Jul/Aug 2015 Nonfiction

Pancakes with Jupiter

by Barbara P. Brennan

Photography by Lydia Selk

Photography by Lydia Selk

My husband makes the same delicious oatmeal breakfast every morning, except Sundays. Sundays we have pancakes, and every so often, we have walnut pancakes. But these are not the bland, grocery store, bulk English walnuts that I grew up with. These are black walnuts, the nut world's equivalent of an aged, dark, full-bodied wine.

Occasionally, my husband and I serve black walnuts to the uninitiated, usually friends who are visiting from somewhere else. Most just nod vaguely when we tell them how special these walnuts are. Then, we wait for the common reaction as they take a bite—the sudden awareness of a taste that is different, intense. The lift of the eyes from their plate to us, the look of both delight and confusion: What have I just tasted? One friend looked alarmed and asked if there was alcohol in the food. He had not had a drop of the stuff in decades, but the flavor memory lingered.

Black walnuts have a rich, deep tastiness—almost a liqueur. Some have described it as between coffee and maple syrup. These nuts are not universally loved, and for some, they seem to have been infused with the pungency of a musty basement. They can be an acquired taste.

These morsels of gastronomic heaven come from the fruit of Juglans nigra. "Juglans" is a contraction of Jovis glans, meaning nut of Jupiter (the god). The genus's U.S. range flows down from New England, bulges into the Midwest, back down along the eastern coast to North Carolina, then takes a left and extends as far as east Texas. In their glory days when they grew in thick, primeval forests, black walnut trees could reach the height of a 14-story building. The first 50 feet grew straight up, no branches, so as to put more energy into reaching for sunlight high over the tree canopy. That was before we cleared the forests.

In rural Virginia, on the western slope of Massanutten Mountain where my husband and I live, a black walnut tree grows directly in front of our house and about fifty feet from any other trees or shrubs. It stands in a large, sunny field ringed by woods on three sides, the George Washington National Forest on the fourth. Juglans nigra actually prefers hillsides and rich, well-drained bottom lands where it grows solo. In fact, it enforces this solitude by releasing juglone from its roots and fallen, decaying leaves. This toxin seeps dozens of feet outward through the surrounding soil, killing most would-be botanical neighbors. And, because the trees are monoecious—having both male and female sex organs in the same individual—they have no need of company.

Standing alone in the field, our black walnut tree is free to grow in any shape that benefits it, rather than straight up as it would have in a dense forest. This makes for a more unruly branching out, as if the tree had been liberated from the constraint of polite society. The trunk of a field Juglans branches early, the limbs spread wide and crooked, eventually arching up and out to a well-formed crown.

This tree is the last of the half dozen, nearby species to come into leaf in the spring, and the first to drop its leaves in the fall; it likes warm soil. Juglans' compound leaves can grow to two feet in length, with a central vein that puts out a score of finger-length, tear drop-shaped, saw-tooth-edged leaflets. In the fullness of summer, the foliage creates a symmetry that winter cannot, when the long, scraggly branches are bared.

Just as Darwin suggested, these leaves are not just for show. They have successfully adapted to their environment to perform necessary tree-sustaining functions, including absorbing sunlight for photosynthesis. For our black walnut tree, standing alone and unshaded in a field, sunlight is easy. A greater need is evaporating the accumulated heat. The raggedy edges of the many leaflets provide plenty of surface area for this, but since these trees are in leaf for only a brief time, they have to ramp up massive leaf production on short notice. This requires lots of energy, and producing compound leaves demands less of it than producing fewer, but larger, single leaves.

Wind, too, has had its evolutionary effect on leaf morphology. This is easy to see when I watch summer storms move across the Shenandoah Valley and up the side of Massanutten Mountain to our field, where this lone walnut tree is subject to greater wind forces than the protected trees in the surrounding woods. As wind moves invisibly up the hill, the smaller top leaves of the tree begin a subtle quiver. Then, further down along the crown, larger outer leaflets begin to twist like tentative dancers on the floor at the start of a tune. Within a few seconds, more leaflets begin to sway, eventually forcing the compound leaves to join in until the entire crown seems to be shimmying.

