On our recent trip to an apple orchard here in New Hampshire we saw a few shagbark hickory trees mixed in with the apple trees. Shagbark hickories are normally found nowhere near New Hampshire. They are usually found much further south of here, sometime they can be found in New York, I could be wrong but as far as I know they are rarely found in New England. So the trees stood out among the apples, and since it was a windy day the big heavy nuts were making a loud thunk sound as they fell from the trees.
Ms. J recently read a memoir about life on an Iowa farm during the 1930’s, ‘Little Heathens’ by Mildred Kalish. The Kalish family children would spend many long dark winter nights cracking open hickory nuts, which apparently taste like pecans. They can be used in a variety of deserts and can be ground into a flour and used in pie crusts, or they can be eaten raw. So we asked the owner of the orchard if we could gather up some of the nuts. After getting the OK to go ahead and gather up as many as we’d like, Mr. C enthusiastically went to work. The owner did say that we “had a lot of work to look forward to before you get to any of those nuts”, and we soon found out why hickory nuts are not a commercial nut crop. We’re do it yourself types here, so we were up for the challenge.
From the photo above, you can see how big the husk of the nut is. It’s thick, very hard, and will pop off the nut fairly easily. The husk seems to be just about as hard as the hickory wood itself. Mr. C tried to break some of the husks using a nut cracker and they refused to be broken or even damaged. Within that husk is the much smaller and even harder nut. Unopened, the nut is about the size of a hazelnut, and seems to be as hard as the hickory wood itself. Hickory is often used in tool handles like hammers and shovels since it is so hard.
After all the nuts are out of the husks, they are then dunked in a deep bowl of water. If any float, they have most likely been eaten by a worm and are discarded. We only found a very small number of bad nuts, I think there were just seven floaters from the group in the strainer below.
A standard nut cracker will not work vey well on a hickory nut, so the best thing to use is a hammer. We used a small piece of polished granite to rest the nut on, while we hit the nuts with a small hammer, that just happened to have a hickory handle.
Since I am Mr. Safety the fear of seeing Mr. C hit his little fingers with a hammer made me want to make some kind of holder so he would not crush his fingers before turned seven. So I drilled a small hole in a scrap piece of wood to hold the nut. Even with the holder, I still could not watch Mr. C hit those nuts with the hammer, for fear of him hitting his fingers, so I had to leave the room while Ms. J supervised!
And here’s what an open nut looks like once it has been hit four or five times with a hammer. No fingers were damaged in opening any nuts.
Now we have to get the nut out of the shell. I looked and looked for a nut pick and could not find one, so we used a tiny screwdriver instead, the kind that are usually used on tiny computer parts.
Very rarely, you can get a nut half out of the shell in one complete piece. Those are apparently called ‘perfectos’. Ms. J read about a restaurant in Boston that serves slices of pumpkin pie with a single perfecto hickory nut on top for $12. In the pile of nuts from the strainer in the photo above, we managed to get two perfecto nuts. “Perfecto!” Mr. C shouted.
Most of the nuts came out in bits and pieces. There are still a lot to crack, but here’s a few of the nuts from the cracked ones below. After all that work, how do they taste? Just about the same as a pecan, so this was very worthwhile. Now we have to make something with them!