Sunday, November 14, 2010

A Hard Nut to Crack

What’s going on with the weather? Not that I’m complaining, but shouldn’t we be turning up our collars and digging mittens out of the closet? I wore a sweater over my turtleneck yesterday, and was over warm all day. The sky has been stunningly blue, and the leaves in the yard are toasting to a crispy brown. The trees are more than half bare, but I’m waiting for the last leaves to fall before I climb the ladder to clear them from the gutters. In town the leaves make new patterns of color and texture above and below, but I’m on the lookout for walnuts.

For years I’ve been thinking about buying a walnut cracker. We have plenty of Black Walnuts in the woods, and the lone Walnut tree in the yard had finally, after twenty years started dropping nuts, which mostly fall in the driveway and get run over. Juglans nigra, or Black Walnuts may be the hardest nuts to crack. They begin like green leathery peaches, with a fresh, pungent smell. If you try to remove the husk, your fingers will be stained like an auto mechanic’s for weeks. Wait, and the husk will decay, the green turning to a deep, dark brown—almost black. It is much easier to remove then, but you still have stained fingers to contend with, and you still have to shell them. You can heat them up and hit them with a hammer on a flat rock, but it’s difficult to control the crack, and the shells fly, while the nutmeats get smashed—that is, if the nut opens. Every fall I would look for nutcrackers on the internet, but any that claim to handle Black Walnuts are pretty pricey. A few years ago I bought a used one online for about $15, but it was disappointing. It could handle J. nigra’s cousin, Carya ovata, the smaller, slightly less dense nut of the Shagbark Hickory, but just barely, and after standing at the table cracking nuts one evening for about an hour, I had a backache for a week. The gallon jar of the Hickory nuts I gathered stayed on my kitchen shelf for three years, and the nutcracker stayed in its box in my pantry.

Again this year I searched for walnut crackers, and finally did the math to realize that even if I have to shell out (oops) $75 dollars for a nutcracker, it will pay for itself pretty quickly since I buy Walnuts for $10+ a pound. I mean, I always knew cracking my own walnuts would be a good deal, but even so, making that kind of purchase is hard. Well, this year I found a new nutcracker I hadn’t seen before for more like $50. I impulsively ordered it, and it arrived a few days later. It is cleanly mounted on piece of finished wood, and has fittings to accommodate Walnuts and smaller nuts, like Hickories or Filberts. With gears and springs it looks like a torture device from a tool and die shop. It has a lever, and you can adjust the pressure by turning screws or selecting specific gears. Luckily, before I used it I read an online review which suggested covering the nut with a towel. Even though the lever gives you great control, the nut often explodes under the pressure. I quickly used up all the Walnuts I could find in my front yard, and then switched to the three year old Hickories. The Walnuts mostly came out in halves, but even when I had to pick them from the shells, they came out in large pieces, and I filled a bowl quickly with fresh and free nutmeats. Hickory nuts are another story. I was happy to find them tasting very fresh—the shells do a good job of protecting them—but they are just that much smaller than Walnuts. They seem like half the size, but it took maybe four times longer to fill my little bowl with the sweet Hickory nutmeats. Hickories have a more Maple-y flavor than Walnuts, kind of like Pecans. I like them even better than Walnuts, and they are almost worth the extra trouble. I keep my eyes open for both kinds of trees. I spot a Walnut tree on my walk to work, and on the way back to the car, I bring a bag to fill. The squirrels and I haggle over portion, and we all leave with our share of the gift from the trees.

Shell out Beauty; Share in Peace; Blessed Be.

Mary Lucille Hays lives in Birdland near White Heath. She is interested in the gifts all around and in her own back yard. Her favorite kitten is named Mink, but she would part with her if someone promised to give her a good home. Ditto for her brothers and sisters: Pumpkin Sam, Ruby Pearl, Quiver, Tortiebelle, and Toby.

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