Flowers and Fruit – and inspiration from Florida

As I spent my first day in Florida researching the area and taking in the surroundings, several things popped out at me.

 


img_0301First of all, Florida seems like an incredibly nice place to live. Pretty trees, flowers in January, fruit on the citrus trees. The people I’ve encountered so far have been extraordinarily nice. Goodness, even the roads (pavement largely in pristine condition and perfectly lined with reflectors) are pretty here!
Aside from all this, some other things about the area really caught my eye. One is the beautiful Spanish moss that elegantly hangs from the trees. Of course, I am also enjoying the sight of palm trees – something I’ve never seen up close to before. …Hmm, I wonder if palm trees have any practical edible or medicinal use?…

 

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Look what I found while gathering pine needles – Yum!

But one more thing that struck me here is the pine trees. There is a type of pine – the Longleaf pine – that has ridiculously long needles. I’d have to actually measure, but some looked like they could even be close to a foot long!! I only saw a few of these.

But, more common, the Loblolly pine has appeared just about everywhere I’ve walked so far.

Immediately, I thought of how ideal these pines would be in making pine needle baskets. In my car, I brought with me some basketry materials from Georgia (some tree saplings I collected while doing pruning work around a garden). I was hoping to be more resourceful with my time and get to work on some natural/foraged craft projects during my travels. Well, now with lovely(er) Florida weather and the promise of prime basketry materials, I have new motivation to try my hand at creating little somethings out of nature.

And as I thought excitedly about getting back into basketry, this other thought flashed into my mind. What if there was a way I could create events in whatever area I am to teach skills like natural basketry – or even foraging! I have some research to do. And also, probably a lot of practice and prep before I’d give something like this a go. But the idea is exciting. -And, quite feasible, I think.

handmade Palmetto rose

Inspired by the pine basketry materials, I also researched using beach grass and palm leaves. It didn’t take me too long to realize there are sooo many things to make with these things!

Besides getting more practice on skills I want to improve on, It’s also really neat to think of using this to generate a bit of an income while travelling. It is rather hard for me to justify spending on what is not essential while travelling, if I am not making any money each month. So, if I am able to make just a little on the side, I would finally (hopefully) allow myself to do and see more wherever I travel. AND, if I am successful enough with this idea to the point where I can cover my monthly expenses (not usually much more than $100) – well, that would give me so many more possibilities! If I don’t have to worry about living off of savings, I could do something crazy like travel to a different country, knowing that I’d have a way to scrounge an income without yet being established, whenever I return home.

These are exciting thoughts.

Thank you, Longleaf pine, for the inspiration!

 

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Chicken processing day

After nearly a week on the farm, today was the day I’d been (nervously) waiting for. 25 handsome roosters needed to be butchered. Normally, hens are raised for meat. But JB img_9531and Heather had gotten 40 free heritage (male) chicks with their last hatchery order. So, being low on chicken because of predator attacks, they just had a go at raising roosters to fill customer orders. The roosters had lived a good life in the mobile chicken tractors, always on fresh pasture. But as they matured, they had gotten more aggressive. And so, this morning, these birds had to be butchered.

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From bird to meat

IMG_0018Once we caught the roosters, we would put them into the killing funnels. JB made it look so easy. But it’s a little more intimidating when you’ve got the large bird in your hands and have to flip him upside down without getting pecked.
IMG_0016With ease, JB demonstrated how to place a bird into the funnel and pull its head through. He did not cut the head off. Instead, JB carefully reached a knife into the chicken’s throat at a 45-degree angle to slit an artery and let the blood drain out. Though I would not say that I was excited to learn this part, I did have a nervous anticipation to learn how to do it for myself. I ended up killing maybe 8 of the roosters. I will spare the sad details on what it is like to kill and watch a chicken die in this way. But I will say that it is clear when they are lifeless because their eyes will close. At this point, they are ready to be moved to the next stage of processing: the scalder.

 

 

The next two steps were Heather’s territory. Two by two, she dunked the chickens for about 30 seconds into 140-degree water (it had to be just right, or risk making the skin too fragile so that it rips apart in the plucker).

