Thanksgiving, with food a major holiday component, calls to mind a time of year that was once the subject of great anticipation: nutting season. I’m not old enough to have experienced it first-hand, although back in the 1980s I did explore many natural edibles. Among my favorites was beechnuts, which we harvested and used in chocolate-chip cookies. Outstanding!
But in days long ago, when many folks earned a subsistence living that utilized home-grown vegetables and wild foods, nutting season was an important time.
In the 1920s, an 84-year-old Whitehall man reminisced through a newspaper’s letter section, fondly recalling his youth. “It was beechnuts or butternuts that we went after in those days…. About the time the first frost hit the woods—if it was a hard one—at once the call went out to go and be a brother to the chipmunk. Cracking butternuts on Sunday afternoons was great sport…. One could always tell on Monday by the stains on the hands what had been going on the day before…. The beechnuts wore porcupine coverings,” he added, and described a friend who was quite adept at knocking them to the ground en masse. “How he could bring down the nuts with that heavy hammer he carried up among the beech limbs! When he swung that hammer on a limb, well loaded with the fruit, nuts dropped like a rippin’ big July or August thundershower of rain.”
With lovely prose, he recalled a typical scene late in the year when nut harvesters returned home after long hours in the woods. “When the cold days came along, there was nothing so red coming out of the woods as those nutters’ ears, unless it was their noses. When the mornings were cold and the winds blew, and the frost was like meringue on a lemon pie, we would start out for a day’s nutting. Some of the fellows might come home a little frost-bitten and be happy to get to that fire burning briskly in the kitchen stove, and get off those stiff and faithless shoes or boots and place their aching feet in the oven heat of that glowing wood fire.”
Wild nut production in general is inconsistent from year to year. In 1923, a meager crop in southern Quebec was blamed for a migration of gray squirrels into northern New York. Even on the St. Lawrence River, it was reported that black and gray squirrels were seen swimming from island to island en route to the American shore. But the nut shortage also hit New York that year, and in the Capital District, squirrels were said to be feeding in cornfields.
The squirrel influx also exacerbated a problem that had surfaced in recent years as communities became modernized with electricity: linemen were called more frequently for repairs when the curious rodents met an early end on power pole cross-arms—and in the process left neighborhoods in the dark.
But when conditions were good and a bumper crop was expected, newspaper articles confirmed just how popular a time it was. In September 1926, an Ogdensburg Republican Journal headline said it all: Nut Season Near in the North Country; Weekend Will Witness an Exodus to the Woods. The article began with, “These are the kinds of days and nights which turn the thoughts of youngsters to the nutting season.”
It was fun for sure, but a lot of hard work was involved as well because some of the outer nutshells are very difficult to break. For butternuts, my own efforts involved holding them with pliers against a flat stone surface and whacking them with a hammer. I tried the vise method as well, but it all seemed like a lot of work. I do recall my grandfather saying that in his day, they placed a board atop the nuts and drove a car onto it, cracking the shells. Pretty funny, I thought, the stories he came up with.
But a little digging on the subject turned up this item from 1951 in The Lowville Leader, where an article titled “Gathering Nuts” said: “Many folks put the nuts on the threshing floor of the barn or on a concrete roadway, cover them with a plank, and run the family automobile back and forth over them. [My apologies, Grandpa.] A fruitful field exists here for some inventive genius to develop a practical walnut husker.”
Develop a practical walnut husker? It’s been done, but if you find yourself with a bunch of walnuts to shell, there’s an easier way. Just make friends with this guy. He’d surely be a hit at the Thanksgiving table.
Photo: Black walnuts, courtesy Wikimedia user MONGO.
A version of this article was first published on the Adirondack Almanack.