Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Adventures of a Nutty Professor

the fruit of the juglans nigra

According to a pleasant legend Isaac Newton sat musing beneath an apple tree when a falling piece of fruit bonked him on the head.  So he decided to invent modern physical theory.  It is stuff like this that has infused the word legend—which ought to mean simply something you read—with implications of fiction if not whopperism.  The truth is that he was not sitting, nor did the apple hit him.  But he did observe one falling, and it appeared to fall in an absolutely straight path from bough to turf.  So he decided to invent modern physical theory.

 on the tree

The Flemings are no less capable of observation than the Newtons, though perhaps somewhat less deductively brilliant.  When I arrived at my son’s country place a couple of weeks ago I caught him black-handed removing the cortices of a basket of fallen wild walnuts which had first captured his attention by the considerable noise created when they fell upon the roof of a parked Volvo station-wagon.  The black walnut (juglans nigra) is a fairly common tree in the northeastern United States, but he had not noticed that there was a rather tall one looming over what you might call his private parking lot.  His discovery led him to no modification of modern physical theory, but it did suggest the possibility of a tasty walnut pie.  I joined the project with enthusiasm.  I had to leave the hunting part of my hunter-gatherer genes behind in Arkansas, but I still gather with the best of them.  By the time I left for home we had liberated a few dozen walnut shells.

on the ground

Directly across the street from my house is a largish tract of University-owned land recently cleared of its old student housing units. It still has its paved roads and street lighting, but it is blocked off from vehicular traffic, and has consequently become my neighborhood’s own private park, with acres of greensward, fields of broadcast wild flowers, and plenty of mature trees.   One of these, not a hundred yards from my front door, I knew to be a black walnut.   Sure enough, when I sought it out, I found the ground beneath it thickly scattered with freshly fallen green walnut balls and blackened ones that had been on the ground for a while.  As it happens, late September to mid-October is the perfect season for harvesting walnuts.  I gathered up a barrow load full, and wheeled it to my back yard.

Removing the fibrous coverings from the hard shells that enclose the actual nutmeats is a laborious and rather messy business.  The cortex has the consistency of a hard raw sweet potato, and it wants to cling ferociously to the inner shells.  It emits a pungent limey smell and secretes a dark greenish sap that indelibly stains whatever it touches, especially that pale-toned Caucasian skin known for some reason as “white”.  It turns such skin “black”.  So I soon enough had black hands and a heap of walnuts of my own.  My general theory of life is that if a little bit of something is a little bit of fun, a lot of it is probably a lot more fun.  So I made an arboreal survey of the whole “park” and found three more specimens of juglans nigra, two of them magnificent in their fecundity.  Always searching for plausible reasons to avoid real work, I spent the next two days in walnut processing.

When done with pre-industrial techniques it is a very labor-intensive business.  Gathering large numbers of the green balls is a trial for the ancient back.  I soon enough discovered that the really hard work could be done in a seated position.  This involves stomping hard on the balls with a heavy boots, an attack that often frees the inner shell with a single blow and rarely crushes it.  It also frees a certain amount of juicy splatter, of course.  I eventually learned that if I wore paper-thin medical gloves within a pair of robust work gloves I might emerge less swarthy.

on my kitchen table

There is much art to be mastered, of course.  The ideal nuts are big ones on which the cortex has begun to soften but is not yet blackened.  And freeing the inner walnut shell is by no means the end of the process.  You want to get rid of as much of the adhering inky gunk as possible.  According to a YouTube tutorial prepared by some geezer in West Virginia the proper tool for this is a cement mixer.  I don’t have one to hand at the moment, but I discovered that if you put a couple of hundred of nuts and a few sharp gravels into a few inches of water in a tight and sturdy wheelbarrow, then agitate it all like mad with a garden hoe for about twenty minutes, then wash down the results over a wire-mesh frame, then dry the shells for a few hours in full sun—well, you end up with the plausible results pictured above: about twelve hundred black walnuts ready to be seasoned for a few weeks before becoming Christmas dessert.   Furthermore, if you cost out the time investment at the rate of the current minimum wage, it cannot be more than about $1.12 per walnut.  Of course the fine work of cracking the shells and picking out the minute pieces of meat still lies ahead.

nut-gatherer suffering from pollex niger