Three or four generations back, a goodly portion of the population in South Carolina, as well as throughout the Southeast, lived in rural areas and in large measure relied primarily on their own gumption to survive. Living off the land, as Native Americans had done for untold generations before them, these hardy individuals became closely attuned to the land. Their self-sustaining linkage with the Earth involved subsistence crop farming along with keeping some chickens, hogs, and cows for eggs, meat, and milk. Their agrarian lifestyle also had another vital facet — considerable reliance on nature’s bounty. They hunted, fished, and trapped. Along with using the valuable food provided by game and fish from field and stream, they also relied heavily on the expansive and fertile garden that lay all around them and required no maintenance. It was the garden filled with wild vegetables, berries, fruits, and nuts.
The latter food from nature figured prominently in life during autumn, and in the world of yesteryear, fall’s gradually shortening days were particularly busy ones. It was harvest time, with corn to be put in the crib and fodder in shocks, pumpkins to be gathered and stored, apples and pears to be picked and prepared, molasses to be made, hogs to be butchered, vegetables tucked away in root cellars, the last green beans of the season to be dried for “leather britches,” grains such as buckwheat and rye to be cut and winnowed, and field legumes such as October beans to be stored.
On top of all this rush of getting in crops, October’s hunter’s moon beckoned with almost irresistible allure. As it crested the eastern horizon at nightfall, burnished bright as a huge golden coin, no hunter worth his sporting salt could avoid thoughts of putting some extra food on the table in forms such as squirrel and gravy, a bear roast dripping with fat from old bears feasting on summer’s berries, or maybe a succulent haunch of venison.
It was, in short, a time for both preparation and celebration as another cycle of the Earth’s bounty came to an end before the lean, mean times of winter began. All too soon Indian summer’s bluebird skies and pleasant temperatures would give way to biting winds and bitter frosts. That relatively brief time of brightness and beauty, pleasant temperatures, and satisfaction of another successful year of crops fell in the latter part of October and the first portion of November. One of its hallmarks involved an activity that combined genuine pleasure with taking full advantage of luscious offerings from nature’s bountiful basket of edible delights. This was the provident pleasure of what most simply knew as “nutting.”
The gathering of various edible nuts formed a splendid example of the important art of “making do with what you’ve got.” While the necessity that once underlay nutting expeditions belongs to a world long since vanished, the practice loomed large in my boyhood and can still do so today. The gratifying end results embrace simple fun, opportunities for togetherness among family or friends united in common cause, and wonderful eating.
Nutting, especially as a family outing or social event, had its beginnings when the American chestnut was incredibly plentiful. Whole families gathered bushels of the predictable, prolific mast. They used nuts to fatten hogs, earn welcome cash money through sales — vendors of roasted chestnut were once common on city street corners in the winter — and of course for their own consumption.
The American chestnut has been gone from our forests for almost a century, but fortunately such is not the case with other nuts. Many remain readily available. Perhaps the best example is the black walnut, and certainly it figured prominently in my family as a boy. Early in the squirrel season, Daddy and I would look for trees or for stained white belly fur on bushytails, today known as gray squirrels. That information was duly filed away with plans for a family outing lying in the not-too-distant offing. Nutting was something Mom and Dad continued to enjoy well into their later lives and long after their offspring were grown and gone.
Easily identifiable, the black walnut is common along fence rows and the edges of fields in river bottoms. Gathering walnuts and then preparing them for cracking, while not physically demanding, consumes considerable time. Hulls need to be removed, and this is best done several weeks after the nuts are gathered. Otherwise, hulls still green and holding moisture will leave your hands stained. If you have any doubts, give it a go and then deal with the “Mission Impossible” involved in trying to return your hands to their normal color. After all, dyes from walnut hulls were once favored for coloring homespun clothing.
Drying hulls for easy removal involves patience more than anything else. You can spread nuts atop a tarpaulin or on the ground to allow them to dry in the autumn sun and then mash the dry hulls off by foot, one nut at a time. Alternatively, once cured, nuts can be placed in a tow sack, hung from a handy tree limb, and whacked repeatedly with a section of two-by-four. As a boy I enjoyed this approach, although a 34-inch Louisville Slugger baseball bat was substituted for the piece of lumber. Perhaps the simplest approach, and it works surprisingly well, is to spread nuts atop gravel or bare, hard ground and run a vehicle over them repeatedly.
Once the hulls have been removed, it is time to crack the walnuts and pick out the meats. My grandfather used to muse, “The man who figures out a device to crack black walnuts cleanly, leaving big pieces of nut meats, should make a fortune.” We still await such an invention.
The method Daddy employed involved a vise and a hatchet. He placed nuts atop his shop vise, always being sure to turn them at a certain angle, and then cracked them with the back of a small hatchet. He would crack a peck or maybe even a half bushel at a time. Then came the slow, tedious work of getting out the meats. This effort, known as “nut pickin’,” was invariably a group one. Sometimes it was a congenial process involving relatives. Laughter, telling of tales, and remembrances of nutting in the childhood days punctuated the process. When it was just immediate family, we listened to country music or maybe serial programs such as Gunsmoke or Amos and Andy on the radio.
