When I was just a strap of a lad in the head of Blair Branch, before the first hard freezes came down in November, I knew one thing for sure. I knew the scaly bark hickory trees would be dumping down the nuts that squirrels had overlooked and that the thick and bursting outer shells were gone and that the hearts were there to be broken.
Hickory nuts from the shagbark trees that we called scaly barks dotted the head of Blair Branch from here to there high on the mountains, and it was the first time in the fall when a squirrel hunter could legally sneak upon a wily grey tail and take home supper. No way that a squirrel can be hulling out a hickory nut without being heard for half a mile.
Easy pickings. Squirrel gravy and baked sweet potatoes for supper and cornbread to sop it with. The big hickory trees, both of them, stood right behind our house and they had been there since well before Columbus came along. Two big trees with shaggy bark falling off the sides of their ancient trunks and with many scars left by my Grandpap when he needed to peel off narrow slices of bark to make sitting bottoms for chairs. When the sap was up in early spring and the bark was easy to slice and peel off the trunks of those old trees, Pap made the best of what they had to offer.
And still, despite Pap’s raping and scraping of the hickories, they bore wonderful nuts and my brothers and I would gather them by the buckets full and crack them with a hammer on an old blacksmith anvil and we would take the kernels to Mom and demand “hickory nut fudge” and she would say, “be patient” even though she often made the fudge if there was sugar and cocoa in the kitchen.
I am not a patient person, but my mom would put the harvested hickory nuts — what we boys had not already eaten — in a pint jar and she would say, “Wait for Thanksgiving. I will make you a pie.” And she did just that when the time rolled around. The best pecan pie I will ever eat was made with hickory nuts and my mom just grinned because she had read the latest pecan pie recipe in a fancy cookbook that she had borrowed from one of my nieces who had never learned to cook and thought you could learn it from a book. Points East
My mom kept up with the latest cooking trends and always, always had that twinkle and sparkle in her eyes when she knew she was pulling something over on you and she loved nothing better than outdoing Betty Crocker. In fact, she used to write letters to Betty.
“I just tried this and you used way too much salt or baking powder and a pinch of nutmeg would make this right”, she would write, not that she ever changed Betty’s mind about anything, but Mom loved to express her opinion from time to time when she had postage stamps, a sharp pencil, some writing paper and nothing else to do before she went to bed.
She even wrote to President Harry S. Truman several times and he wrote back to her in terse longhand. And that has to do with why I believe Truman to be the greatest President our country has ever known. Mom’s and Truman’s letters are buried somewhere in a library in Independence, Mo.
How he had the time to jot notes to constituents in such turbulent times is beyond me. But it was a smaller world back then. And I do so wish he was President again.
Of course, I don’t take after my mom a bit. (I jest.) My love for cooking things that sometimes don’t work out is pure curiosity. (Mom would have followed the recipe if she did not already know it.) I have never written a letter to a sitting President, but I have sent notes to Jimmy Carter, after the fact, because I still believe he deserved another term and the world would be a better place if he’d had time enough.
Jimmy never wrote back to me so I hold him in far less esteem than Mom did Mr. Truman.
But Mom made hickory nut pie this time of year because we could not afford pecans and that’s something I would do forever if I had the hickory kernels.
All politics aside.