Gather Ye Hickory Nuts While Ye May

   While out for a stroll the other day I came upon my neighbors, Pam
and Gino, crawling on hands and knees by the side of the road.
   "What did you lose?" I asked.
   "Nothing," Gino replied. "But look at what we found."
   They both had big bags filled with nuts.
   "Hickories," Gino explained. "You gotta get 'em before the squirrels."
   I didn't want to horn in on their territory, so set out on trails
behind my house where hickory trees abound. They're easy to identify, with rough, sometimes shaggy bark, depending on the variety, and long, slender, finger-like leaves (in scientific terms: pinnately compound).
   The trees may be readily recognizable, especially the shagbark, but spotting the nuts are even simpler, since they're about the size of golf balls and encased in green hulls that often turn brown..
   This is prime time for gathering, and you may want to wear a
hard hat – I've been conked more than once.
   This evidently also is a banner year for hickory nuts, which are especially productive on a three-year cycle. Now that I'm focused on finding them while out running, biking or even driving – I keep a bag for collecting them in my car – they seem to be everywhere.
I also perfected a collecting method that beats crawling, modeled after clamming.
   I walk around the base of a tree and feel the nuts with my feet.
Then I bend down, pick them up and toss them into a sack. In only 15
minutes or so the other afternoon I picked up about five pounds of
nuts from just one tree. Since then I've been on a tear and have lost track of how many I've gathered.
   The outer hull usually peels away readily, leaving a round, light
brown nut with a shell as hard as obsidian.
   After you remove the hull, let the nuts dry for a few days.
   Then comes the fun part: smashing them open. Hickory nuts are
tough buggers and it's a wonder that squirrels or any animal, for that
matter, can feast on them.
   A 1980 article in Mother Earth News, and other sources I tracked down online, recommends placing a nut on a brick or sidewalk and hitting it with a hammer. This takes practice, and I pulverized the first several nuts I struck, but after a while I became more proficient. I'd suggest wearing protective glasses, or at least putting the nuts in a cloth sack or under a towel to cut down on shrapnel. – some errant sharp pieces will fly 20 feet.
   Then, once the shells are cracked open, don't expect to simply shake the nuts out like peanuts, or even walnuts. You still have to pry
the meat out with a nut pick – an awl will do – or a knifepoint. Watch those fingers.
   The reward, though, is a rich, buttery nut, rich in protein and
oils that can be roasted, munched on as a snack or substituted for any recipe that calls for nuts, especially pecans.
   I've already bribed a trio of food-fanatical colleagues at The Day, Jenna Cho, Jill Blanchette and Rich Swanson, with bags of my harvest, with the understanding they will bake some tasty treats that I might sample.
   Rich looked at the bulging bag and asked, "Are you going to shell them?"
   "In your dreams," I replied..
   So now I've added hickories to my list of trees I prefer not to
cut down for firewood, even though they burn super-hot.
By the way, don't toss away the broken shells, especially if you
have a fireplace or woodstove. They throw off plenty of BTUS and also exude a heady aroma savored by barbecue aficionados.
   One last bit of advice. You not only have to beat the squirrels,
which are out in force now to store food for winter, but you must stay
ahead of the falling leaves that will soon bury the bounty. So don't
delay – it's one more excuse to head for the woods at one of the best
times of the year.
   Oh, and don't forget to put on an international orange vest. Now
is also the season that people are hunting for things other than
hickory nuts.
   Happy gathering, and bon appétit.

Reader Comments

MORE BLOGS

The Hills Are Alive With The Sound Of Dirt Bikes

Fingernails across a chalk board, a baby crying, a dog barking incessantly – all are music to my ears compared to the whine of a dirt bike tearing through the forest.

Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Chris Christie, Even Elizabeth Warren All Have Something In Common: The Black SUV

Here’s how ABC News reported an appearance last week by former Florida Gov. Bush, who is considering a bid for the Republican presidential nomination:

A Snowy Hike To Carter Notch In New Hampshire's White Mountains

Midway up the staggeringly steep Wildcat Ridge Trail in New Hampshire’s White Mountains earlier this week, after my son, Tom, and I had postholed up to our knees 487 times through rotten snow despite wearing snowshoes, we began...

Ah, Spring: Moving Rocks, Lugging Logs, Digging Holes And Other Fun Activities

A 3-foot-high mound of snow still stubbornly piled beneath the deck serves as a grim reminder of this past winter’s relentless brutality, and of the months spent shoveling, shoveling, shoveling.

A Short But Sweet Eagle-Watching Season On The Lower Connecticut River

The hummingbird hovers, sparrow flutters, tern dives, duck flaps frenetically, but in the avian world the eagle soars majestically, barely moving its enormous wings while wheeling effortlessly through the heavens.

A Grand Canyon Gondola Ride – What An Idea! How About A Tram Up Mount Everest?

I don’t know about you, but I was extraordinarily excited to hear about plans to build a gondola tram that would take visitors 1.6 miles to the floor of the Grand Canyon in 10 minutes – way faster and less strenuous than...

The Magic and Misadventures of Making Maple Syrup

The instant the whirring drill bit pulled free from the trunk of a maple tree behind our house the other morning a splendid stream of sap began oozing before I had a chance to pound a metal spile into the half-inch-wide hole.

A Tough Time For Deer, But Elephants Finally Catch A Break (Sort Of)

Traipsing on snowshoes the other day through, over and around waist-high drifts in the woods behind our house I crossed a veritable superhighway of deer tracks that meandered among the rhododendron, laurel, pine, spruce and fir, and...

Death in the White Mountains: Recklessness and The False Security of GPS, Cellphones and Locator Beacons

After being battered by 70 mph winds, blinded by whipping snow and nearly frozen in temperatures that plunged to 20 below zero and beyond, Kate Matrosova must have realized early on she had no hope of completing her solo climb of four of...

You Never Miss The Water Till The Well Runs Dry — Or The Pipes Freeze

After shoveling a path to the woodshed the other day for the 138th time this season (or so it seemed) and lugging what certainly felt like the 862nd load of logs to the house and the 243rd bucket of wood stove ashes to the distant pit,...

Hey! Wanna Ride? Detroit Distance Walker James Robertson Shouldn't Look A Gift Car In The Hood, But ...

You no doubt have heard about James Robertson, the 56-year-old Detroit man who for more than a decade walked 21 miles a day to and from his factory job because he couldn’t afford a car.