Black Walnuts

While backing out of the driveway yesterday morning, my front right van tire hit and skidded on what sounded like a piece of metal.  The combined vibration and sound made Will and I squinch our eyes, putting tight wrinkles in our foreheads.

Once free of the object, we saw nothing other than the squished green husk of a nut.  Deposited by the neighborly squirrels, a walnut had gotten lodged at just the right angle under our tire so as to drag with us a few feet.

I thought of the crafty nature of seagulls:  When a seagull finds a hard-shell clam locked up tight in the surf, it scoops the clam into its beak, soars up high into the sky, then drops the clam onto hard-packed, wet sand created by the high tide.  The seagull dives down to the clam, and if that one solid drop hasn’t broken the shell, the gull hoists it back into the air for repeated drops until the shell breaks open, making the clam meat accessible to the gull’s strong, pointed beak. 

No, squirrels aren’t that crafty.  Surely not.  The squirrel was probably startled by something, dropped the nut, and ran toward the street.  For in our hours spent on the road, Will and I know that’s the direction they run; their safe spot.  The street.

This small nut incident reminded me that this is the beginning of the season that Dad has this year forsworn: picking up black walnuts.  The harvesting of black walnuts starts in the fall and the processing runs throughout the winter months. 

Growing up, I had never considered the difference between the easily cracked walnuts in Grandpa Mills’ mixed nut bowl and the walnuts Mom used in her fudge at Christmas time.  English walnuts were in the nut bowl, and black walnuts were in the fudge.  Only in recent years did I discover that the black walnut, which grows predominately in the wild – as opposed to English walnuts that are grown in orchards – is not an eagerly accepted nut by the general population.  The trees are prevalent in Iowa.


Since I’ve moved away from my black walnut source – aka: Mom’s freezer, I realize now the value of a quart bag of frozen black walnuts.  If we were to put a market value on the labor that goes into this process, black walnuts would cost more than morel mushrooms – should anyone want to buy them.  Hold that assumption… I just found a retailer that sells black walnuts.

Hammons sells 8 ounces of “Recipe Ready & Fancy – Large” black walnuts for $7.25.  For comparison’s sake, my local store sells 10 ounces of “chopped walnuts” for $7.00.  I’m a little perplexed as I would’ve expected black walnuts to be more expensive given the labor involved to take them from the ground to packaging them in plastic bags. 

As I explored the Hammons site, I found the answer to the low price: they have a hulling machine that removes the husks!  Hammons encourages folks to bring their black walnuts to their farm for processing and, in turn, receive payment which is determined by the weight of the walnut once the husks have been removed by the hulling machine.  (Pop over to Hammons website for a look at the setup.)

The black walnuts in my freezer in Massachusetts were processed differently in Iowa.

Once the black walnuts fall to the ground in the timber, Dad rolls a nut gatherer over the ground to pick up the green and brown husked walnuts.  This tool looks like a bingo cage with a rake handle attached.  The metal wires are just flexible enough for the walnuts to pop through and lodge inside. 

The walnut husks are tight and green when the walnuts are growing on the tree.  When the walnuts fall, the husk has loosened a bit and started to turn brown.  From collecting the walnuts in the timber, Dad dumps the walnuts onto the middle of the gravel driveway near the house and drives over them several times with the pick-up truck.  The movement and weight of the tires breaks the walnuts free from the husks (scientifically known as the pericarps), leaving the hard-shelled nut intact.  (Scientifically, the hard outer shell the protects the seed/nutmeat is known as the endocarp.) If the husks aren’t removed soon after they fall, they turn black and start to harden, or if they are wet, they rot allowing a lovely spot for the larvae of husk flies to live.   

After driving over the walnuts comes the difficult job – the reason Dad has sworn off doing walnuts this year – leaning over and picking up the hundreds of black walnuts and cleaning up the broken husks.  The metal ribs on the nut gatherer are too wide to pick up and contain the freshly hulled nuts.  After the husks are removed, nuts stain – yes, black walnut stain.  Wearing gloves, Dad spreads the freshly hulled walnuts out on a hay rack or truck bed for a few weeks to let the walnuts dry out.   

Similar to the shared process between Mom and Dad in “Corn’s On,” once the  nuts are dried, they become Mom’s domain.  With her flower gardens under snow, Mom’s winter occupation often turns to shelling walnuts.

A few years ago, we found a nutcracker gadget with a handle allowing leverage to be used to crack the nuts. This made the job much easier than trying to balance these hard-shelled little devils and crack them open with a hammer.  Mom processes them in small batches, breaking a pie tin-ful in the basement then taking the pieces up to the kitchen to pick them out with a nutpick.  The black walnut shell actually grows into the nutmeat, so these do not pop out of the shell in perfect halves like the English walnuts; there’s a lot of digging involved to dislodge the pieces.

Mom normally has a quart or two of walnuts picked out and ready to send home with me at Christmas time.  Black walnuts have a distinct taste that does not appeal to many taste buds.  Cilantro and blue cheese are similar in that people either really like black walnuts or cannot stand them.  No middle of the road. 

While Mom makes fudge with these walnuts, I like to generously sprinkle them on salads.  To bring them back to life a bit after being frozen, I heat up a small heavy skillet and then throw in a large handful to dry roast over high heat.  As I continuously move the pan to keep the nuts from burning, the dark brown papery coverings – called the seed coats – start to fall off the nuts and occasionally float into the air as I toss the nuts. 

When they smell roasted and look toasted, I dump the walnuts onto a clean dish towel and roll them around to completely remove the seed coats. 

I add the clean black walnuts to salad greens with a simple vinaigrette and a sprinkling of blue cheese. 

Like cilantro and blue cheese, I leave black walnuts off the menu if we have people over for dinner – unless I sense in someone an adventurous food spirit that would embrace and appreciate these earthy, bold-tasting, labor-infused Juglans nigra