It hits you the moment you open the bag: a sweet, toasty aroma like the hot caramelized nuts sold by street vendors. The little treasures inside look like pygmy pecans, but they’re nothing so tame. These are wild hickory nuts, one of America’s most distinctive and delicious foods – and one that is in danger of being lost forever.
Such an idea would have been unimaginable a century ago, when Americans knew well the fragrance and rich flavor of these sweet beauties, which have been called “a walnut in a tornado.” In those days, cracking the smooth, hard shells and carefully extracting the small, toothsome meats was a job given to children armed with hammers and patience. Their reward came in the form of delicious cakes, fudge, and pies. The nuts were a central flavor in the young country’s developing palate: Thoreau gathered them at Walden, and hickory cake was famously President James Polk’s favorite treat.
Today, a group of Slow Food activists and innovative chefs have taken on the job of reintroducing hickories to the table. Unlike their Southern brother the pecan, the smaller, rougher-looking wild hickories have never made the transition from foraged food to crop. The tree’s slow growth habit is one deterrent, but the bigger problem is the nut’s unyielding, half-inch thick shell, which defies industrial processing equipment. These tasty nuggets can only be cracked by hand, one by one.
The nut’s fate has consequently been left in the hands of a few dedicated gatherers and hand-crackers who sell at farmers’ markets, through craigslist or in classified ads. But their numbers are dwindling. Among those who remain is Ray Pamperin of Wisconsin, a retired dairy farmer who offered hickories at farmers’ markets for 25 years. Now he sells exclusively online at Rayshickorynuts.com, mostly to older people like himself who are nostalgic for a taste of their childhood. He gathers some of the nuts himself from his own land or, with permission, from the trees left standing on other people's properties. Some he buys from those willing to forage, but not crack. Linda Schaalma, Ray’s daughter and manager of his business, sees her father as one of the last protectors of an American treasure.
“As the older crackers give it up, one way or another, the supply will become even less. Unless the younger generations see the time investment like the older generation does, it may become a lost food,” Schaalma says.
Pamperin gets more orders than he can fill, but others can’t find a significant market for their product. Patrick Kompf of Vermont’s Native Nuts sells just a few hundred pounds a year, primarily around Thanksgiving and Christmas and mostly to customers over age 50.
“They’re probably one of the best tasting nuts out there, but people aren’t really aware of that,” Koomf says. “The typical customer is 50 or 60 years old.”
Despite the aging of hickory’s fans, the future for the species may not be so bleak. New technological innovations have led to effective processing equipment, removing the most significant barrier to larger-scale production. But unless there are enough customers, the financial return on foraging will not warrant an investment in machinery, let alone spur a movement to plant trees.
Gary Paul Nabhan hopes to create the necessary demand. Nabhan is the driving force behind Reviving America’s Food Traditions (RAFT), a project dedicated to the protection of heritage foodstuffs. RAFT includes the hickory on its endangered foods list, along with heirloom apples, tomatoes, and breeds of livestock popular over a century ago. The organization sponsors events that allow chefs and consumers to sample these goods, on the principle that tasting is believing. RAFT’s efforts have been successful in convincing growers to invest in over 150 of the foods they champion, a victory that Nabhan describes as “huge.”
Nabhan is convinced that RAFT’s work holds hope for a hickory renaissance. And, indeed, adventurous chefs are beginning to showcase the rarities on their menus, exposing a new generation of eaters to their pleasures. At the West Town Tavern in Chicago, chef-owner Susan Goss creates elegant dishes that combine the nuts with other traditional American foods, like a salad with roasted hickories and maple vinaigrette, and pork shoulder with hickory-wild rice pilaf and a blackberry barbecue sauce.
“I like to feature hickory nuts in salads or as a garnish on meats or fish,” she says. Despite the traditional association with sweet foods, Goss prefers savory uses. “I don’t cook the nuts into cakes and pies; the delicate crunch and flavor comes out best when simply prepared.”
Other chefs use the nuts for entrees and desserts alike.
“Hickory nuts are worth searching for at the market because of their unique taste and aroma,” says Chef Tory Miller of Madison’s L’Etoile. He prepares these old-fashioned favorites for a wide range of uses by salting and toasting. “We always start by drizzling them with a tiny bit of vegetable oil and then a liberal dusting of kosher salt, then they go into the oven at 375 for about 6 minutes. Then they are free to be used in pies, crackers, as a topping for sundaes, in salads.”
Hickories are not an acquired taste – they share the sweetness of pecans, with a better crunch and a little more depth. They’re easy to like and easy to cook with, which bodes well for their advocates. If the RAFT activists and the committed foragers and chefs succeed in their mission, the nearly-forgotten nut might return to its place of honor on the American table. Search out these wildlings – in the fields on or the internet – and serve them with slices of heirloom apples and wedges of crumbly Vermont cheddar to experience a plate Thoreau might have eaten. Gustatory time-travel can be delicious.