Hard Nut To Crack
Once An Appalachian Staple, Black Walnuts Now Rare Treat
WHEELING — There was a time — in living memory — when at least some of the walnuts that found their way into Wheeling families’ baked goods didn’t come from the grocery store. They were wild harvested in the woods, loaded into burlap sacks and hauled home for processing that left many children, especially the most rural ones, with hands stained like fine furniture.
“It didn’t wash off, it wore off,” joked Brent Lyons, the McMechen-based service forester for the West Virginia Division of Forestry.
Lyons’ father, who would have turned 100 this year if he were still alive, regaled him with stories of how native black walnuts — which have a stronger flavor and harder shell than the English walnuts with which most West Virginians are now familiar — were collected during the Great Depression for food.
“All the kids had brown hands in the fall,” Lyons said. “That was their job, to clean (the hulls) from the walnuts.”
Black walnuts, which remain plentiful but are rarely harvested at large scale in contemporary Appalachia, begin falling from trees each September, Lyons explained.
At that stage, the nut is hidden inside a lemony-scented, bright green ball that is actually an outer hull.
After the nuts are collected — which must be early enough to beat the wildlife to them — is when the hard part begins, said both Lyons and Earl Nicodemus, a retired West Liberty professor who has first-hand experience with the process.
Nicodemus grew up on a small farm in the heart of Ohio and remembers collecting and hulling the nuts during the late 1950 and 1960s.
While Lyons noted many black walnut harvesters wait until the hulls turn black and crumbly before extricating the nut inside — which is still hidden within a hard, wrinkled shell — Nicodemus’s dad turned to a bit of creative engineering to speed up the process.
Nicodemus recalled the hulling during an email interview with the Wheeling newspapers.
“My dad would drive our old 1948 Ford 8-N tractor up against the side of the barn and then jack up the right rear until the big tractor tire was off of the ground,” Nicodemus wrote.
“He then shoved a 12- to 13-inch-wide plank under that tire so that it slanted downhill from front to back.
He had added strips of wood to make sides for the plank. He left about an inch of space between that plank and the tire.
“Then, he would start the tractor and put it into high gear, causing that rear tire to spin. We would pour the walnuts onto the front of the plank and they rolled under the tire. One or more of us kids used a rake to pull the husks out of the way and the tire threw the husked nuts about ten feet.”
After that speedy hulling, time became the family’s friend, Nicodemus added.
The husked nuts were spread out on a loft inside a corn crib to dry.
“In the evenings, my dad would crack a bunch of the nuts and then sit in his chair in the front room, while we listened to the radio serials,” he recalled.
That wasn’t quite the end of it, though. Once cracked, it was still necessary to remove the nut meats, which burrow in and out of each shell’s grooved interior. Nicodemus said it was only then the nuts were stored in the freezer, where they were kept ready for his mother to include in walnut cake or chocolate chip cookies.
Such use is typical for the nut, which is now considered a gourmet addition to baked goods and ice cream given its bold, distinct flavor.
Nicodemus and his wife have five black walnut trees on their West Liberty property, and went as far as to purchase a nut-picking tool from an Amish supply company. But, the memory of exactly how much work processing involves remains. “We harvest some of the nuts and freeze them, but we give most of them away,” he admitted.
Lyons hears what Nicodemus is saying. He noted that a couple small stores elsewhere in the state were renting out hulling equipment in the 1990s but found the processing was so off-putting to most customers that it wasn’t a profitable venture.
He, too, owns a black walnut tree, but has never been tempted to harvest it. Until this year.
“There’s a lot of walnuts out there. My tree’s loaded,” he said, a wistful note creeping into his voice. He explained that his 7-year-old grandson is suddenly determined to beat the squirrels to the crop.
Lyons knows the drill. He even knows how his father used two bricks to crack the internal shells. So, it’s probably a go, except for one thing, he said of purposely skipping one part of the age-old tradition. “We’ll get him some gloves.”