Black walnuts have been a food sources as far back as you want to look. Squirrels have always been primary users, but Native Americans found the tasty nuts to be a high protein energy source to help get through the winter months. Pioneers picked up on the food source (yes that was a pun) and traditionally gathered nuts to crack by the fireplace when the cold winds blew. Many still carry on this tradition, as nothing beats chocolate fudge with black walnut meats.
Hunting walnuts can be an enjoyable family activity that gets you outdoors to enjoy the crisp fall weather. Black walnut trees can be found throughout our area along county roads, fencerows, and beside creeks and other drainages. Important note: get permission from landowners before gathering walnuts on their property. They may want them, and it’s just plain courtesy. Walnuts tend to grow in “bottom land” soil that is deep, rich, and well drained.
The walnut tree has an almost black bark that is deeply furrowed. If the outer bark if scratched slightly with a knife it will reveal a chocolate brown inner bark. The nuts are formed in a green, round husk 2-3 inches in diameter. The husk turns black as it decomposes and will stain whatever it touches. So when gathering nuts, take precautions with your hands, clothes, and car. It will even stain concrete.
Once you’ve gathered a supply of nuts you need to remove the husks. One method of removal I’ve heard about is to spread the nuts in an unpaved driveway for a few days and let car tires mash the husks off. Expect some crushed nuts using this method. Another way is to spread the walnuts out in a sunny spot and let them dry until the husk is black, then put on some old boots and stomp the soft husks off. Let the nuts dry a little longer and then store them in a safe place until you get around to cracking them. By safe I mean from squirrels, because they will rob you blind even in outbuildings if it’s near the woods.
Removing the nutmeat is the hardest part of the deal. My Mom’s favorite way was to sit on a stool and crack the nuts with a hammer using a cinder block for a work table. She would strike the nut on one of its ends (there’s usually a slight point here) to prevent mashing the nutmeat when the shell shatters. A nut pick is very useful to work the meats out of the shells.The meats can be placed in glass jars and kept in a cool, dark spot, such as your refrigerator. Freezing the nutmeats is not recommended.