For years now, one of the banes of my existence has been a certain nut that is a preferred item on the menu of the battalion of squirrels that dance across the power lines across the back of my property, through my trees and across my patch of greensward.
No, I’m not talking about the acorn, rather the hickory nut. With a hickory tree both in the back yard and in the front, the nuts fall in abundance each autumn. Over time, they’ve shot out of my lawnmower chute like bullets, one of which nailed me right in the middle of my expansive forehead, which definitely left a mark for several days, and have also lain in wait on the driveway for my missteps to buckle chronically weak ankles, the same joints that betrayed me so often during my childhood attempts to ice skate at Faurot Park back when there actually was ice thick enough to use, which is another topic for another Wednesday.
While supposedly, according to the website “Food-Skills-for-Self-Suffiency.com,” trees are supposed to rotate on a three-year cycle a heavy crop one year, a moderate crop another and almost none in a third, personally, I’m not buying any of that. At my house, the nuts rain down like wet monsoons every fall.
Really, about the only joy I’ve received from the hickories is when, in the same vein of pleasure that snapping those packing-material cellophane bubbles taps, I’m backing out of the drive and hear the pop of the nuts beneath my Bridgestones.
Earlier this fall, those pops actually gave me an idea as to how I could use in some sort of a positive manner what has heretofore bedeviled me. I thought perhaps gathering and cracking some could produce enough of the nutty meat to use in some sort of confectionery concoction. The idea actually began germinating when one of my cleaning-company contacts last fall told me she used hickory nuts to bake cookies after hearing me rail against their existence.
So, off I went foraging in both yard and driveway and soon had a nice-size bowl of the bleached hard shells after breaking off the brown husks.
Once in the kitchen, I soon discovered just how hard those bleached shells were, and that discovery was accompanied by a reaffirmation of my fear of those bushy-tailed rodents that crack the nuts with relative ease. While my squirrelly fear isn’t pathological, I surely don’t want one of them making a beeline for me with jaws agape while I’m out working in the yard.
I started with a long-forgotten nutcracker and pick I found in a drawer. By the third nut-shell crushing, one unfortunately accompanied by a few flying shell fragments, which I scrupulously gathered from the wood floor in the kitchen to prevent stepping on them in my bare feet, one of the handles of the ‘cracker actually sheared off, thereby adding yet another level of respect for the squirrel and giving my pal Roger Fessler his best laugh of the day when I told him later at the K of C during a shift.
Feeling there must be an easier way to crack the little nutty devils, I fired up the Google machine to see how the pros got inside the near-cement-like shells. I read about many techniques, ones which included the use of vices, rocks, chunks of concrete and hammers, none of which appealed to me.
I decided on a pair of pliers. However, the process was infuriatingly slow, especially for one historically impatient. I could only do about five nuts at a time before breaking away for other pursuits. By the end of the day, I finished the bowl of about 50 nuts.
The process of digging through the meat to get shell fragments, which are the same color as the meat, was necessary. Certainly the joys of consumption would have been hindered by, say, a broken tooth when I unexpectedly encountered a fragment.
Finally, when I was satisfied with my labor and hoped that all the fragments had been exorcised, which, given the similar color and configuration to the meat was not guaranteed, I looked at the yield of my lengthy labors. One word comes to mind — pathetic.
Refusing to waste my effort, I did indeed bake some brownies and swirled the nut fragments into the bowl before baking. While the brownies were moist and passable on the gustatory scale, there was just a trace of the hickory flavor in the squares and, yes, I did catch a couple overlooked fragments. Fortunately, I anticipated that and chewed each square in super-slow motion.
Unless someone that’s hickory-savvy can tell me what I did wrong, there’ll be no encore of this show. I’m filing the entire experience under “Too much labor for too little harvest!”
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at email@example.com.