Last fall, we had a bounty year for hickory nuts. While we don't actually own a single hickory tree, our fenceline is home to an enormous hickory tree on the east and an entire Shagbark Hickory forest on the west.
Needless to say, windfalls on our fields alone allowed us to gather five gallons of hickory nuts without even trying. At the time, I intended to dry them properly and crack them in the dead of JanuFeb.
But then I sort of forgot about them in the garage. Heh.
Whilst digging around for some books a couple weeks ago, I rediscovered our yellow bucket of nuts and last week decided that we should make something with that resource. Enter our children. Ranging in age from 5 to 10 years old, I knew this was a great job for them to not only learn, but quickly master and own as theirs.
We have a yellow cast iron hickory nut cracker my father picked up for us from his late uncle's estate sale. We've used it several times for all sorts of nuts, but it definitely excels at extracting the sometimes stubborn nut meat of those hickory nuts.
After watching the nuts get cracked in uneven and unsatisfying ways, I sat down with the kids to experiment with the best way to hold a nut in the clamps. You see, even small things like how to properly crack a hickory nut have been lost with those earlier generations. Yet, I figured there had to be a better way to extract the meat. I figured out that if you hold the nut with the widest sides wedged into the clamps, with the little pointed ends facing out and also towards the mechanism, you can get a solid crack.
From my limited tinkering, I found that 90 percent of the nuts allowed us to extract one whole meat half, with the other side much easier to get at and usually only breaking in 2-3 places. This was MUCH better than the tiny frustrating pieces I saw my kids picking out. Soon the three older kids learned that if each took a specific job, they could come up with a nut-cracking assembly line. It was really quite effective!
The first child used the hickory nut cracker to make the first crack. Then he/she would put that nut into a bowl. The second child would take from that bowl and try to get the easiest meat out, putting the prize into the final jar and placing the rest of the shell into a second bowl. The third child then had the responsibility of using the nut picker to try and get the last of the meats not readily available to the middle worker.
They set about working on this project for over an hour, chatting casually and generally enjoying each other. Every once in a while, the job roles would swap, to make it fair for the ones doing the hardest work.
They came up with this on their own and in no time, we had a full cup of nuts, ready for Andy's recipe for maple syrup and hickory nut scones to share with friends the next morning.
One thing we learned was that they needed to be more diligent about keeping tiny pieces of shells out of the final jar. More than one of us crunched down on a hard shell the next morning as we otherwise enjoyed the scones!
The next several days found the kids wandering over to the bucket of nuts and passively cracking a few, both for snacking and for storing in our jars. I love that they now have a timeless skill which they can fall back on whenever they (or some recipes) need it!
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