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.
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 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. Love isn’t the only thing money can’t buy.
We all know we need to exercise. But exercise is not about pedaling an exercise bike any more than nutrition is about popping pills. We are whole people; we need whole foods and experiences. Wholeness is what the word “health” means.
Whole foods don’t come from a store. 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 live naturally enough 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, and complete? When we finally get a break, much less a vacation, would we rather spend it indoors?
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.
Raking it In
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 Halloween costume.
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.
To the Cleaners
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. To understand what all this is for, keep reading.
Set yourself up near an outdoor faucet and fill the bucket about 25 percent 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 ready to get your pants splashed with black, staining water.
Dump the nuts into the crate or basket, then repeat. If you want, you can give them a final rinse.
It’s always beautiful and miraculous to me when out of the black water come these shiny brown nuggets. 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.
Not long ago, I left my walnuts temporarily on the front porch in a big plastic tub with a locking lid, the heavy-duty travel kind. Within half an hour, squirrels had chewed a hole in the lid.
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.
Mice and rats can also get to your nuts indoors, so the best solution is to finish the job quickly with a dehydrator. You can also put them in the oven on the lowest setting with the door cracked open. Both will take at least overnight. And either way, the temperature must stay below 110 or so degrees or the nuts may split open. And make sure your nuts are completely dry on the outside before storing or they will mold, if not sprout.
Now, the nuts should 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 10 percent of your nuts to come out rotten. Just return them to the store.
A Tough Nut to Crack
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.
Another thing I learned was to use wire cutters or tin snips; the latter especially work incredibly well. Just remember, they work on your fingers even better.
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, 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 in salted water to make them more digestible, then dry them again in my dehydrator or just leave them in an open container in the fridge.
The Secret of Life
I’m sure this process sounds very involved, but so is any hobby or serious relationship. Like Cheri Huber says, a real relationship with anyone, including yourself, takes a lot of processing. And that process never ends. Yet, “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. With a handful of nuts to show for it, it may not seem like you’ve gotten very far. But there’s a difference between farther and further. Would you rather be holding 100 dollar bills or ten $100 bills? 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’!
Alan Muskat is CEO of No Taste Like Home, the largest foraging tour company in the world. He is the author of “Wild Mushrooms, From Forest to Table” and “Coming Home.” He lives in Asheville, N.C., where he serves on the board of SeekHealing, a nonprofit healing addiction with reconnection.