The considerable effort involved in getting a few pints of walnut meats was well worth it. Merely thinking about it conjures up visions of a batch of Momma’s oatmeal cookies, still warm from the oven and studded with walnuts and raisins. Similarly, a properly made walnut cake with walnut icing is a delicacy guaranteed to bring tears of pure joy to a country boy’s eyes, while on a hot summer’s day, home-churned walnut ice cream is near-frozen nectar from the gods.
My beloved paternal Grandpa Joe loved everything connected with walnuts. His description of walnuts, while predictably offbeat, was delightful. A number of young trees lined the pathway leading from his house to the chicken pen and then onward to the hog lot. We walked that path times without number, but seldom did we make the trek without him pausing alongside one of the walnuts, just old enough to have begun bearing, for a bit of a nature lesson.
“Son,” he would say, “look at those trees. I’ll be gone about the time they really get down to business when it comes to bearing lots of nuts, and it will be at least 60 years before they’ve grown enough to be cut for timber. This here’s fine river bottomland, real rich soil, and it will grow stuff about as good as anywhere. But walnuts demand patience. They ain’t going to be rushed, and they ain’t going to grow fast. I reckon you could call them a three-generation tree.” By that he meant that three full generations were required for them to reach a size where they provided one or possibly two fine saw logs.
He would then woolgather for a moment on the importance of forbearance. I always sensed that underlying the lesson on walnuts was a subliminal message directed at an often impatient and always boisterous boy. “If you wait,” Grandpa said, “walnuts will eventually reward you. They make beautiful wood for furniture, and you know those two guns I’ve stored away up at the house, well, their stocks and forends are made of fine-grained walnut.”
Grandpa knew woods and their uses. If today he could somehow walk that garden path from long ago, he’d light up with that soft grin, which was about as close as he ever came to a real smile. The old house has gone through multiple owners, but some of the black walnuts Grandpa admired and likely planted have now reached the three-generation status he so often mentioned. They are tall, straight, and handsome, precisely the sort that brings significant sums of money from folks anxious to have select wood from mature black walnut trees.
Hickory nuts, which come in a number of varieties, some just about as tasty as walnuts, have always been incredibly abundant. It’s no wonder Native Americans relied heavily on them, and stands of hickories along with nutting stones are frequently found near Indian mounds. If anything, however, they are more difficult to crack and pick meats from than black walnuts, and the amount of food you get for your labor will soon have you concluding they are the nutting world’s equivalent of truffles.
Hazelnuts, a cousin of the filbert, grew widely along creeks, rivers, and branches during my boyhood, and they were among the most predictable of the nut crops in terms of bearing a solid harvest year after year. They were produced on bushes — ranging up to 15 feet or so in height — rather than trees and were simple enough to harvest. The only problem, and it was significant, involved squirrels. Once bushytails started cutting on them, they would work nonstop until the entire crop was gone. Our way of besting the treetop tricksters, which normally began cutting on hazelnuts in mid-September, was to gather them in the husks and let them dry for a couple of weeks. At that juncture, nuts fell out easily, usually as a single piece, and were easy to crack.
Two other nuts, once popular and certainly a delight to eat, have in large measure gone the way of the chestnut. That’s chinquapins and butternuts, sometimes known as white walnuts. The latter are afflicted by canker as well as having been badly overharvested because the wood is so prized, while delicious chinquapins are in the same family (Castanea) as the chestnut and suffer from the same disease.
Then there’s the lordly beechnut with its slick, silvery bark so admired by lovelorn males anxious to carve their name, along with that of their sweetheart, into its parchment-like outer layer. Perhaps the best indication of the appeal of beechnuts from the standpoint of edibility comes from the way they attract wildlife. Squirrels, chipmunks, deer, bears, grouse, wild hogs, and turkeys all will flock to them, ignoring any and all other types of food, whenever they are available. But for some reason roughly three seasons out of every four beechnuts don’t “make” — the hulls are either hollow or else the mast fails entirely.
When they do produce though, and you can readily tell by checking a nut or two in late summer, beechnuts are well worthy of human attention. For my part, I always check a few giants of the species growing along a little branch winding its way through property I own. On the relatively rare occasions when they carry a fine crop, I know I’m going to enjoy some tasty treats, and I’ll see plenty of deer from a stand strategically placed nearby. Just be aware of the fact that overindulgence in raw ones will result in misery. Toasting changes everything. To borrow once more from Grandpa’s colorful way of putting things, he said, “Son, I know they’re mighty tasty, but if you keep eating them raw you are going to have a repeat of the green apple problem you experienced a few months back.”
I now realize that memories of nuts and nutting took Grandpa back to a time he held dear. That explains, at least in part, why he spent so much time talking with me about nuts and gathering them at every opportunity. More often than not when we went squirrel hunting at day’s end, little if any heft was left in the game bags of our coats, but the side pockets of our jackets and front pockets of our pants were dramatically different.
We almost always stuffed them with whatever mast, or edible nuts, we came across. When Grandpa said, “There ain’t no need to be peckish in the fall woods,” he was acknowledging the ready availability and importance of nuts in his world.
Today we can still sample and savor such times and the delicious treats they produced. To me, venturing afield for a few pleasant, productive hours of nutting is a fine approach to perpetuating a worthy example of old-time ways.
Jim Casada is a full-time freelancer with numerous books to his credit. The most recent is Fishing for Chickens: A Smokies Food Memoir.