I was lucky enough to have grown up in Iowa in a family that honored old timey ways, including hunting for hickory nuts. Many of you will know what I’m talking about. My dad was an avid hunter and regularly brought rabbits, squirrels, pheasants, ducks and fish to the table. He hunted with bow and arrow when he went after deer. Once he got a moose in Canada with his buddies. We ate moose for a year, and I still remember the kind of dry but tasty quality of the roasts Mom prepared. My mom was adept at canning, and they both worked hard in their garden. We kids learned to “pitch in.” We also learned how tasty fresh food was that was gotten by our own efforts.
A Red Hickory tree, located in southern Ontario, Canada. Photo: Creative Commons/Tom Nagy
One of the best things we did every year was “hickory nutting.” We’d all pile in the car with our burlap bags and go to a local woods on the land of a farmer we knew. Some place where the trees had not been bulldozed to plant corn, soybeans or alfalfa. It would be in the fall, usually in October. It would be after the frost and there would be no mosquitoes or flies. The nuts would have fallen, and the hulls were mostly separated from the nuts.
The day would be crisp and clear, and it was lovely underneath the big, old trees. I mean, these trees must have been old because they were big. Really big! My dad called them Shagbark hickories, and he knew when to go and what trees produced the best from year to year. Dad knew that some trees could bloom earlier in spring and then frost might keep them from producing. He also knew that some trees held their nuts into winter while others dropped in early autumn. So we’d go when Dad said, and little by little we learned how to become good “nutters” ourselves.
By experience we discovered that all nuts are not created equal. We found that a large nut might not have any more nutmeat than a smaller one. We found that just because the hull or shell might be thick, it didn’t necessarily mean that the nutmeat was going to be bigger either. We did find that the thinner the shell the easier it was to crack. There were different color nutmeats, and I always liked the taste of the lighter colored meats. I still do.
A Shagbark Hickory tree. Photo: Dcrjsr/Duke Forest Korstian Division, Durham, North Carolina.
My dad carried a hammer with him. He’d crack a few nuts at each tree he came to. He was checking for easy cracking and large nutmeats. If he found that three out of four nuts under a tree were wormy, he would move on. If we found a nut with a tiny little hole in it, we’d know that a worm had already had its way with the nut so we tossed it aside. What we were hoping to find was a thin-shelled nut with a plump, light-colored nutmeat that would come out whole or nearly so. They were like a prize.
Looking for nuts was a perfect job for a kid. Kind of like Easter egg hunting. Of course, our closest competitors were the squirrels. We often thought how nice it would be to train a nut squirrel like they train truffle hounds. Squirrels were the master nutters and often they got to the best nuts before we could.
Clumps of fruit show on this Eastern Hickory tree in Pennsylvania. Photo: Creative Commons/Pookie Fugglestein
When we got home with our bounty, sometimes we’d put the nuts into a bucket of water to separate out those in which the nutmeats had not developed. Those would usually float to the top. Sometimes we didn’t do that step, but Dad always put the nuts in the back of the pantry and after about a week he’d bring them out and start cracking them. He said doing that made them crack better. He said his dad told him this and it always worked so “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Whatever he didn’t crack he’d put in the freezer along with the nutmeats he wasn’t going to use immediately.
We kids got pretty adept at not whacking ourselves with the hammer when we helped. We’d go out back on the concrete porch steps and whack away and fill our little baskets. We figured out how to set the nut on one of its two edges and hit it with the hammer just right. This skill had to be learned by trial and error, and the error part made us get handy real fast. If a nut was too hard to crack it would go into a pile for a cold winter night. Then we’d sit before the wood stove and whack harder. Nuts ricocheting off the walls once in a while. Then we'd patiently pick. Sometimes we’d listen to the radio. As a matter of fact I remember Paul Harvey while picking hickory nuts. “And now you know the rest of the story.”
My dad was a child of the Depression. His family gathered wild nuts to get by. We did it because it was fun and tasty. The hickory nut is just as good as a pecan and much less expensive. As a matter of fact, the hickory is a type of pecan so it has that same luscious, buttery flavor. My mom used the nuts in any recipe that called for walnuts, pecans or hazelnuts. We got the lovely flavor, and it didn’t cost us a dime except for gas. We also got to spend time with each other outdoors working in harmony. That’s what I call Good Times!