Judy Kunkle: Hickory nuts

Written by David Green.

By DAVID GREEN

Pignut, bitternut and mockernut. Shellbark and shagbark.

Several species of hickory tree grow in this part of the country, but there’s one that’s prized above the others for its fruit: the shagbark.

judymike Ask Judy Kunkle, who lives west of Harrison Lake. She’s collected a large quantity of nuts from the woods behind her house, and she’s ready for some good eating.

“I really like hickory nuts,” she said. “It’s my favorite nut.”

Judy knows her status as a hickory nut fan puts her in a minority, but it can’t be the taste of the nut that causes its low popularity. More likely, it’s just unfamiliarity with the nut and the work required to harvest it.

Hickory nuts aren’t an item you’ll find in a grocery store. Either you collect them yourself or find someone like Judy who offers them for sale. She advertised hickory nuts recently and didn’t get much response. Those who did call never showed up to make the purchase.

“I guess they thought I was charging too much or else they wanted them already shelled,” she said.

She did have one satisfied customer from a year ago who came back this fall for more.

In some areas of the United States, hickory nuts had a long tradition as a special part of Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners. Now it’s rare to encounter someone who knows the rich, sweet taste of the nut.

“It’s something that elderly people seem to know more about,” Judy said.

The nuts fall in September and October and are collected before they all disappear by way of squirrels.

The fruit is dried for a week or so before the husks are removed. Judy gets the job done by placing a nut on rock with a slight depression and striking it with a hammer. It’s easy to see where she does her work—the low spot on the rock is stained dark brown from the husks.

Then  comes the thick shell.

Some people believe that every nut has a “door” that if struck, will open the thick shell. Hit just the right spot and the shell fractures cleanly to allow easy access to the nutmeat within. Hit the wrong spot and it shatters into little pieces, making the harvest almost impossible.

Judy isn’t denying the “sweet spot” theory, but she doesn’t have a reason to look for it, either.

“I’ve never had much luck with a hammer,” she said.

Instead, she simply places a nut in a vice and twists the handle to crack it open. She ends up with large pieces of nut most every time.

closeup Judy hasn’t done a lot of cooking with hickory nuts, with one exception: hickory nut cake. She adds hickories to the batter and loves the result. Her husband, Gene, sprinkles crushed hickories on ice cream.

Judy has also used hickories in banana bread and has substituted them for peanuts to make brittle. One thing she really wants to try is hickory nut pie.

This was a good year for hickory nuts, she said—the trees generally produce a heavy crop every other year—and there was also a heavy fall of black walnuts.

Judy still has hickories for sale, but don’t look for an advertisement for walnut meats. To her thinking, they just aren’t worth the bother.

“They’re too hard to crack,” she said.

And besides, it’s shagbark hickory that produces the king of nuts. There’s no better nut that grows in this area of the country.

• Have a hankering for roasted hickories? You’re probably too late to collect your own. Call Judy at 419/237- 2311.

- Nov. 9, 2005 
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