Going nuts over black walnuts in Appalachia

By Candace Nelson - 7:10 PM

Black Walnuts

Here's my latest column in the Charleston Gazette-Mail:

You may have seen the giant, green balls littering lawns and fields, dropping on top of cars, and maybe bouncing off sidewalks this fall.

The black walnut — a greenish-yellow tennis ball-sized hull that encapsulates a dark, slightly bitter and smoky nut — is an autumn Appalachian signature.

Many rural families take to the woods in search of the meaty treasures before hauling them home to remove the husk and crack the shell. It’s a labor of love to dig out the meat of the nut — which includes soaking, heavy-duty crackers and a pick.

But is it worth it? Some think so.

The walnut itself divides families: Either you love the flavor or you find it too bitter. If you fall into that first category, you may be one of those who are keeping up the tradition of hand harvesting black walnuts. Or, if that sounds like too much work, you can often find them at a local farmer’s market and enjoy the fruits without the effort. If you’re not a fan, you may pay someone to take them off your hands — and yard.

There is an entire town in West Virginia that celebrates this fall delicacy. At the West Virginia Black Walnut Festival, Spencer hosts a bake contest which must include black walnuts, a food court that incorporates the nut and vendors who pay homage to the nut.

Black walnuts are great in baked goods like muffins and cakes. They also pair perfectly with fudge and even ice cream. Local chefs have even incorporated them into savory dishes featuring fish or beef. Just be careful to not let the bitter flavor overpower all the other flavors in a meal.

Securing the black walnut is still a pastime for many families, as black walnuts remain wild and are hand harvested. It’s yet another fruit from the land that has prompted Appalachians to be innovative and creative with their meals to incorporate the local food. The black walnut is just one more example of how Appalachians have made creative use of the sustenance they have available to create delicious meals that are rooted in place.

Whether you prefer black walnuts in your ice cream or not, the role they play in Appalachia’s food culture is clear. Which side are you on? Pro- or anti-black walnut?

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