Friday, September 21, 2007

Hickory Nuts

On my way home from dropping Tiana off at school I saw a Hickory tree. I'd never noticed it before, but it's kind of hard to miss now because the nuts are getting ready to fall.

Most people don't plant Hickory trees in their yards or anywhere near their houses for good reason, the nuts mature in clumps on the tree, encased in heavy green outer shells, when they finally fall off the tree they can make quite a mess (and will dent any nearby metal surfaces).

I love Hickory trees though, they're beautiful shade tress with a full canopy and rich Autumn colors. The nuts they shed in the fall are edible, and quite yummy. I'd take a Hickory nut over a Walnut anyday.

When I was a kid, some years Cord would take me out Hickory Nuttin' with him. We'd go to a nearby farm that had this beautiful meadow speckled with Hickory trees. The yellows and oranges of the turning trees and drying grass sparkled in the autumn sun. The crisp air, laced with the rich scent of burning leaves would always envelop me with a feeling of rightness.

For an afternoon we'd prowl the meadow, looking for nuts that had just fallen. The heavy outer skins needed to be mostly green, with no sign of rot or insect infestation. The nuts would be piled in bushel baskets and apple crates for the trip home.

Once the baskets were half full they were already too heavy for me to carry, I'd try to drag them to the next choice spot, and eventually I would just give up the fight and run handfuls of nuts back to the leaden basket. As my basket reached overflowing I'd call to Cord for help. He'd smile at my dilemma, watching me try to drag the nuts across the ground by the thin wire handle of the basket, and chuckle softly when my butt hit the ground as I overbalanced my puny body. It always amazed me that he could lift the baskets with no apparent effort when I would be sweating and panting trying to budge it an inch. Weren't old people supposed to be weak and frail? Not Cord; he'd heft the basket with ease and trek it back to the trunk of his Chevy to exchange it for an empty, a twinkle in his eye at my obvious admiration.

Once the nuts were collected, they had to be dried to allow the outer husk to fall off. We would take them and spread them out on sheets of cardboard across the basement floor. I can remember the site as I would descend the stairs into the dim cool basement, a sea of rich green spheres covering the floor, narrow paths cut in to allow passage to the washing machine and canning cellar. The nuts gave off the heady aroma of drying vegetation; autumn preserved and contained for my pleasure. I would spend hours down there, running my hands over the smooth husks, gently rolling the nuts to create an undulating wave of green.

As the husks dried they would become black and pebbly, finally splitting at the seams to give a glimpse of the white, heart-shaped nut inside. Once completely dry, the husks were easily peeled away and discarded, the nuts themselves stored in baskets for shelling.

Shelling Hickory nuts... Wow, I don't have very many memories of Cord that don't include that activity. In the winter he would sit in the basement at his work bench and shell nuts. In the summer he would sit in his garage shelling nuts. I'd sit at his feet, eating the broken pieces, and collecting any nut worms in a cup.

This is the part of the story that always grosses out my kids. Nut worms; I have no idea what they're really called, I'm sure there's some Latin name for them that makes them sound way more impressive than the tiny, white things they are. The eggs are laid in the growing nut while it's still on the tree. It hatches, and the developing larvae can then feast on the meat of the nut, cocooned inside of the husk all through the winter. Once it has eaten it's fill, the worm bores through the shell of the nut and passes on to the next stage of life. Sometimes we'd catch these little worms in the act, and instead of a gorgeous nutmeat, we'd find their wiggling bodies inside the shell. Cord would toss them into a cup, to keep them from contaminating any more nuts, and my favorite thing to do at the end of the day was to drop them down the basement drain. They would make tiny plinking noises that my childhood ears compared to wind chimes.

These little white worms were a miracle to me. How could something so small, that could be squished with my finger, eat through the shell of a nut that had to be cracked with a hammer? Those shells were so hard that an ordinary nut cracker couldn't do the job. They had to be placed on an anvil and hit with an iron hammer. Not a job for the faint at heart, and I received many a smashed finger trying to attempt it. The worms didn't have teeth that I could see, and were harmless little things, so how did they do it? I would examine them in the cup, looking them over before I plinked them down the drain. An odd thing to find the wonder of nature in, but it was there nonetheless.

It's weird how the site of a tree brings it all back, as clear as if I were there. I can smell the nuts drying, feel them under my fingers. I can see Cord's happy weathered face, and everything is right in the world.

I wonder... Maybe if I took a bushel basket over the tree's owners might let me collect some nuts. I could show the kids how they dry, and how yummy they taste. Maybe I'm even big enough to carry my own basket now.



Lisa said...

What a great story! I like hearing the stories about Cord! :)

Lisa said...

Ok, so I thought that I had left a comment, but apparently not! Cool story! I like hearing stories about Cord! :)

Judy said...

Thanks for the great story. This brought back so many memories of our hickory trees and those delicious yummy nuts. I always cracked them in a small vice - when you heard the shell crack twice they were ready and it didn't ruin the nuts inside. Love your story, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Great story! I just found your blog today and just love your writing style. Thank you for sharing your memories.

Priscilla Musser Hall said...

I grew up on a 5.5 acre plot of land that has a dozen or more hickory trees. Picking up hickory nuts, cracking them, and picking out the goodies was a routine part of every fall.
(The outside hulls don't have to dry before they are removed; they can easily be pulled apart and discarded as you pick up the nuts.)
We put the goodies in fudge and fruitcakes and my mother devised a hickory nut pie that is absolutely delicious. My sister can do it, but I haven't yet stumbled on the right recipe; she has promised to send me her measurements. She makes a 10-inch pie.
They are good in anything that has nuts: waldorf salad - yummy!
One year my mother and grandmother made tiny little sacks with a tag attached that said "Greetings from Hickory Square." Into each one they put five hickory nuts. They sent these instead of Christmas cards that year.
I have moved back near to my homeplace and this year I picked up more than a bushel of nuts - with hull removed. I actually love doing it.

morgan said...

the other day i was collecting hickory buts and i put them in a little bag. And i reopened the bag today, thinking that those little bugs were maggots! So i screamed and vacuumed them up! I did some research, they are called pecan weevils. They are inserted by the mother in early fall. the mother chews a small hole through the shell and inserts her eggs inside the nut, then they grow inside and chew their way out when they are old enough. Then they bury themselves in the ground and stay in the dirt for approximately 1-2 years while they complete their life cycle. :D look at me doing research for once in my life! Thanks for posting this blog, it was very interesting.