THROUGH THE WOODS: Collecting hickory nuts

AS I GREW UP, my maternal grandfather, Frank Wambach (Gramp), followed his rule of taking me along to help with whatever had to be done. He was one of 10 children and, like most of the Town of Austerlitz residents, they farmed and made use of whatever was seasonal to eat. He said back then you had to plan for winter and store or preserve food. There were no supermarkets, and there was little money to buy things except those that couldn’t be produced on the farm, like sugar and flour. Some of their grain was taken to Spencertown and ground at a water powered mill along the Punsit Creek.

In the fall he taught me to gather nuts, usually shag bark hickory and butternut. The cooler fall days had beautiful blue skies, a crunch of leaves underfoot, and the occasional flock of geese calling overhead. Squirrels were hunted for their meat and to keep them from getting the nuts away from us. We mostly got hickory nuts because there were more of them and were somewhat easier to process.

A row of hickory trees grew along a stone wall west of the barns and I wish I had asked if he had planted them. We picked up bushel baskets of them. Back home they were taken upstairs in the house and spread out on the back landing to dry. When the outer hickory husks dried, opened and were removed, the hard, buff-colored nuts remained to finish drying.

Through the winter we cracked nuts and picked out the nutmeats. This was tedious work and required a heavy-duty nutcracker. The old nutcracker wasn’t fancy, but it worked efficiently, and the solid cast iron jaws and handle felt smooth and powerful. Ours was kept in the big drawer with our toys. Gramp placed it on the floor, and my job was to put in a nut while he sat in his chair and stepped on the handle. It seemed like we did this for hours and filled those days when it was too miserable to stay outside. My grandmother, Helen, would take the bowl of cracked nuts and separate out the meats with a pick. I learned to do this too, and my better eyesight helped to find the tiny bits of shell that could really hurt a tooth.

The nutmeats were saved in jars and used to make nut frosting for delicious, special occasion, yellow cakes. There is no other nut that comes close in flavor. In later years, a friend and I plus our sheltie dog gathered the hickory nuts. She sold them to a market for little money for the effort. It was a fun, and the dog got her exercise chasing squirrels up the trees. This was over 60 years ago and represented so many good things, beloved family, security, a sense of belonging, and the company of good friends. These hickory trees are just east of my home, and the squirrels are now enjoying the nuts unmolested.

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