 

Then she put the birds into the plucker and sprayed them down as she ran the machine. Withing seconds, the birds were bare! Thank goodness for such a contraption, because plucking by hand could take a good 20-30 minutes per bird, they said.  With 25 chickens to process today, that would have dragged things on considerably! Once the machine had worked its magic, only a few feathers around the legs and neck had to be removed by hand.

At this point, Heather took the birds over to where JB and I were working, and put them into a big bin of cold water to chill until we could deal with them.

Cleaning the chickens

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  A rooster after plucking

The cleaning process took, by far, the longest. And, because there were so many different steps, it took me about three birds until I could proceed without constant questions. JB was very patient! – And so happy to teach all aspects of the process to me! (As an aside: Most people who host WWOOFers are excited about the teaching opportunities. And JB and Heather were no exception. They included me in so much, showed me all the beautiful bits of the property, explained all of their farm challenges and joys, and happily, patiently, showed me processes like cleaning the chickens, growing and harvesting different plants, and preparing prized recipes with some of their produce).

 

 

 

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Photo-bombed by Heather

I first had to learn how to remove the head, the feet, the oil gland on top of the tail, the crop, and then how to separate the trachea and esophagus from the neck so it could pull easily out the back of the chicken with the rest of the insides. (Too much information? -You’d better stop reading here then.) These were all easily explained by demonstration.

But the next step was significantly more difficult to learn. Mostly, because it was all explained BLINDLY after JB instructed me to reach my hand inside the cut I made in the back of the chicken. I watched closely at the organs JB so effortlessly pulled out on his demonstration chicken. But when it came my turn, I still had no clue what all was in there when I reached in.

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A lifelike “squawk” came from the bird each time I reached my hand in this one. (I had not cut a wide enough opening, so the pressure inside had found a way to release through the bird’s trachea, I guess.)

The sensation of reaching inside a chicken is just about the most unusual thing I’ve ever felt. No, it was not gross or disgusting. Instead, everything inside just felt warm, smooth, and orderly.

… Until I started my attempt to pull things out. In releasing all of the connective tissue securing the organs in, I often ended up breaking the somewhat fragile liver (my favorite part of the chicken – so sad!). Thankfully, this did not affect its edibility. But after several long and messy attempts, I eventually got to the point where I could picture the positioning of things inside the bird and could confidently enough determine when I had removed all the necessary organs.

Only once (at the very last chicken) did I accidentally puncture the wrong thing – the gall bladder. Though nothing in the gall bladder is inedible, it does leave a nasty green stain on the chicken’s flesh that will not wash away if it is exposed for more than a few seconds. Because I was a bit too slow in realizing what I had done, I was not able to wash away all of the green patches on my chicken. But I’m just thankful I never had to deal with a punctured intestine. That would have been unpleasant.

JB brought up an interesting fact while we were cleaning, though. He said that, as disgusting as a punctured intestine is, when one person is working on gutting the bird, he can easily reach for the hose and clean the bird off quite well if that ever would happen. However, in the industrial system, he said that the gutted birds will soak in water that is something like 5% fecal matter. !!  As alarming as that sounds, I believe it though. I cannot imagine how  industrial machinery could be as careful to avoid such mistakes as puncturing the wrong thing – when even skilled hands slip up occasionally.

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What the birds look like once the whole process is done (-this photo from a previous processing day)

Anyway, while we were cleaning out the last of the birds and then washing and sterilizing all of the equipment we used, Heather moved to her inside station of packing the birds for sale. She would rinse and dry them, and then put them in plastic bags. By poking a tiny hole in the bag and dropping it into boiling water for just a few seconds, most of the air was pushed out of the bag. To finish, she dried the bags off, placed farm stickers over the air hole, marked their weight, and then into the refrigerator they went for 24 hours. Tomorrow, they would be moved to the freezer.

Tiring, but deeply satisfying

Tired and soiled from the day’s work, JB and I came inside – appetites quite still intact. But before eating, he weighed and packaged the chicken livers. Then he set aside all of the hearts for grits and hearts the following morning (a processing day tradition of theirs).

