Eastern Woodlands Wild Food Exploration: Early Historic Accounts and Experimental Observations

by Erik Vosteen

Nuts are one of the richest sources of foods in nature, and for thousands of years in the eastern woodlands prehistoric people relied on mast from the Juglandaceae family (Hickory  [Carya sp.], Walnut, and Butternut [Juglans sp.]) as a food source. Here are some starting suggestions for utilizing nuts from the Carya (hickory) species - presented as a project that combines nutritious food, history, clues from the archaeological record, and lessons from personal experimentation.

"Of nuts there are... the hickory nut found in great plenty in some years and which the  Indians gather in large quantities and use not only as they find them - they have a very sweet taste - but also extract from them a milky juice used in different foods and very nourishing."

  -Rev. David Zeisberger - Ohio, 1779

Freshly hulled shellbark hickory (Carya lacinosa) nuts.

          Not all hickory nuts are created equal. Different species have unique characteristics, and individual trees - even in the same species - often have noticeable and significant differences in nut taste, size, shape, shell thickness, meat content in individual nuts, and quantity of nuts produced. Although variation is the rule, there are a few general guidelines to help decide which trees are likely to produce "good" nuts for a specific use. Shagbark (Carya ovata) nuts are generally small, thick shelled and excellent flavor, while the similar Shellbark (Carya lacinosa) nuts are usually much larger, and also thick shelled and excellent flavor. The nuts of shellbark and shagbark have relatively less meat and more shell than the others listed, but the taste is excellent. The Pignut (Carya glabra) has thin shelled nuts that usually have a lot of meat, and the taste when raw can vary from bitter and nearly inedible to sweet and tasty. The Bitternut (Carya cordiformis) has nuts that are thin shelled with lots of nut meat, but are bitter and considered inedible. To be sure of a yummy product, I recommend gathering sweet pignut (try them to see if they are tasty before gathering a bunch) or Shellbark or Shagbark. There are other species of hickory in the United States, but these are the only ones I have foraged. If you can not find enough hickory trees or the mast crop fails a year, remember that pecans are a hickory and should work for this process.

           Nuts can be gathered as they fall between mid-September and the middle of November. Squirrels and chipmunks carry the nuts away from trees that have the best tasting nuts first and stash them in secret hiding places, and can clean the nuts up almost as fast as they fall. I have discarded 10 gallons of nuts that were leftover from the previous year and they disappeared in less than three days - with not a single chewed or whole nut in sight. I like to gather about every three days while the nuts are falling to be sure I get a share of the crop or, if that is not possible, pick one day when most trees have dropped most of their nuts and have multiple producing trees located. The nut eating rodents know which nuts taste best, and will often leave the ground covered with bitternut hickory nuts while scrounging to the last morsel of the shagbark hickory nuts next to it, and they can also tell which nuts are fresh and which ones are rotten by smelling them, so if you gather too late, the few nuts that remain will be almost all rotten. Hickory nuts have a four-sectioned husk that loosens as it dries. Usually they are starting to loosen when I gather them and I remove the husks while gathering, but if they are stuck tight, a week spread out in a dry location protected from rodents will loosen them.

           Hickory nuts do well in long term storage - an important consideration when evaluating the value of any seasonal food resource. There are a few general rules for storing them safely. Most modern nut munchers like to dry the hulled nuts and store them dry, but I have found that damp storage has some advantages and the nuts actually taste sweeter in the spring after a winter of cool storage in a storage pit in the ground or in a bucket sealed to keep the moisture in. For bucket storage, I like to soak the nuts for about two days with a few changes of water and then drain the water and let them dry until the surface is not wet. Then seal them in the bucket and keep in a cool (35 to 50 degrees F) but not freeze-prone place, or bury the bucket deep enough that it will not freeze (about two feet underground should be enough), but remember that when the ground is frozen you may not be able to easily access them. Storage pits are beyond the scope of this article, but historic accounts describe particular construction features that facilitate access to the contents during the frozen months. When burying the nuts, be sure to put them in a cloth bag so they will be easy to retrieve, and locate the storage pit in a well drained location. Nuts that are stored cool for two or three months after soaking will sweeten during storage, and will sprout if they are planted and kept warm (70 to 80 degrees F) - but if they freeze solid the embryo may be killed and the nut will then rot when it thaws. One disadvantage to damp storage is that when the temperatures warm in the early summer, nuts left in the ground will sprout and die since they cannot reach sunlight. I suspect that damp stored nuts would remain dormant if kept cool in a refrigerator, but I have not experimented with that yet. If you want to store long term, drying to below 10% moisture content and storing at 35 to 40 degrees F will keep up to half of the seeds viable for up to 4 years (see report by Bonner, www.nsl.fs.fed.us/wpsm/Carya.pdf).

