In the Midwest, unmistakably crisp mornings and golden leaves herald the arrival of a new season. Today we share a charming excerpt about the autumnal butternut harvest from Farm Girl by Beuna Coburn Carlson.
Butternut trees grew in several areas in the woodlot and pasture on our farm. We watched the nuts develop during summer and waited for them to ripen in fall. While they were still green, they were soft enough to cut with a knife; when ripe, a hammer or a special nutcracker was necessary to crack the hard shell and extract the meat. Dad used his jackknife to slice through a green nut to show us the complex structure of the nut, and allowed us to taste the bitter, unripe nutmeat. How different they would be after the nuts had ripened and dried, their rich, creamy, buttery taste a perfect flavor in maple sugar candy!
Our farm in west central Wisconsin was at the western and northern limits of the range of the butternut tree. Sometimes called white walnut, it produces nuts that are extremely hard shelled, much like black walnuts. Butternut trees grow to sixty feet in height, rarely higher. The wood was prized for carving and, before metal items were readily available, for maple sap spiles. Dad was skillful also in making wonderful wooden whistles for the kids in spring before the new growth in the tree hardened.
We knew which of the trees produced the most and the best nuts. One special tree on a sunny knoll in the pasture bore a great crop. Whereas butternuts generally are oval in shape, the nuts from this tree were nearly round, more like walnuts. It was easy to fill a bucket with these gems! Another tree, growing in the woodlot near the edge of the pasture, produced long, oval nuts, huge and choice. It was important to gather them as quickly as possible before the butternut poachers found them. The tree was near the road, with only a two-strand barbed-wire fence between the woodlot and road. People from as far away as St. Paul and Minneapolis combed the countryside and took butternuts wherever they found them.
Gathering the nuts on a sunny day in fall after the butternut shells had hardened and the outer husks had dried involved the whole family. Little kids could pick up nuts from the ground where they had fallen while Mother and Dad harvested the ones still on the tree. They carried buckets filled with nuts to the granary and spread them on the floor to finish drying.
On cold, dark winter days when no outdoor work was possible, Dad often got a pail of butternuts, now dried and ready to use, from the granary. He took them to a warm spot in the cellar near the furnace, sat down with a hammer in hand, placed a butternut upright on a special piece of wood, and cracked it. If he hit it just right, it would split into two pieces and the nutmeat would come out easily. That was a rarity. Most often it required several blows of the hammer to shatter the shell and expose the meat. When Dad had cracked a goodly amount, he brought them upstairs to the kitchen, where anyone willing to do so attacked them with a nutpick.
Very rarely, a perfectly cracked nut would yield a perfect nutmeat—two halves shaped like fat pantaloons. Finding a “pair of pants” among the butternuts was comparable to finding a four-leaf clover in the grass and gave the finder special bragging rights.
Helping pick out the pieces of meat from the shells with a nutpick entitled one to snack on them too, but wise children waited until Mother made a batch of maple sugar candy. She made it by boiling a saucepan of maple syrup, beating in cream, adding a handful of butternut meats, and pouring the thick, smooth mass into a buttered pan. When Mother decided it was cool enough, she cut it into squares and we tasted the wonderful candy. I believe we could taste in every bite the sap from the trees gathered on a frosty spring morning, the steaming syrup from the big, black kettle, the sunny afternoon of gathering the nuts, and the triumph of getting pieces of nuts from the rough shells. We knew where it came from and what effort it took to produce it. It was our candy and we loved it.
Beuna Coburn Carlson is a writer based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.