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

Cross-Country Skiing and Snowshoeing in New Hampshire's White Mountains, Part I: A Voice in the Wilderness Saves the Day

While snowshoeing on a tamped-down section of the Ethan Pond Trail in New Hampshire’s White Mountains the other day, our group approached an untrammeled stretch of the Zeacliff Trail that descended into a ravine below frozen-over Whitehall...

Who Doesn't Love a Blizzard? (OK, Maybe a Few Softies and Killjoys)

I know there’s a good chance I’ll be eating these words when I’m shoveling, shoveling, shoveling, or huddled with a candle next to the wood stove while melting snow for drinking water after the power has been knocked out for...

Destructive Deer, Bugs, Vines and Snow: It's Always Something

In a "perfect" world – i.e., one in which all living creatures and meteorological phenomena benefited human comfort and bowed to our supremacy – there would be no need for deer fences, bird netting, herbicides,...

Prime Time for Eagle-Watching by Kayak on the Connecticut River

While kayaking just north of Lyme’s Hamburg Cove on the Connecticut River the other day, Robin Francis, Phil Warner and I watched a wildlife drama unfolding above us.

In Waning Winter, An 'Above Par' Snow-Kayaking Adventure

With snow cover stubbornly lingering and whitewater kayaking season still more than a month away, what’s an impatient paddler to do? Easy: Snow-kayaking.

What Snow and Ice? The Maple Sap Is Running!

Every year about this time, after having spent the past few months shoveling tons of snow from the driveway, lugging tons of firewood from the shed, getting out of bed dozens of times at 3 a.m. to stoke the stove, hauling countless buckets of...

Finally! A Worthy Snowstorm -- Maybe Even a Bombogenesis!

Just when we winter worshipers had resigned ourselves to another snowless season, and only a day after the temperature climbed ridiculously into the 60s, our prayers have been answered not just by an ordinary storm but by a meteorological...

Animal Tracks in the Snow: They All Tell a Story

If you thought most forest animals hibernated in winter, or at least slept through the night, take a stroll through the woods the morning after a snowfall.

What Does the Fox Say? Yip-yip-yip! Chance Encounters With Creatures Great and Small

While I lugged logs from the woodshed the other morning a yip-yip-yip! pierced the still air. First reaction: Did the neighbors get a dog? No, they were out of town for a few days. Yip-yip-yip!

Ringling Bros., SeaWorld and the Columbus Zoo: Pitfalls of Keeping Elephants, Orcas and Gorillas in Captivity

Large, wild animals belong in the wild, not in a circus, aquarium or zoo – a point reinforced by events involving three prominent, unrelated institutions in the last couple weeks.

Our Debt of Gratitude to President Obama, the Environmentalist-in-Chief

As we prepare to inaugurate a president who has repeatedly called climate change a "hoax," appointed as Environmental Protection Agency administrator an Oklahoma attorney general who is suing that agency, named the CEO of ExxonMobil as secretary...

Call of the Wild: A Clash Over Cellphones in The Great Outdoors

"Yeah, I’m standing on the summit now! … The view is incredible – I can’t believe I’m getting a signal up here!"