When I was a kid, I remember racing the squirrels for hickory nuts, butternuts, and beechnuts – all of which grew in our neighborhood. We learned, as the squirrels know, to distinguish the tasty, meaty nuts from the “duds” by cracking a lot of both. Eventually, we could tell by the look of a nut if it would provide us with a tasty treat and we tossed aside the duds before wasting our energy cracking them.
The beechnuts were easy to open – especially if one the girls had let her fingernails grow out a bit. The shells of beechnuts are soft enough; you can slip your thumbnail behind one of the triangular sides and peel it back to extract the nut.
The hickories and butternuts required tools: one flat rock to place the nut on and another rounder rock that we could use to smash the nuts open. There was some learning involved there, too. If you smashed the nut too hard, your nut meats would be crushed and it would require patience to separate them from the shells. If you didn’t smash it enough, you might end up with perfect nut meats – but they would be stuck in the shell whose contours match the nut making extraction difficult, indeed sometimes impossible.
While walking the dog in the hickory woods behind Bergman Park one fine fall day, I was struck by the sound of falling hickory nuts. It was raining nuts. I decided right then that I would return with a bucket or bag so I could gather some. I felt a little silly passing the other dog-walkers with my blue bucket, but no one asked what I intended to put in there. It took almost no time at all to fill the bucket to the top.
I spread the nuts out on trays in the sun to dry the thick green husks so that they would pop off easily. I’m still going through the nuts, cracking them one by one with channel locks! The sad truth is, I’ve forgotten since childhood how to tell the good ones from the duds… so I’m having to re-learn that! Another sad truth is that from that 3 or 4 gallon bucket of nuts, I will probably only have enough meats to make one batch of cookies. I don’t care though… It’s still fun to say – “Yeah! I gathered the nuts for these cookies…”