Though the work was not all fun, it was deeply rewarding. By practicing over and over again, I got familiar with every step of chicken processing, to the point where I now could confidently take a chicken from the coop to the dinner table, if need be. To be prepared in this way feels invaluable. I do not know whether I will ever be in a position to raise and slaughter my own chickens in the future (I hope so). But regardless, I feel so much more appreciation and respect for the farmers who do raise their chickens in a healthy way and butcher each one with care. Knowing all that went into the chicken’s life -and death- makes every bite of meat off the dinner table so much more special and valuable.

Now, I freely admit that, unfortunately, not every bite of meat I eat comes sourced from farmers like JB and Heather. But to have seen and participated in raising and slaughtering an animal here on their farm in a way that respects God’s design and honors the “chickenness of the chicken,” as Joel Salatin puts it – well, this has given feet to my values in a much more real way than just reading, thinking, or talking about the subject ever could.

If you knew how the meat in your fridge was raised and slaughtered, do you think you would be inspired to value and savor it? Or would you instead find only commodified animal factory meat, cheapened by mass production and irreverently killed without ever knowing the care or stewarding hand of a human? With your food dollars, you decide how you’ll steward the earth and the animals God has placed under our dominion. And even as far-removed from our chunk of the world as it may seem, what we support with our grocery budget comes with consequences. And I believe the just God who designed the chickenness of the chicken (or rooster) will not ignore our choices to greedily abuse and use His creation for our gluttony.

Perhaps, we do not need as much meat as we are accustomed to. Perhaps, we can adapt more conscientious grocery budgets, changing our diet to better reflect our fear of God. And perhaps, making do without what does not follow God’s design in what we eat is something we need to more seriously consider. To bring more and more areas of life into subjection to God’s will and design – is this not the journey of a follower of Jesus?

 

 

 

 

Wild winter salad

One thing that did not suffer from all of the rain lately in central Tennessee has been the young greens. All sorts of my little green friends have been peeking up – and even getting ready to flower, in the case of chickweed. They certainly are not missing any opportunity with this unusually warm and wet winter weather.

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Seeing how much new growth there was, the excitement of spring started to bubble up inside. So, with a friendly walking companion, I set off towards the farm’s shared spring with a salad bowl in hand.

One of the first things that caught my eye was some new growth of watercress. Heather had told me that watercress filled the spring during the warmer months, so I was hoping to find some new, brave growth. And sure enough! -Mmm, what an alive, spicy flavor. This will go into the salad, for sure.

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Right along the rock ledges of the spring, I found some healthy young chickweed.

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Chickweed lines the ledges of the shared spring

This is one of my favorite little weeds. Unfortunately, I usually didn’t have much luck finding it in quantity back in WI. It has a mild green flavor and is really easy to identify. All you have to do is gently pull on the stem. Once the stem breaks, you should see a thin elastic string still hanging on.

Another plant I was excited to see was garlic mustard. Surprisingly, I did not encounter it much at all while in North Carolina and Georgia. But happily, it grows here in Tennessee.

One last addition to my salad. Wherever I’ve been in TN so far has been covered with these thin little wild chives. They grow almost like grass in some places! So, I grabbed a large, large handful. The flavors these will add – mmm!

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Back at the farm house, I threw all these tasty edibles together with some garden collard greens and sliced turnips and topped it all with cranberries.

So thankful for all of the wild edibles that have been popping up around here. -Watercress, chickweed, garlic mustard, and wild chives in abundance. And as long as the weather stays so unusually warm, there will be many more salads like this to enjoy for the rest of my stay.

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So much wetness

Just my first day on the farm, but already I can see that this life is far from idyllic. I heard how just last night the farm couple lost two new lambs to some kind of predator (likely an owl they’ve seen around). And within the week, they also lost a good number of chickens to a raccoon.

Just my first day on the farm, but already I can sense that stress levels have been building up here. Of course, consistent losses to predators do not make for restful nights. And this gets disruptive to the natural seasonal routine. The reason we will be processing chickens this late into the winter is because the farm had to order more hatchlings as their losses did not leave them enough chicken to supply their regular customers. But on top of all that, there are mischievous goats who are always finding ways to escape onto neighbors’ property. And this constant rain is causing problems with the goats’ and sheeps’ hooves. And some young goats accidentally were left to graze with the billy goat at 4 months old… and now are about to give birth at 9 months old (not the end of the world, but far from what Heather thinks is healthy for them). Oh, and JB has been getting phone calls all morning – some about rental property plumbing issues, others about his aging grandfather’s health.