Sprouted nuts retrieved from a storage pit in early June.

Butternut (Juglans cinera) are also mentioned as a food source in early historic references

Storage

Gathering

Processing

        Historical accounts leave no doubt that the hickory mast was a significant food source in early historic years, and the archaeological record suggests that they were a significant resource to prehistoric people in eastern North America for thousands of years. Although we can only make educated guesses about prehistoric methods and the foods that were produced, we do have useable clues from the historical, ethnographic, and archaeological record that suggest tools, techniques, and end-products. While accounts documenting early historic processing sometimes provide a starting point or some clues, we must remember that most accounts were not recorded with the intent of accurately documenting precise tools, techniques, and processes and that the processes were often unfamiliar or incompletely understood by the people who wrote about them.

        Mass processing becomes important if we are to use hickory nuts as more than a nibble. Historical accounts often mention a large mortar and pestle made of wood as a grain and nut crushing tool, and although a concrete slab and a rock to crush the nuts will work for small quantities, a large mortar like the one pictured is very efficient and worth the effort required to make if mass production is the goal. The addition of a buckskin or cloth cover with a hole cut in the middle for the pestle helps with keeping the nuts and fragments from flying out while pounding. If you are concerned about finding nut grubs in your broth, you should pre-crack each nut or, faster and almost as sure, dump them in water and remove the ones that float - the floating nuts are rotten. Begin by pounding the nuts, shells and all (but not the segmented husk), to a coarse meal. A quart of nut meal should be plenty for some experimenting.

    "They break them with stones and pound them in mortars with water to make a milk which they use to put in some sorts of their spoonmeate..." - Thomas Harriot - Virginia, 1590

Preparation

         With the nuts crushed, put them in a cooking vessel and add water about twice the volume of the nut meal and bring this to a boil. Boil for at least 30 minutes and you will have a weak but useable broth. After 2 or three hours of simmering, the oils begin to separate and float to the surface and the broth gets a hint of sweetness and a hearty nutty flavor. I have cooked a batch for up to six hours with very tasty results. If you were watching when you put the water and nut meal together, you may have noticed that the nut meats and shells sink. They are heavier than water, and this allows us to separate the solids from the broth by ladling or slowly pouring off the broth and then dumping the mass of shells and boiled meats into a textile (an old shirt will work if you do not feel the need to twine up a nice basswood bag) and wringing the rest of the broth out. The remaining solids can be dried and then if passed through a small mesh sifter, and most of what remains is nut meat with a small amount of shells that are small enough in size that I have eaten it with no problem but most seem to agree that it has little taste or substance - probably because most of the oils and nutrients have been removed by the boiling. This process allows us to extract nutrients efficiently and the liquid product is nutritional, tastes great, and can be used in diverse types of recipes. The oil floats on the surface, and historical accounts suggest that it can be skimmed off and processed further for storage by re-boiling the oil alone to drive off any water that is mixed with it. It should last longer in refrigeration, but historical accounts mention the fact that the nut oil becomes rancid. I have not done enough experimentation with the oils to make any solid conclusions about uses or storage. I generally do not try to separate the oils from small batches partially because the oils add to the flavor of the broth.

Dumping the crushed nuts in an earthenware pottery vessel.

          Essentially the end product is hickory nut broth - often referred to as "milk" by early writers. Various historical accounts suggest several processes with the end product being referred to as broth, creme, milk, juice, and tea to name a few. The broth is delicious and nutritious as a drink, and the flavor is enhanced by the addition of a little maple sugar. It also makes a great soup or stew base, especially if you have limited ingredients since the broth itself is nutritious and tasty. One highly recommended dish is cornmeal/hickory mush made by adding cornmeal to the hot broth until it thickens and then sweetening to taste with maple sugar.