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The Best Black Walnut Cracker in Haywood County

John parris writes about black walnuts haywood county nc

The Champion Walnut-Cracker ~ Dutch Cove written by John Parris

The old man sat in a split-bottomed, straight-backed chair cracking out walnuts with a hammer on a locust stump in the front of his woodshed.

“The preacher down at Morning Star calls me the champion walnut-cracker of Haywood County,” he said. “That’s what he told me. And I don’t guess anybody else does crack as many walnuts.” George Smathers grinned and his eyes twinkled.

“There’s one thing for a fact,” he said. “You won’t find a walnut-cracker as old as me. I’m just nine months away from being a hundred years old, the oldest man that ever lived in the Dutch Cove.”

“Got in the walnut-crackin’ business about seven or eight years ago so I’d have me a little extra spendin’ money. The womenfolks around here and down at Canton take all I can crack out. they put ’em in their Christmas cakes. There’s nothin’ finer than a walnut cake.”

“I generally sell about forty pounds of walnut meat a year. I cracked out fifty pounds last fall. I figure on knockin’ out forty or fifty pounds this year. Got $3.75 cents a pound last year, but I’m goin’ to get $4 this year or not sell’em at all, just throw ’em away.

“I don’t figure that’s too high, what with all the work that goes into it. You have to get out and go huntin’ all over this country for walnuts. Then you’ve got to hull’em. Then you’ve got to dry’em. And then you’ve got to crack ’em. If it wasn’t for havin’ somethin’ to pass off my time, I wouldn’t bother with ’em.”

(Excerpt from the book Mountain Cooking written by John Parris 1978)

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The Deer Hunter grew up in the Dutch Cove where George Smathers lived. He doesn’t remember The Champion Walnut-Cracker, but he did go to Morning Star Elementary School and he has great memories of roaming the fields in the cove with his dog and with his best friend Eric who lived just down the road a ways.

Tipper

 

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21 Comments

  • Reply
    Tipper
    January 14, 2016 at 9:29 am

    Evan-thank you for the great comment and the added information about your Smathers family : ) Have a great day!

  • Reply
    Evan Shaw
    January 13, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    Thanks for sharing! George Smathers was my great-great-uncle and lived to be 102 (I believe). He was known to most of my family as “Uncle Bruz”. There is a picture of him sitting on his porch on the inside cover of Foxfire 7. My Grandfather, Quay Smathers, is also featured in Foxfire 7 for his efforts to preserve Christian Harmony Shaped Note Singing.

  • Reply
    Ed
    December 2, 2015 at 10:44 pm

    Nobody mentioned it but walnuts and hickory nuts are not really nuts at all. Pecans are also only a different kind of hickory nut. They are all drupes and are closer to peaches, cherries, plums and coffee beans than true nuts like chestnuts, chinquapins, hazelnuts and acorns.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    December 2, 2015 at 9:18 pm

    Wanda, I think you are describing hazelnuts. The bush, smooth nut and 2-part husk all fit. Hazelnuts usually occur in 2’s, 3’s and 4’s. They are one of my favorites.

  • Reply
    Ed
    December 2, 2015 at 8:33 pm

    Wanda – The only native Appalachian nuts I know of that grow on a bush are hazelnuts and chinquapins. Both of those have an outer husk that splits open on its own. There is still an inner shell that has that has to be cracked or peeled to get at the goody.

  • Reply
    Ed
    December 2, 2015 at 2:15 pm

    He sat there hunched over for hours on end, cheeks rosy as the pipe that carried the smoke from the fire out into the cold night air. On his right sat a wire basket filled with hulled and dried black walnuts from this year’s fall. On his left a pint mason jar slowly filling with myriad shaped and sized shards of the tiny treasure locked inside each tough angry shell. Clutched between his knees he holds the handle of an ancient smoothing iron which in recent memory has served to wipe away wrinkles from Sunday shirt collars. With his right hand he holds a walnut against the metal. In his left hand he grips the smooth worn handle of an old claw hammer and with firm put measured taps he releases the goodness contained within.
    Seemingly slow in the process, he had learned early on that a pint was not necessarily a pound and that larger pieces accumulated much faster and with more eye appeal. His own craving for fruits of his labor will have to be quelled as they are to be exchanged for necessities not readily available here on the homestead. Only the withered ones will he allow himself to savor.
    Each conquest leads to a struggle against another enemy seemingly like the last but never the same. His goal, to capture the prize intact. His opponent’s, to hold on at all cost and in failure to annihilate itself completely. His goal, though rarely attained is not impossible. He can count on one hand the times he has reached it. Only in his own frustration does his adversary ever win. Those losses can be counted on the same fingers.