Just my first day on the farm, but already I have discovered that this life, though beautiful and deeply rewarding, is hard work. JB decided at breakfast time to drive down to Georgia to be with his grandfather, leaving Heather and me (and their two nieces) to manage the farm for however many days until JB gets back. Two strong hands down, but the animals don’t care. Daily chores and repair/maintenance projects remain.

And all must be done despite the seemingly constant rain we have been getting in central Tennessee.

After a delicious breakfast of their friend’s homegrown bacon and their own chickens’ eggs, the day began outside. . .

In the mud.

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The fencing all around this soggy pig pen needed to be removed

 

img_9478The task was to pull heavy-duty staples off of fence posts. The staples were stubborn. The ground was all mud. And the work was hard. But Heather and I were persistent. With a hammer and a fence tool, we hammered and pried and clipped and pried some more. All this to free metal fencing to be used to patch the goat pasture fencing where needed.

Once the staples were pulled out of the wooden fence posts (a morning-long task), we unfortunately discovered that the fencing was still secured by staples AND long nails to boards lying along the bottom of the fence. This turned out to be an even muddier job, often requiring us to use all our strength to pry the boards apart from the fence posts, until we loosened or broke the nails.

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Finding those tricky staples was its own challenge

Special treats

img_9475When we took a break for lunch, Heather shared with me some of her home-canned pickles including amazing pickled summer squash with curry, pickled purple carrots, and the most delicious pickled okra. A selection of these with fresh sliced turnips and humus made for a perfect mid-day snack.

Later after the tiring fence work was done, Heather invited me along for the most beautiful walk around some of their property. Without any warning, I was taken up the hill, past a beautiful waterfall, and led even further up to a mossy rock crevice in the ground. Both of these stops and all of the forested path along the way were more beautiful than I could have anticipated. I had no camera along to share a glimpse of the beauty. But that is alright, because it would not be able to do it justice anyway.

I hope to be able to sneak away for many more hikes along that part of the property during the rest of my stay here.

So far, being able to do life for a while at this farm seems to be worth the hard work.

Day 2:

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Rainy day project for their craft markets

My second day here was equally as full, but I got a bit of a break since it started to rain mid-day. Heather and I invented a way to secure a stretch of wire fencing to her 4-wheeler, and then hauled down a muddy, woodsy slope to get to the spots that needed to be patched up. There were thorns and mud, but the work was, at least, physically less demanding than yesterday.

I also got to participate in both the morning and evening animal chores. During this time, I got to see (and help to move) some of their large Joel Salatin-style “chicken tractors.” It was a good set up – made even better, I thought, by Heather’s addition of roosting poles in one of the coops.

 

New challenges

Every day is full of new surprises here. Today, Heather discovered a fist-sized abscess on one of her pregnant goats. This meant I was sent to the house to get a veterinary needle and some alcohol for sterilization. Heather had never dealt with an abscess so large, but she tried what she could think of (with no immediate success) to help the goat.

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Sweet goats, but oh so much trouble!

To add to farm challenges, Heather had noticed a sign during the day that one of her younger pregnant goats was soon expecting. So, knowing she would need to take the previous goat to the vet in the morning, she asked that I check on the young goat while she was away. And, she suggested that I might want to become familiar with what to expect.

. . . So, this evening found me looking up goats giving birth on youtube. (Now I have some fun video suggestions to look forward to.) : P

New challenges every day. Some that are to be expected. Some that are not.

Some that you’re prepared to deal with, and some that you’re not.
To live on a farm and expect to have a secure life where, through hard work, wise choices, and persistence, everything will remain ordered and within your control – this is foolish thinking. But no one – not even in mainstream corporate jobs, or promisingly self-employed – no one is any safer from loss and helplessness than a farmer among sickness, predators, and damaging weather. If our lives are not spent in giving to and loving others, I believe, at any moment we are at great risk of losing things the things we’ve worked and lived for on this earth. No one knows their future. All we can do is to take a look at what we have in our control now, and find ways to use it as a God-given tool to love others. What are you living for?

