Sunday, October 30, 2011

Nuts to you

Jane C. couldn't come out to play yesterday when we celebrated Mary Ellen's birthday down along the South Chariton because she was hulling black walnuts at her place just up the road. So we went over after lunch to "help" --- actually just to look.

When I was a kid, we picked up black walnuts by the bucketful or bushel basketful, then laid them out flat somewhere to cure --- sometimes in a driveway where just rolling over them repeatedly loosened the hulls (walnuts are notoriously sturdy and hard to hull and crack). Sometimes, we ran the nuts through an old hand-cranked corn sheller.

Jane, who acts as a Wayne County agent for a walnut processor down in Missouri, uses a vintage but wonderfully efficient piece of equipment powered by a small gasoline engine to do the job a heck of a lot more efficiently.

Nut pickers from all over the area pull up in pickups filled with barrels, garbage cans, boxes and bags full of walnuts gathered off the ground --- we have a heck of a lot of black walnuts around here. These are dumped into the hopper, shelled and bagged.

Nobody makes much money at this --- Jane pays pickers a few cents per pound of shelled nuts, weighing filled bags on a set of old scales bearing patent dates 1867 and 1870. But a lot of people do it --- it's a little extra spending money or income for worthy causes or just makes folks feel better because less is going to waste this way (there are enough to go around; squirrels and other critters are not being deprived).

The hulling season officially ends Monday, Jane said --- then a semi will arrive to pick up the 40,000-plus pounds of walnuts she'll have processed this year and haul them down to a processing plant to be cracked and nutmeats laboriously removed.

Iowa farmers used to say, when butchering a hog, that they planned to use everything but the squeal. Something similar could be said for walnuts --- the hulls left behind at Jane's place will be spread on farm fields as fertilizer; the nutmeats will be extracted and eaten one way or another; and the shells ground and used for other purposes.

Personally, I'm thinking of my mother's black walnut refrigerator cookies --- but lack the initiative to gather, hull, crack and pick my own, so will want a while until the nutmeats become available here and there on the shelves of some area stores.


Charles M. Wright said...

Black walnuts! What a wonderful treat. Whether in chocolate chip cookies, fudge, ice cream or divinity -- heavenly! No matter how many times she tried, my mother never mastered the skill of making divinity. Hers never set. It was Aunt Alice, my father's sister, who saw to it that he got good divinity -- his favorite candy.

How good to learn black walnuts are not scarce. I recently tried three markets and couldn't find any. I wonder if I invested in a candy thermometer, could I learn to make divinity? Where can a guy buy Lucas County black walnuts?

Frank D. Myers said...

The difficulty with black walnuts is that they're so darned hard to pick big-time commercial firms stay away from them. They're rarely available in supermarkets; often in "bulk food" and other specialty stores. I'll keep my eye open. My mother, by the way, made perfect divinity --- light, airy, not too moist, not too dry, with plenty of black walnuts. I'd be scared to try it myself; it was quite a process.

Ed said...

I get my black walnuts from my grandparents. I pick them up and let them cure in the basement of my parents house over winter and then when my retired grandparents come up in the spring, the pick them and give me some of the spoils. Can't beat that deal.

Wanda Horn said...

I don't remember how we got the hulls off our black walnuts, but I do remember that Dad cracked them with a hammer on his anvil, and then he and I and my sisters spent evenings picking out the nutmeats while Mom read aloud to us. The "tools" we used were nails with the points flattened, also on the anvil. The nutmeats were SO hard to get out, and it was almost impossible to keep from getting little pieces of shell in with the good stuff, but OH! the taste was worth it!

Wanda Horn said...

My SISTER (singular). There is only one of her.