Sunday, February 23, 2014

The Gift of Hickory Nuts

I think about my parents every day.

It could be because I love them, miss them, and long for their guidance, sweetness and humor.
It could be because I live on the same road where I grew up, right down from the farm.
It could be because I'm currently trying to write a story that revolves around them and their struggles.  One of their struggles.

Or it could be that I keep a bag of hickory nuts in the freezer.

Do you like hickory nuts?  If you grew up with us, you would have learned to, because mom added them to everything -- hickory nut cake, hickory nut pie, chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies with hickory nuts, banana bread with hickory nuts, hickory nut fudge and divinity and her homemade Chex Mix with hickory nuts.  They taste a little like a walnut, a little like a pecan, and a lot like a memory.  Earthy, fragrant, soft and every once in a while, just a tiny little bit bitter.

Mom added them to everything because they were abundant.  There was a huge hickory tree down on the bottom ground (it stood in the middle of a field so my dad farmed around it -- that's how important it was to mom) and every fall she would take buckets and children down to the tree to pick up nuts.

Like walnuts, hickory nuts have greenish-yellowish-brownish smelly husks that protect the shell and the nut inside  The husks have to come off if you plan to store the nuts before shelling them; leaving the husks on can cause the nut meats to turn brown and taste bitter.  The best, and most fun, way to remove the husks is to pour your buckets of hickory nuts out on the driveway and run over them with your car -- there were always two car-width paths of hickory nut husks embedded in the gravel outside of our garage.

We'd pick up the nuts, toss them back into the buckets and haul them down to the basement where they'd wait for cracking.

You've heard the phrase "that's a tough nut to crack?"  I believe it must have been coined about the hickory nut.  We collected and picked out walnuts, too, but those could be easily cracked with an accurate whack of a hammer.  Hickory nuts are not so easy -- the shells are as tough and strong as the wood from their trees, which is legendary (Old Hickory?  Hickory stick?  You know the stories.)

My mom couldn't crack hickory nuts with just her hammer.  My dad, much stronger (his nickname was "The Fist"), often ruined the nutmeats because he whacked them too forcefully.

So in his continual quest to make mom happy, he welded together a "hickory nut cracker", made of some pieces of iron and a bottle jack laid on its side.  He bolted his invention to the workbench in the basement and demonstrated how to place the nut between the iron plate and the jack piston, levering it up (or over, as the case may be) just until the nut gave a good crack.  "Viola!" he shouted.  A perfectly cracked hickory nut.

Mom would take sacks of the cracked nuts up to her spot in the family room and pick the winter away as she and dad watched TV from their recliners. Then she'd package up a couple of cups of the picked-out meats in doubled plastic bags (this was before Zip-locks), give the bag a good spin, secure it with a twisty and put it in the freezer.

Like this:

I'm not sure how old this bag of hickory nuts is.  My mom has been gone for almost 17 years, and I can't remember the last time she picked out nuts before she died.

I'v never opened them.  I can't use them.  I can't throw them away.  And when I was cleaning out the freezer before Thanksgiving, I made a proclamation that this little bag of hickory nuts must be saved.  Forever.

And because he knew I was serious, and because he knows how much that little bag of nuts means to me, and because he's pretty terrific, Clay made me a Christmas present:

What is it, you ask?  It might be a paper weight.  Or a door stop.  Or a piece of art.  I'm not sure yet.

But I do know that it's three little hickory nuts, embedded in resin.  He made it himself (with just a little help from my uber-crafty sister) in his continual quest to make me happy.

Viola.  And peace.

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