There is this quote by Henry David Thoreau that I found to be really cutting:

“The cost of a thing is the amount of what I call life which is required to be exchanged for it, immediately or in the long run.”

Which basically boils down to this.  Your present values in life become visible by what you give the majority of your time to – now or consistently each day over the long run. Is what you value the most, visible when you hold it to this measurement?

If what you’ve been pouring your life into recently were to go up in flames, would there have been any lasting value in all of your spent time?

That.

Is a humbling thought.

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Anyway, I ramble. My time these past few days has been spent getting my boots ridiculously muddy and my muscles sore while working alongside Heather to hold down the farm. Here’s hoping the next few days bring some sunshine so we can get to processing those chickens whenever JB gets back.

More alive again

As I pulled up to the farm in rural middle Tennessee, I was a bit unsure about where the GPS was taking me. Steadily climbing. Curving around the steeply rounded hills. Passing stunning views of mixed forest/pasture landscape studded with sheep or cattle. Eventually, the GPS took me down a winding, narrow, gravelly road, and announced that the destination was directly on the left.

… Wait, what?

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where the GPS said “destination is on your left”  … umm

All I saw on my left was a swiftly flowing stream that the road had been following. Hesitantly, I continued down the rough gravel road. As the road got increasingly more bumpy, I only pressed on because there was no place to turn around. With water pouring down the rock ledge to the left and a drop-off to a stream on the right, all I could do was to continue forward. But I must say, the road as it progressed, though not the best suitable for driving, had nothing lacking in scenery.

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After a little ways down this beautiful water-covered road, a barn started to appear in the distance. This was promising!

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(“Is this normal here?” I wondered. “That explains why the road is in such poor shape.”)

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At last, I passed the “falls,” and was staring at something a bit less promising than I had hoped.

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The barn looked in poor shape. BUT, noticing a particular smell in the air, I looked up and saw some goats up on the hills. “I do remember that they mentioned goats on the farm website. This might be it after all then.”

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I turned the corner around the barn to see a modest house with what looked like a garden and chicken tractor setup. Seeing the mailbox address was right, I regained confidence to walk up to their house and introduce myself. Once more, I stand on someone else’s doorstep, having no idea what’s in store during the days ahead (aside from hopefully learning how to process chickens).

Though this little routine of showing up at a stranger’s home has never come without hesitation, I guess I can say that, by now, I’ve become comfortable with the uncomfortable that inevitably comes from being dependent on the hospitality of strangers.

Thankfully, I was welcomed in by two of the most friendly and open people with two of their visiting nieces (and multiple friendly dogs and cats). I slipped right into the routine of life as I (after being shown around a bit and chatting a while) got to help out with squash soup for dinner. Mmm, just what I had been craving for weeks now. Already, I feel indescribably right at home with this farm and these people. And life feels more alive with them here than it has in awhile. (If you’ve not been among folks living intentionally, simply, and close to the earth, I’m not sure you can know just what I mean by this.) Anyways, looking forward to whatever the next days bring.

 

The journey continues…

Hello, hello, from Murfreesboro (TN).

Just one more hour, and then I will drive on to my next farm. Spending the holidays with family was definitely needed. It was difficult having only seen two familiar faces over the past 6 months of travelling. Over that time, I did make some very precious friends. But unfortunately, they all cannot (or would not want to) fit in my car to come with me as I travel on. So, the time spent with family who know me was refreshing. Part of me could relax more deeply than I can when on farms and am trying to leave the best impression and learn the most. With family, they were okay with me creating my own schedule and working on my own projects, contributing to the household where I was able.

This flexibility and stability with family has been a huge help to get more grounded before continuing on. Without the unpredictability of farm life (on someone else’s schedule!), I found it unexpectedly easier to set goals and start new habits – and stick to them. It also helped that I trusted family enough to open up to them about some of my struggles/goals. Then they were able to support me and provide accountability and encouragement – even if just in little ways here and there.

The little successes that came from my stay with family has impressed on me, yet again, how important it is to be surrounded by people who know you. And, while it can be hard to open up to others and to show vulnerability, if you have people in your life who you know care about you (and especially if they also are following God), I encourage you to find ways to be honest about some struggles with them. Their support can greatly help to lighten your load.

. . .

