Nutty as a fruitcake. Just nuts. Why the use of this nutritious, tasty tree product for deprecating people? As far back as the 1820s variations of this word have been used to describe people in derogative ways. Walnuts are high in nutrition, so the negative connotation of these sayings doesn’t make sense. My nutty experiences in five states over more than 60 years have been mostly positive.
Our farm in northwest Illinois had walnuts and hickory nuts. I just picked up hickory nuts until I tasted the bitterness of what I learned were called “bitternuts.” Bitternuts and pignuts looked similar were much more abundant, so I picked them first. The bitternuts (didn’t know their name then) were thinner shelled, too. But, they were bitter. Best left for pigs. I soon learned that shagbark hickory nuts were the best. Also, the trees http://ouroneacrefarm.com/hickory-nuts-foraging-pignut-shagbark-hickory-nuts/ says that pignuts are not the same as bitternuts. Now I know that pignuts and bitternuts are different. I did collect some hickory nuts to crack. The flavor is great, but they are small and all I had to crack them with was a hammer.
Since walnuts were bigger and abundant, I switched favorites. I filled five or six gunny sacks (burlap bags) of walnuts. My father used the tractor scoop move them to the farmhouse where we had a hand-turned corn sheller. This doubled as a walnut huller.
After running the walnuts through the sheller, my father helped me dump the walnuts on the roof of a small chicken house a short distance from the trees near the house. Just far enough for the Illinois squirrels not to challenge our dog for a race from to the chicken house or back to the trees. When the walnuts were dry, I brought some to the house to start cracking them for cookies and cakes. They were duds! I had probably 3 or 4 bushels probably all were bad. No more walnut collection for me—well, until adulthood. (I was in my early to mid-teens at the time.)
Rosalyn was 8 and Nathan was 5 when they joined the walnut collection activity. We were excited by the announcement in the newspaper that a walnut processing company would hull and buy walnuts. We had a small trailer to load the nuts into. Previous years I had dumped nuts in the driveway and used the car to smash the hulls. Then we had pulled the messy walnuts out of the hulls and rinsed off the remaining flesh. Finding a place to dry the walnuts out of the reach of squirrels was always a challenge. Ros and Nathan each kept track of how many 5 gallon buckets of walnuts they gathered. I preferred to pick up at the neighbors where there was a special tree that had thin internal walls that permitted cracking out large pieces, sometimes complete halves of the black walnuts. We filled the little trailer and the children’s labor rewarded them. Ros was pleased that she was able to buy a red J. C. sweater that she had been wishing for.
Native Americans had learned about walnut duds. Their technique for separating out worthless nuts was to put a wide basket in the bottom of a shallow, but flowing stream. Walnuts were poured into the basket. Bad walnuts were lighter and would float away. Good ones dropped into the basket for recovery and drying. Not having a stream handy, I dumped walnuts into a half-barrel and lifted out the floating ones with a sieve to duplicate this process. The walnut buying company would hull my walnuts and buy back what walnuts, including the duds that I didn’t want, sufficient to pay for the hulling of the walnuts for my use.
The second year the children looked forward to earning more money with the walnut harvest. We picked walnuts, computed the shares, planned how the money was to be spent. Then, off we went to take the walnuts to the huller. After the seven-mile trip, we could not find the huller. Unfortunately, Dad had failed to check the paper for ads for the huller. Disappointment! My memory is not good, but I hope I gave the children something for their work. We hulled the walnuts the old-fashion way. When I asked Rosalyn (now past young adulthood) recently about her memory of the walnut disaster, I expected some comment about a ruined childhood. But, she didn’t remember the disappointment of the disappeared huller. She did remember how pleased she was to be able to buy the wonderful sweater to go with the skirt her mother made her.
The Pennsylvania nut cracker and Virginia nuts
Julia’s parents had two “English” walnut trees that they had planted when she was small. The seedlings came from trees near Gettysburg where Julia’s uncle lived. By the time I knew Julia the trees were mature and produced many bushels of nuts most years. Some years we were given (or picked up ourselves) a half-bushel or more. (The walnut trees are between the barn and the house. Okay, so I found an excuse to sneak in a picture of the children and granddaughter.)
Julia’s father, Fred, recommended seeing Israel Peachey about a nutcracker. Israel, an Amish man, whose wife was a reflexologist, lived off Long Lane, at Back Mountain Road, Belleville, Pa (in Kishacoquillas Valley) and made unusual nut-crackers. The nutcrackers handled black walnuts easily (relatively). “English” walnuts shell out with unbroken halves. Mine cost around $30, an exceptional price, even in the late ’80s.
We had moved to Virginia some years earlier. Neighbors had black walnuts to give us. For several years there was a walnut huller in the area. Recently, friend Laurence brought me some walnuts he picked up. He knew that after two back surgeries bending over to pick up walnuts too much of a challenge for me. I was not ready to hull the walnuts he gave me, so pulled the plastic garbage can to the backyard. Several days later I walked into the yard and found a large hole in the can. Squirrels had chewed the hole to get the walnuts! And, it was Laurence’s can!
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