Robert Henderson, The Neighborhood Forager
October’s the time when people with black walnut trees complain about the mess. If I dumped a pile of money in your yard, would you complain?
Granted, black walnuts aren’t money, except maybe to Baskin-Robbins and several other ice cream producers who say it’s their third most popular flavor, and to the Hammons Products Company, which buys and sells 25 million pounds of black walnuts a year. For more on the economic value of this lawn mess, see here.
So maybe money grows on trees after all. But what is more important, money or health? My yoga teacher says you can buy a new car, but you can’t buy a new body. You’re probably thinking, “he’s going to tell me to eat black walnuts.” It’s not that simple!
It’s true that black walnuts are far better for you than the store-bought ones. But even black walnuts aren’t going to keep you healthy because health doesn’t come from food. “Not by bread alone” do we live. You can survive on health food, but that doesn’t mean you’ll thrive on it.
If health was only a matter of what you ate, you could just buy black walnuts. You could live on my wild black walnut persimmon parfait (just kidding). You could make your neighbor happy and hire someone to clean up their yard. But you can’t hire someone else to eat healthy for you any more than you can hire someone to do yoga for you. Sure, you can pay someone to grab your nuts, but love isn’t the only thing money can’t buy.
I like to think I’m taoist. Taoism is all about being natural and taking it easy, i.e., going with the flow. So I listen to Jimmy Buffet and try not to be such a workaholic.
I once met a woman who knew my friend Natalie’s ex-husband. “Paul doesn’t like Natalie’s new friends,” she said. “He says they don’t like to work.” Sounds like we’d get along!
If taoism’s all about taking it easy, why does the classic taoist text, the Chuang-Tzu, say, “easy ways don’t come from God?” It’s talking about short cuts, i.e., things like drugs and most modern labor-saving devices. These things seem easier in the short run, but we are designed to exercise; we are designed to live. We don’t need air-conditioning, we need preconditioning.
Stephen Ilardi, “Depression is a disease of civilization“
Whole foods don’t come from a store. They don’t get real in the parking lot, nor does real exercise happen on pavement. Emerson says your religion is what you do when the sermon is over. Health is not about what you buy but how you live.
I am an advocate for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle. How are we all going to do that? I don’t know. I hardly do enough of it myself. And I feel the pain of it. We all do, I believe. Who wouldn’t say our lives are too complicated, too busy, too artificial? Who doesn’t long for deeper relationships, for feeling content, relaxed, complete? When we finally get a break, much less a vacation, who goes inside?
Get a life: get outside. Start in your own backyard, or your neighbor’s. Become a jack of all trees and master of nuts. Here is how to turn their trash into your treasure.
Black walnuts fall in a husk that starts hard and green, turns soft and black, and then dries out and rots away. Until then, that black husk makes a great natural dye. For that reason, it will also stain your hands temporarily, so you can either wear gloves or enjoy a free sexy Halloween costume.
Black walnuts also often have dozens of little squirmy grubs in the husk. If the black staining isn’t enough to turn most people off (even though coffee can stain your teeth just as well), this flips the switch. Yet I know people who eat these tasty critters for breakfast (including this star of the county down). Pretty soon, we’re all going to be munching on maggots.
There is an episode of Fear Factor where they serve four kinds of donuts: one with jelly filling, one with coagulated pig’s blood, one with live worms, and one packed with stink bugs. Contestants have to choose two donuts and wash them down with curdled milk. So what will it be?
I curdle my milk on purpose. It makes a simple version of yogurt called “curds and whey.”
Too bad Miss Muffet wasn’t into entomophagy. Right now my walls are crawling with stink bugs. It’s that time of year; everybody in Asheville has them. I’m collecting mine for pesto.
I went to school in New Jersey not far from the Domino sugar factory.
Not exactly Willy Wonka. I have had adrenal fatigue, bloody stools, and dozens of holes in my teeth thanks to pasteurized milk and sugar. So which donut is the most disgusting?
You can collect black walnuts at any stage of ripeness – except for shriveled up nuts, which never ripened, and last year’s crop, which are rotten (otherwise the squirrels would have gotten them). If you have time, you can husk them by hand on the spot. When necessary, smacking them once with a short board or rock will break the husk enough to make it easily removable. This is far easier than stomping on them, or – and people really do this – putting them in the driveway to be run over by cars. What runs over instead are all the squirrels to get them.
