Ever eat a hickory nut? They’re not just for squirrels

Jay NehrkornI recently had a quick conversation with a co-worker who brings baked goods to the office for the rest of us to share. I’m not only the biggest coffee hound in the company but I’m also notorious for having a voracious sweet tooth, so I’m one of her best customers when it comes to homemade cookies, cake, cinnamon rolls and so forth.
The conversation on this day centered on a couple of loaves of banana bread in which she had used walnuts as an ingredient. After discussing the place where she likes to buy walnuts, I casually asked if she ever tried using hickory nuts. That question raised an eyebrow, because she had never really considered it. The fact of the matter is that I’ve been eating banana bread slices and chocolate chip cookies with hickory nuts baked in them since childhood, and I’m a fan of both the taste and price.
Hickory nut gathering has been a fall tradition in our family for a very long time, and this should be a good year to find them. It was a banner year for hickory nuts in 2013, so if you can locate a grove of trees that the bushy-tailed gluttons didn’t clean out in August, you’ll find plenty on the ground and the hulls should pull apart nicely. I found just such a grove this weekend while walking my beagle through a woodlot, and I could hardly walk under some of the trees because the nuts and hulls littered the ground so heavily. (As an aside, you lose some stock as an outdoorsman when your feet roll right out from underneath you on even ground, but things happen). The samples I brought home in my pocket proved to be good, so I’m making plans to return with some family members and a couple of empty buckets.
There are two varieties of hickory nuts to pick up: large and small. The larger variety of nut – which is, with its outer hull removed, about the size of an oblong golf ball – is often easier to find undisturbed by squirrels because of its thick shell. It’s just a lot more work for a squirrel to gnaw into them than to cut 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 higher because the “meat” is more plentiful.
Regardless of which variety you find, large or small, it takes some time to crack enough nuts and pick enough edible meat to fill a Mason jar. But once the cracking is done, you can do the picking while you’re watching a ball game on TV so you're not really losing time so much as multi-tasking. Just try not to get too excited about the game while you have a sharp pick in your hand or you might end up with a sharp pick in your leg.
Hickory nut hunting is an outdoor activity that almost anyone can do, and it’s a good way to get the whole family out in the woods on a beautiful fall day. It’s especially fun for kids, as they can make a game out of seeing who can find the most or trying to toss them into a bucket from distance. And if you haven’t tried hickory nuts in banana bread or cookies before, you might be pleasantly surprised at the flavor they add to the recipe. Come to think of it, they would probably also be good on cinnamon rolls, or on a cake, or in zucchini bread, or sprinkled over a chocolate pie… maybe with a cup of coffee on the side.

Categories: Illinois – Jay Nehrkorn, Social Media

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