Thursday, December 16, 2010


There is something almost spiritual about cracking walnuts. I don't mean the thin-shelled English variety you get at the grocery store in the cellophane bag. You put two of those in your hand, squeeze and nine times out of ten one of them breaks. You pick it apart, devour the heart of it and move on.

No, there's nothing spiritual or thought-provoking about that, but black walnuts... those motherfuckers are tough. They challenge you. They confound you. They demand your attention and if you want what's really there, you have to work for it.

First, you have to collect them from somewhere: off a farm, from the backyard of an elderly relative or in the middle of of the national forest. Nobody grows black walnuts deliberately any more --if they ever did. They're messy. In the early fall, a big black walnut tree rains down baseball sized fruit that dent cars, lay waste to picnic tables and will brain a dog too dumb to move its lazy ass out from under it.

You have to seek them out then gather them up and wait. You have to keep them away from the squirrels and the chipmunks. You have to hide them away from the spiders and centipedes, the maggots and the beetles. You have to wait for the hulls to turn black and greasy. You have to wait until they're juicy and rotting before you can do anything with one. You have to wait until just to hold one in your hand means your palm and fingers will look dirty for at least a week. The stain of a black walnut is as good as ink and it smells of decay.

From what I understand, the pulpy mess is poisonous --not enough to kill you, though I doubt anybody has tried --but enough to make you wish you were dead, enough to make you God awful sick.

To get at the nut, you have to peel away the slick, poisonous hull and extract the gore covered pit. Each time, you're witnessing something being born, watching something new being brought into the world.

The hulls are discarded. They dry in the sun and turn to dust. The nuts you clean up as best you can or you don't. Well-meaning guides suggest you should wash them, like you're cleaning off afterbirth, like the damned things need to be polished, like they can be turned into sparkling jewels. They are not jewels.

The exteriors are rough and gritty. They will remain that way even after they are eventually broken apart, but there's something attractive about them. They're durable and the ridges on the shell are like runes.

It takes a while for the nuts themselves to dry. You can put them in a window box and let the sun do the work. That is the old, country way. I put mine next to a heating vent in my house, in a box that used to hold copy paper. A month later, after a cold snap and all the color has gone out of the hills, they're ready to harvested.

They make contraptions for cracking nuts. At the grocery store, you can buy a simple hand cracker for a couple of bucks. They're shiny and impressive. The good ones can also be used to break into lobster claws --or so they claim. They're also useless when it comes to cracking a black walnut. Likewise, the nutcrackers kept in the heads of dolls are useless, as are a wide array of gadgets that promise they are up to the task.

I bought one of those --a Texas two-step-- twenty bucks on Amazon. It cracked two nuts before it warped so bad it couldn't be trusted to crack a peanut without crushing the fingers of the person holding it.

In the end, I settled on an old wooden stump, a couple of study nails driven halfway to the head into the slatted top of the wood and claw hammer. The crude design reminded me of something I'd seen in a Foxfire book. It was an inaccurate representation of a better idea, but serviceable. The nails held the nut in place, kept it from rolling away while I brought the hammer down.

It was a learning experience. Some of the nuts exploded when you hit them --too hard. Others were like tapping on the side of a battleship --too soft. Every now and again, one would break perfectly in perfect fragments where the oily meat inside could be gently dumped out in gorgeous chunks.

However, it hardly mattered how much force I put behind each individual stroke. You could not read the nuts by looking at them to tell how much or how little effort was required. Sometimes a gentle tap did the job. Other times, you had to pound the living hell out of it and you still got nowhere. Every once in a while, regardless of the time, the effort or the expectations, the inside was empty. There was nothing to be had, no matter how hard you tried.

Cracking walnuts is therapeutic. It's hard to think about trouble, the unpaid bills, your broken heart, when you're swinging a hammer down on a little hard nugget and trying very hard not to pulverize the thing. The whole process requires concentration and luck. It is a meditation. It is a form of prayer and like all prayers it is answered by an indifferent other that will only give to you what there is to give. It will never be enough.


Anonymous said...

Pretty sure I read somewhere once that the Latin name for the black walnut means "Jupiter's balls" or maybe it was "Zeuss's trucknutz" or something like that.

The Film Geek said...

Terrific post. My late grandfather and I used to spend days hulling and cracking walnuts black walnuts on our farm in Nicholas County. You nailed the process, and were able to really connect with the emotional experience. Thanks for getting me to that memory.