In a nutshell

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Up the road a few miles from work, there’s a big swath of state land, abutting the Chattahoochee River. Jenn and I took a picnic lunch there a few weeks ago, settling under a lone, tall tree in the middle of a dove field.

We had to clear a bit of space to sit among the giant green balls the tree had dropped, and as I was kicking them aside, I said, “What ARE these?” Jenn took one home to do a little Googling.

They were, in fact, black walnuts, freshly fallen. Now, understand that my only experience with black walnuts is an unrequited love of black walnut ice cream. So I thought, man, let’s go harvest those mofos. We went back a few days later and gathered probably 80 pounds of them in four grocery sacks.

And that’s how I fell into Mother Nature’s little trap.

For, you see, despite what oral historians, taxonomists or other “experts” may tell you, when someone asks “Why are they called BLACK walnuts?” there is only one answer: Because they are of The Devil.

The nutmeat — which, even at my advancing age I can barely say without snickering — is delicious, for sure. I’m told it can sell for upwards of $10 a pound. But, as I learned in the following series of lessons, that is not enough.

Come with me on this journey, Gentle Reader.

Lesson 1: Where’s the shell?

jolly-nuts-800The green balls are larger than a golf ball, smaller than a baseball. They were fairly dense, as they were fresh off the tree and hadn’t dried much. These were not the black walnuts, though. These were merely the husks surrounding the nuts.

Said husks are toxic — which is why nothing will grow under a black walnut tree — and the moisture from them is renowned for its ability to stain fingers, pants, wood or anything else it comes into contact with (including, I would discover, painted Hardiplank siding).

Separating husk from shell was the first challenge. A little online research and chatting with friends reveals a bunch of methods, including a fellow who drove his truck up on ramps then jacked up the wheel just enough to be able to rev the engine and squeeze the balls between the wheel and the ramp — firing off the nut into a garbage can on its side, some 10 feet away.

It was amazing, if infeasible for most. (And it won’t work if your vehicle is front-wheel drive, and you shouldn’t try it if you don’t know what a wheel differential is. Still, it’s entertaining to watch.)

Others simply said throw them out on the ground and drive over them. Repeatedly. This didn’t meet my standards of, um, elegance.

I tried simply ripping the husks off by hand, as I saw one brawny YouTuber do so effortlessly. I heeded the many warnings about the staining power of the husks and wore latex surgical gloves underneath my porous work gloves. After about half a bag, my fingers were crippled and my elbow aching. I was ruined for days.

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This is my very clean hand, stained with juglone.

As a special bonus, unbeknownst to me, one finger of the latex glove had ruptured, and my middle ginger stewed in the staining agent for probably 90 minutes. I’ve had a blackened “zombie finger” for two weeks and counting.

But the clock was ticking. The same substance that can stain can also work its way into the shell and ruin the taste of the nut. (Juglone is what it’s called, and it’s the stuff that makes henna an effective tattooing agent.) And unless you have a place to spread all the nuts out to dry, mold will quickly run amok over them. Trust me here.

I finally cracked the case — that is, the husks — with a simple solution:

Take a plank of wood, and using hole bits, drill 1-inch, 1-1/4 inch and 1-1/2 inch holes in it. Elevate the board on some bricks or scrap wood. I used a couple of leftover 4x4s on their sides. Take a nut-ball, place it in the whole it almost fits through, and knock it through with a hammer. This separates all but a smattering of husk on the top of the nut, and that remaining bit can be pulled off easily by hand. (Make sure it’s a gloved hand.)

Lesson 2: Where’s the nut?

After removing the husks, you’re supposed to let the nuts dry and “age” for about 2 weeks, to improve their flavor. I had an added step of washing off the mold and finding a good place to spread them out to dry that was also out of reach from Seamus the Dog. That’s important to pet owners, as the juglone-filled husks and the residue on the shells is toxic to animals — except, apparently, squirrels, who can dig right in. Anyway, my Tacoma truck bed fit the bill, and it had the extra advantage of tossing the nuts around when I drove it.

I went to crack one open early, just to make sure the mold had done no damage to the nut inside, and to make sure I hadn’t left the husks on so long that the flavor was tainted. So I got out our vintage, space-age technology nutcracker.

Gave it a big, strong pull. And I swear I heard the walnut laugh at me, the little bastige. So it was back to the Googles. And here’s the best set of steps I found for cracking the nut:

  1. Select a nut to crack.
  2. Place the nut on a slab of pavement or concrete.
  3. Curse at it, to let it know you’re a little bit crazy.
  4. Tap it with a hammer.
  5. Tap it harder with the hammer.
  6. Repeatedly smack it with the hammer until it shatters.

Then you’ll have to gather up all the pieces and pick out the bits of meat with a nut pick. There’s no getting out a whole half like with a pecan or an English walnut.

Executive summary

Yes, this journey took me to hell and back. Yes, I’m still embarrassed to shake hands with someone, lest they notice the jaundiced finger. Yes, my elbow joint is still a little achey.

When I finally got that first nut to crack, I picked up the little shards. I pulled free a little piece of nut and popped it in my mouth.

Oh. My. God.

Like I said, my only experience with black walnuts was teensy bits sprinkled in half gallon of Barber’s ice cream. As much as I liked that, it was a poor imitation of the real deal, straight from the shell. It’s a richer, more robust flavor than you’ve ever had from a pecan, or an almond, or a Brazil nut, or anything else I can think of.

There’s an earthiness to the black walnut. There’s also a sweetness, like a light perfume. It’s almost like a lavender blossom uprooted itself and had its way with the walnut tree.

I’m still a week away from being able to shell all the nuts, and I may change my tune after that, if I detach my elbow from my upper arm. But as of right now, I’m saying the black walnut reward is totally worth all the work. And as regular readers know, we at The Dew never shy away from process.

Because  working for your food makes you appreciate it all the more. That’s the truth, in an incredibly hard-to-crack, finger-staining nutshell.


 

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