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    December 2, 2015 at 1:54 pm

    Just got to do a 2nd post. Our former pastor was just here and he said his 81 year old Dad is carrying on the winter walnut cracking tradition. He also gathers his own, hulls them, pressure washes them, dries them in the basement in onion sacks for about three weeks then cracks them with a special geared lever arrangement that gets the nut meats out mostly whole, packs them in vacuum-sealed quart bags (and tosses in another handful for good measure) and finally sells them for $12/quart, though the going rate seems to be $15. Seems he and his wife have a goal of cracking out a gallon each night.
    He lives just north of Cleveland, GA but I’m sorry to say I did not ask where or how he sells. I need to know myself.

  • Reply
    Wanda Devers
    December 2, 2015 at 11:50 am

    We used an old smoothing iron turned upside down and a hammer. I love black walnuts but luckily also like the English walnuts too which are so much easier to get to. We used to get a smooth roundish nut off a bush. It had a two part covering on it. Does anybody know what they were?

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    December 2, 2015 at 11:48 am

    Tipper,
    I heard Paul and Pap singing another Christmas Song awhile ago on our local Radio Station. Donna Lynn is from Oklahoma, but she sure is loyal to out local bunch. She loves Chitter and Chatter too, like the rest of us…Ken
    PS: When I came to work this morning, Valley River was 20 feet wider and running over my bridge. I stopped for a moment, then poured the meal to it!

  • Reply
    John Faircloth
    December 2, 2015 at 10:55 am

    When we first married, we lived near some woods with lots of Hickory trees. We found an old
    Shaker recipe for a Hickory Nut Pound Cake. We made a day of it in the woods and gathered
    a large grocery sack full of Hickory nuts. Neither one of us had ever tried to crack a hickory nut, let alone a sack-full! Three weeks later, with sore fingers, we had just enough to make the recipe
    for Christmas. Count it up to a lack of experience in baking, or trying to interpret a 19th century
    recipe, but the cake was dry, and not that good. By the time walnuts came next Fall, my fingers were
    still sore, so I passed. Thanks for the reminder. Well written.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    December 2, 2015 at 10:13 am

    Tipper,
    I know the feeling the Deer Hunter musta felt. There’s nothing like wading thru fields of broomsage and rabbit hunting with your dog. But my daddy could jump more rabbits by himself than a whole pack of dogs. We hunted a lot up at the Appletree Place, got lots of rabbits too, and met one of daddy’s friends there. His name was Vincent Jones and he let me hunt on his property. He had that old timey talk and told me to be ready for a “pheasnut”, cause my dogs would put one in a tree. He was right! I got a pheasant and two rabbits that day.
    Walnut cracking is a lot of work and a slow process, that’s why I’ve built lots of Crackers. I just love the smell of fresh walnuts…Ken

  • Reply
    Tamela
    December 2, 2015 at 10:06 am

    No black walnut stories from Central Texas but I do have Pecan (whichever way you want to pronounce it) stories. Main memory is walking the yard with my Granny (great-grandmother) to find pecans we’d walk one direction side by side then turn around and walk the same area again. At first I’d complain but we always found just as many going back as we did the first time. Then we’d make two more passes before moving to the next section – didn’t find as many this time but found enough to make it worth our while.
    Granddad (my great-grandfather) was the main pecan cracker and picker but we all helped as time allowed. Pecans go in everything from pies and other desserts to salads, to breads, to dressing not to mention snacking. The trees are great for shade, the wood beautiful and good for smokers too. The pecan is so pervasive in Texas culture that it is the “State Nut” – although some would say that certain members of the state government better fit that biling 😉

  • Reply
    Bill Burnett
    December 2, 2015 at 9:31 am

    I’m sure lots of folks used the same tools we used at Needmore when I was growing up, we’d turn an old timey Flat Iron bottom up and hold it between our knees and use a hammer to crack the walnuts. This system worked well except sometimes the smaller pieces would slide on the smooth bottom of the iron and you could hit a finger instead of or along with the walnut. Mom’s Walnut Cakes or Banana Bread would quickly erase the pain from your mind. Thanks for shaking these old memories loose.