And with that in mind, I regretfully am off again, leaving family and familiarity behind, to (unnaturally) live without a local support network until I meet up with a few friends in February.

…That doesn’t sound like excitement

Well, to be honest, I am setting off a little less exuberantly than I did six months ago. Partly, this is because I have been craving good Christian fellowship for more than a month now, and do not know when I will next find it. So if you’re reading this, please pray that God leads me to the right place and people for encouragement. Thank you!

But, there definitely still is an excitement in me to dive back into farm life and work! It was so strange and unusual to spend time with family, where tv and videogames were common-place in the home (something I did not live around even once during my travels). Where nearly all food came from the grocery store. And where industrially manufactured food products were part of meals every day. After nearly 6 months of eating off the land and cooking from scratch, this way of life did seem uncomfortably disconnected. (I had a hard time coming to terms with the fact that there could be no pumpkin soup or roasted squash -apparently nearby grocery stores simply do not keep them in stock – how horrid!)

What’s coming

So, it is with anticipation that I set out – thankful for the relaxing time I’ve had with family, but also looking forward to getting in on some hard work again – fulfilling in a way that I think only farm life can offer. And the homegrown, home-cooked meals will certainly not be unwelcome either.

Next up, I will be visiting a farm in central Tennessee for just a brief one and a half weeks, with the purpose of learning how to process chickens. Can you believe that with 6 months on the road already, I’ve still not gotten to participate in the butchering process? Well, that will soon be remedied. And with 50-75 birds to process each day, I’d say I should have a good understanding of the whole procedure by the end of this week.

Well, here goes…

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Three beautiful hens from my last farm stay at Giving Garden in Georgia

What is it?

As I crossed over the border of Georgia into Tennessee, I turned back northwest to follow a road promising a state park and some waterfalls. But after winding through some hills trying to follow road signs for the park, I somehow managed to miss it. However! I did enjoy the drive along the Cumberland Plateau, just north of Fort Payne, Alabama. On my way down the cliffside, I pulled over where there was a clearing. The view was impressive. But I’ll admit, I got rather distracted when I looked down and saw some plants I had never seen before. Among them, some kind of tree nuts littered the forest edge.

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I’d never seen something like this before! At first, I couldn’t make out what they were as they are shaped a bit like figs. But looking closer, I saw some loose fragments of a nut’s outer hull on the ground – very much resembling those of hickory nuts.

As soon as I could, I shared a photo of these nuts with a friend from the microgreen business back in North Carolina. Joe had studied plant classifications while in college, and has become my go-to person when I have a question about plant identification or species.

And sure enough, seeing the photos, Joe’s first ID suggestion was right on. Pignut hickory nuts!? I’d heard of such a thing, but I never imagined them to be so strange-looking.

It was another couple days before I was stationary enough to finally dig into the storage space in my car for my nut-cracking supplies.  …These proved absolutely unhelpful. With the hull still soft, all my nutcrackers did was put interestingly shaped dents in the nuts. Even with my tools, the nuts refused to be cracked.

….

Until!

Over Christmas, I saw my brother Dan again, and he just so happened to bring with him various woodworking tools for a project of his.

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As has become my custom at Christmas time with family, I brought out a collection of my foraged nuts (including pecans this year!!) to share and spread them out on the counter with some cracking tools. Dan, seeing as I fumed in frustration at the little pignut, asked me to bring it over. In his hand, he had the largest wood chisel I have ever seen! In just a few seconds, he had the hull pried off of the nut inside. And with just about as little effort, he was able to break the nut cleanly open.

 

 

Sure enough! It does look like a hickory nut – only a little smaller and more rounded.

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Pignut hickory (left),  shagbark hickory (right)

The chisel was sharp, but the nut’s shell was thick. So, it had to be broken in multiple ways to get access to the nut. Though I only brought 3 of these little nuts with me, picking the nutmeats out was quite a process.

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Buuut, pignut hickory nuts do have a uniquely different flavor. I’d describe it as kinda green, a tinge of bitter, a hint of fruity, and with this really lingering heavy cream aftertaste and mouth feel. Mmm!

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And while I have no inclination to repeat this process anytime soon, I am sure glad for Dan and his chisel which allowed us a brief taste of this unique variety of hickory nut.