort of flattish and so have discernible edges on two sides. Set the nut with your fingers on the hard surface on one of  its two edges, and strike downward on the top edge with a hammer. There’s a knack to it you have to learn. If you have lots of nuts, it is best to concentrate on those from trees that crack out whole halves, or at least large pieces of whole halves. Trying to pry out every little piece of nutmeat is way too time consuming. My sisters, the master nut-ladies (I love to call them that with “malice aforethought,” as Victorians would say) disdain nut picks most of the time. If they can’t get whole halves out easily with their fingers, forget it. They can crack and pick out a pint of nutmeats in about an hour and a half.

Picking out nuts in front of the woodstove or fireplace through the long winter evenings is a pleasant pastime. Or while listening to the radio or to music. Television works too if the program is so bad that you don’t really want to look at it. Carol and I feel successful if we get three pints a season, but the nut-ladies figure on ten pints at least. We are children of the Great Depression. We substitute hickory nuts in any recipe calling for expensive pecans, almonds or English walnuts and for us that’s important not only in money saved but in exquisite taste. We agree with Carroll D. Bush in his lovely old book (1941) Nut Grower’s Hand Book, where he writes: “The best flavored nut of the world and the nut with the highest quality of kernel is the familiar American hickory nut.”  I have a hunch as we go into “bad times” financially again, more people will be embarking on nutting expeditions and finding out that the bad times are actually good times in so many ways that society has forgotten.
See also Gene’s What Kind Of Tree Do Acorns Grow On?
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming

Image Credit: Gene Logsdon
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I grew up in Florida where hickories and pecans (and oaks of all kinds) grew in abundance. My grandparents had an enormous pecan tree behind their garage and would regularly harvest a potato sack full of nuts every year. Those pecans would find themselves in various baked goods (and for snacking!) until the next harvest.

But, alas, no nut trees grow in these northern lattitudes. A friend of mine is itching to see if she can get a butternut tree to survive here but hasn’t bought one yet. I think the season is too short for nut bearing trees – our last frost is usually toward the end of April, beginning of May and first frost is before the end of September. I think I’ll content myself with what fruiting trees and shrubs grow well for now.

On the other hand, our weather has become milder over the last 30 years to the point that some sort of maple will grow. We have birch trees galore and folks plant a shrubby Japanese maple as an ornamental but the other day I saw one young maple in a neighborhood yard (skinny thing with few branches and about 15 ft tall) and three young’ns in a street planting. That was so astonishing I just stopped my bike in the middle of the street and stared. Now it makes me wonder about nut bearing trees. Maybe my friend will get a butternut to grow after all.

Kerri in AK (who misses the walnuts of Virginia but not living there anymore)

Thanks for that, Gene — brings back memories of living in the east. Nuts are harder to come by in Cascadia, but I guess that’s the price we pay for winter gardening.

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