  • Reply
    Shirl
    December 2, 2015 at 9:05 am

    The squirrels carried the black walnuts to their secret hiding place as soon as they fell this year. Wonder if they know something we don’t about the upcoming winter. Mom used to let us crack black walnuts by the pot bellied stove on snowy winter days when we couldn’t get out of the house. She placed a flat rock on a piece of material and let us crack and eat until our belly was full. What a treat!

  • Reply
    Ron Stephens
    December 2, 2015 at 8:47 am

    Reminds me of an old man at my brother-in-law’s church in Claiborne County, TN. He cracked out lots of walnuts. Word spread and people brought him pickup loads.
    I have never understood why black walnuts are rather hard to find commercially. I suppose it is because they are difficult to process, the usual story.
    I recently discovered that a geologist’s hammer is good for walnut cracking. It is relatively light. The hammer end does the first cracking and the pick end can sort of ‘split’ the pieces without smashing the kernel. Someone mentioned a horseshoe nail for a ‘pick’ and that is what my Grandma used.
    By the way, down on the bank of the lake, behind the Blue Ridge Ranger District office of the Chattahoochee National Forest at Blairsville, GA is a Native American ‘nutting stone’. It is a native rock outcrop with numerous little golf ball sized ‘dents’ on its surface where the nuts were placed. I expect they planted walnut, mulberry and honey locust near their villages and tended them as one of their crops just as the pioneers continued to do.
    Recently a co-worker retired and one of his parting gifts was a black walnut bowl made from a tree that grew at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. When trees die, blow off, etc they use the wood for crafts.

  • Reply
    Janet Smart
    December 2, 2015 at 8:14 am

    This post reminds me that I have some black walnuts out in the garage that I need to crack. Black walnuts and hickory nuts are delicious and great in recipes.

  • Reply
    dolores
    December 2, 2015 at 7:39 am

    Every day I read ‘Blind Pig…’ and I wish I lived closer so I could enjoy all the wonderful things Tipper and friends write about. Some day I would love to visit the Folk School to marvel at all the wonder crafts and cooking ideas. Only once did I find fresh picked and shelled black walnuts here in Caldwell County, and I enjoyed every bite. It was the first time I realized the difference between the black walnuts and the regular ones. Thanks for sharing something every day.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    December 2, 2015 at 7:34 am

    Walnut cracking is hard work for small reward. By that I mean you work a long time for a cup of black walnuts. I used to watch my granddaddy crack black walnuts for my grandmother to make him some black walnut cookies. He loved those cookies. He cracked the nuts in the cellar on his knees on the concrete floor.

  • Reply
    Lorie Thompson
    December 2, 2015 at 7:31 am

    Tipper,
    I can remember picking up walnuts. My Grandmother would put the black walnuts in a tow-sack and drive back and forth over them with her car to release the green hull. She would let them dry and then she and I would start cracking and picking out the nuts. She made fantastic black walnut cakes! I am sad to say that I do not have a recipe that was hers. I am not sure she had one. She just made the cake. I do remember lots of eggs and butter and a delicious moist cake, eaten warm with cold milk.
    Thanks for the memory!

  • Reply
    eva nell mull wike, PhD
    December 2, 2015 at 7:24 am

    Well, this post, about cracking walnuts, took me back to the CROSS TIE HOLLER, in the Matheson Cove, in Clay County, NC, where I was born and raised! Going with my Daddy on a Sunday afternoon hike, up to the Holler to gather those walnuts, is one of my most precious memory of my childhood.
    TIPPER, please keep those PRECIOUS MEMORIES coming – especially during these Winter days!
    With much devotion,
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    December 2, 2015 at 6:07 am

    Tipper,
    I dare say that my aunt that lived between Canton and Clyde sure enough bought black walnuts from Mr. Smathers. Especially in her later years after her health prevented her from gathering walnuts. She always used black walnuts In her cakes and cookies…they were the best. I know for some reason she guarded that bag of broken walnuts and only used what she deemed necessary for the taste of the banana bread or cake!
    Thanks Tipper,
    great post!

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