Put your collection in a container sealed from the competition, like a garbage can. Let them rot until they are all soft and black. This usually takes about three weeks.
Now it’s time for the “washing machine.” Put on some clothes you don’t mind staining. Grab a five-gallon bucket; a milk crate, basket, or anything else you can strain water through; and something to serve as a paddle. A short shovel with a handle like this one works well; so does a narrow plastic rake I happened to have. Even a board will work. To understand what all this is for, keep reading.
Set yourself up near an outdoor faucet and fill the bucket about 25% with nuts. Add an inch more water than needed to cover the nuts and bring to a boil (just kidding). Stick in your “paddle” and turn it vigorously back and forth about twenty times. This is the kind of exercise I refer to above. Something you can plunge up and down is even easier. Improvise! Just be readly to get your pants splashed with black, staining water.
It’s always beautiful and miraculous to me when out of the black water come these shiny brown nuggets (the photo doesn’t do them justice). The lesson: don’t judge a nut by its cover!
They will still be mostly black (hence the name), but will otherwise look like a more macho version of walnuts from the store. Remember, the nuts don’t have to be completely husk-free. As long as they don’t have chunks of husk on them, they’ll be fine.
Probably the hardest part of processing black walnuts is finding a space to dry them that is safe from squirrels. This is no joke: if you leave your hard-earned nuts outside, it’s not the rain you have to worry about. These furry rats have no respect for private enterprise, and my next installment will be on how to catch them.
That was impressive, but after all, squirrels chew through the nuts themselves, and that shell is one of the hardest plant substances on earth. You don’t want to go head to head with one of these nutters in arm-to-tooth combat.
Speaking of rodents, mice and rats can also get to your nuts indoors, so the best solution is to finish the job quickly with a dehydrator set on low overnight. You can also put them in the oven on the lowest setting with the door cracked open (how long depends on the temperature), but don’t forget about them. You don’t want to bake them at 200 degrees or more. To keep them raw, their internal temperature has to stay under 120 degrees. Just make sure your nuts are completely dry (on the outside) before storing or they will mold if not sprout.
Now the nuts must sit for a month or two to cure, otherwise they may taste somewhat “green.” Properly dried nuts that mold anyway are usually ones that were rotten inside to begin with. On that note, it’s not unusual for ten percent of your nuts to come out rotten. Just return them to the store.
If your nuts have been sitting out for long, they may be cured already. And a dehydrator can also accomplish this overnight. Don’t set it above 115 degrees, however, or the nuts may literally split open.
Now comes the slowest part. A regular English walnut cracker is powerless against this force of Nature. For many years, I just used a hammer and nail. Then I bought a heavy-duty cracker; here are a few. I tried the Potter and Kenkel models listed and was pretty dissatisfied. Even the Hunt was not ideal. Then I met “Mr. Hickory” at a nut-cracking party. It’s far more portable and my favorite thus far.
I also saw people using wire cutters with considerable success. Although I haven’t tried it myself, it’s also mentioned on this forum.
Notice that I called this the slowest part, not the “most tedious.” This is indeed the kind of work that gets boring quick when you’re doing it alone (hence the Slap Chop), but it’s also the perfect activity to do while hanging out with friends OR while sitting through meetings.
Now comes my favorite part: removing any bits of shell from the nut meats. This takes a keen eye and some familiarity with the slightly more pink color of shell shards. If you miss any, these CAN cut gums or even break teeth; I’ve seen it happen.
Finally, I soak all nuts before using, as I recommended here, and dry them again in my dehydrator (I use the nine-tray Excalibur).
I’m sure this all sounds very involved, but so is any hobby or serious relationship. Like Cheri Huber says, “when you fall in love with someone, you don’t say, ‘oh, no, how long am I going to have to love this person?‘ When we’re in love, we love to love that person, and we hope it will last forever.”
Learn to love your life, the process more than the product. You’ll get further, not farther. Like I say here, one black walnut has more nutrition than ten from the store. And the one you process yourself is priceless.
Rumi says the rose’s essence is in the thorn. The walnut’s essence is in the shell. This is the secret of life. Now get crackin!