THE KEYS TO GATHERING AND ENJOYING PECANS, WALNUTS AND HICKORY NUTS
The keys to gathering and enjoying pecans, walnuts and hickory nuts
As a child, I remember sitting in my grandpa’s garage and watching him take a hammer to hickory nuts. At the time, I had no idea what he was doing, and when I tried to be like him, I always ended up mashing my fingers with the hammer as the little hickory nut slipped away at the very last moment.
For many years, I never had the desire to try my luck with hickory nuts. As I became more self-sufficient—catching, hunting and gathering food for my family—i became more interested in cracking hickory nuts, and any other type of nut I could get my hands on.
As an adult, I’ve completely embraced the enjoyable (and beneficial) pastime of foraging for nuts. I gather enough hickory nuts every year to net several gallons of nutmeat. I share some with my family and friends, but most of my haul goes into baked desserts. It sure is a lot cheaper, and more fun, than buying nuts from a grocery store. I suspect that you’ll think so too once you know what to look for.
“I gather enough hickory nuts every year to net several gallons of nutmeat.”
Two Varieties of Hickory Nuts
There are two varieties of hickory nuts: large and small. The larger variety of nut—about the size of an oblong golf ball with its outer hull removed—is often easier to find undisturbed by squirrels due to its thick shell. It’s a lot more work for a squirrel to gnaw into them than to cut through the thinner-shelled, smaller variety. Of course, that thick shell makes it a little tougher for humans to crack them as well, but it’s a simple matter to get a bigger hammer, and the rewards are greater because there’s more nutmeat inside.
Regardless of which variety you find, large or small, it takes time to crack enough hickory nuts and pick out the meat to fill a Mason jar. But, once the cracking is complete, you can do the picking while you watch a ball game on TV.
There are many ways to crack hickory nuts. I set the nut on top of an anvil and use a hammer to get to the meat inside. A rock or concrete chunk work as well. You can also buy heavy-duty nutcrackers designed specifically for very hard nuts, and they work just fine, too.
Hickory nut foraging is an outdoor activity that almost anyone can do, and it’s a good way to get the whole family outdoors on a beautiful fall day. It’s especially fun for kids, because they can make a game out of seeing who can find the most, or try to toss them into a bucket
from a distance. If you haven’t tried hickory nuts in cookies or banana bread, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the amount of flavor they add. I also like to use them in cinnamon rolls and in cakes and zucchini bread.
Besides hickory nuts, I also gather and crack my share of pecans. As a child, my mother made the best pecan pie from nuts we gathered, and today, she’ll still make her delicious pie for special occasions. Now that I’ve gotten older, I follow her recipe to make my own pecan pies a couple of times a month. Sometimes, I even substitute the pecans with hickory nuts. You’ll notice a small change in the flavor, but a hickory nut pie is hard to beat.
Pecan trees are native to the Lower Mississippi Valley (Louisiana Gulf Coast up through southern Illinois, west into eastern Texas and Oklahoma). They like rivers and creek bottoms, and the Mississippi River and its many tributaries provide ideal conditions. Also, few people know that pecans are the largest member of the hickory family of trees.