Friday, 16 October 2020 00:35

COLUMN: A hard nut to crack

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J.A. Bolton's preferred way of cracking hickory nuts J.A. Bolton's preferred way of cracking hickory nuts J.A. Bolton

First of all, this story is not using the old expression “a hard nut to crack” in reference to other people. Instead, it’s about them hard hickory nuts that most folks say are just not worth the trouble to crack.


Yes, it’s that time of the year when all types of nuts start falling from their trees. Nuts like pecans, walnuts, acorns, and hickory nuts are falling to the ground every time a puff of wind comes by.

I’ve got two kinds of hickory trees on my farm in Richmond County. One is called a shagbark and the other is a pignut hickory. Shagbark trees have the larger, thick-hulled hickory nut that resembles a small green pumpkin. Pignut hickory trees, on the other hand, have smaller, thinner-hulled nuts. The nuts from both trees can be eaten, but let’s just say the pignut didn’t get its name for nothing. Why, when I was young, we built our hog pens around pignut hickory trees so the pigs could have something to snack on when the nuts fell. 

First, let’s talk a little about the hickory tree itself. Hickory is one of the hardest woods we have in our great country. Its wood is used in home décor such as flooring, cabinetry and furniture, as well as tool handles and wooden pallets. In times of the horse and buggy, people would use hickory wood to make the spokes and wheels for their wagons and carriages, baseball bats, drumsticks, and many other applications. The Native Americans used hickory to make their bows, handles for their tomahawks, and even baskets were weaved out of it. Why, our seventh president, Andrew Jackson, had the nickname “Ol’ Hickory”— seems he was as unbending as a hickory tree and just as tough.

Usually on a hickory tree, there will be five, or sometimes seven, leaves alternately arranged on twigs that grow from the limbs. As summer goes by, the hulls that hold the nut slowly mature. Around the last of September and early October, these hulls begin to slowly fall to the ground. You can pick these hulls from the tree but don’t rush them because they might not be ripe. When you gather these husks with the nuts in them, you might notice signs of where animals and rodents have gnawed around them.

After you have picked up your hickory nuts, mostly in the husk, spread them out on something and let them dry for a week or two. This allows the inner nut to shrink from the walls of the husk, making it easier to remove the nut.

As you remove the nuts, drop them in a pail of water — believe it or not, the bad ones will float to the top. Remove these and take the others out and let them dry.

You can crack them now, but it’s better if you fill a mesh bag (something like a laundry bag), hang it up under a shelter, and allow the nuts to dry for about a month.

Man has been cracking and eating wild hickory nuts since time began. With the use of one rock to hold the nut and another to crack it, I reckon they got by. But, I’ll not make any bones about it, there is no easy way to crack the hickory nut and remove the meat from these hard nuts. 

Over the years, inventors have come up with some types of long-handled machine-type crackers. For myself, a brick and a large hammer fits the bill. Now, I ain’t talking a tack hammer either. Why, some folks even say they can take two hickory nuts, press them together, and burst one of the nuts open. I’d like to see them crack a gallon of hickory nuts like that!

Also, after the nut is cracked, you will need some type of pointed knife or pick to get the meat to come out. This can be — and is — a time-consuming chore.

The meat from the hickory nut is very tasty and can be used in many ways, such as in cakes, cookies, or sprinkled on yogurt, oatmeal, or salads.

Wild hickory nut spice cake.

So, while you are just sitting around the house during this pandemic, find yourself a hickory tree and fill your bucket with nuts. Then get a large hammer, a brick, a pair of safety glasses, and commence to cracking. But be warned, you might just want to get yourself a bottle of Red Oil to put on your sore fingers!

 J.A. Bolton is author of “Just Passing Time,” co-author of “Just Passing Time Together,” and just released his new book called “Southern Fried: Down-Home Stories,” all of which can be purchased on Amazon. Contact him at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.