In a strong gale, twisting force—or torque—can rip leaves from branches, branches from trees, or whole trees from the ground. (Lone field trees will sometimes permanently spiral in the direction of prevailing winds.) Wind can tear large single leaves like the sails on a storm-tossed ship, fracturing stems, making it harder to absorb sunlight and disperse heat. Juglans' compound leaves can slice the chaotic turbulence as if twisting and turning in sword play, evading cuts and slashes, protecting the tree.

Humans don't necessarily appreciate these evolutionary adaptations. Woodworkers, for example, prefer trees with long, straight trunks. Black walnuts were once among the most prized trees for their easily worked wood and beautiful grain. During the Depression and through the 1950s, buyers went door-to-door offering ready cash for trees; strapped homeowners might be happy to make the price of the lumber. The uncommon tall, straight trees are still so highly valued that poachers will snatch them from both private and public lands.

Most field-grown black walnut trees don't have the straight length in the trunk needed to make the grade as lumber or veneer; their battle scars render them undesirable. A dust-up with a bush hog, or service as a scratching post for cattle can ruin their value. Our tree would have no worth to a lumberman. Close up, its beaten exterior reveals woodpecker holes, bear claw marks, and Virginia creeper vines that have crept far up the tree in the deep furrows of its bark.

In Mary Oliver's poem, "The Black Walnut Tree," readers meet a mother and daughter left struggling to secure their farm and their heritage. The poem begins: "My mom and I debate: / we could sell the black walnut tree to the lumberman and pay off the mortgage." In the end, they do not sell because "we'd crawl with shame/ in the emptiness we'd made / in our own father's backyard. / So the black walnut tree swings through another year / of sun and leaping winds, / of leaves and bounding fruit, / and, month after month, the whip- / crack of the mortgage."

My own childhood connection to black walnut trees was less profound. My family lived in Indiana, where Juglans grows very successfully. They don't produce fruit until they have weathered twenty to thirty winters. We had several fruit-bearing trees in our backyard. In the fall, when we four kids got on our parents' nerves, they sent us outside to pick up the decayed fruit that had fallen to the ground. The intention was not to harvest edible walnuts, but rather to get us out of the house for a few hours.

I was too young to know or care about black walnuts. But I learned that when the fruit had lain on wet fall grass long enough, it turned black and soggy. It did not pick up in one firm mass; we had to scrape it out of the grass. All the better for my parents; it took longer for us to clean up the yard. By the time we were done, our fingers and clothes were stained brown-black, and we were spent. Mission accomplished. I would gladly have sold every black walnut tree in the yard.

I am developing a different understanding of these trees as I regard our own field specimen. In the early fall when the leaves begin to drop, the nut-containing fruit falls to the ground. This round, green fruit could be mistaken for limes that attached themselves to the wrong species of tree. The hard fruit bounces when it hits the ground, but just a bit. This is the least effective method of seed dispersal.

A slightly better approach is squirrels, who love the protein-rich black walnut meat. They tap-tap-tap-tap-tap the hard fruit against the corner of our wooden deck, which is not far from the tree, and visible from my office window. I heard this tell-tale sound a few days ago, grabbed my binoculars and settled in for a bit of wildlife voyeurism.

A gray squirrel sat on its furry haunches, bushy tail spilled over the edge of the deck like a lady's luxuriant boa. Its sharp front claws gripped a green fruit, held high against the rodent's mouth to avoid the necessity to look down and away from potential danger. (Squirrels have few natural defenses other than celerity.) In an impressive demonstration of fine motor skill, this rodent smoothly and quickly rotated the fruit while chomping at the green husk with its sharp teeth.

As it chomped and gnawed, it spit out small bits of green husk and the brown nut underneath. It did this at cartoon speed: detritus flying out of its mouth, landing in a dark and expanding pile on the deck corner and the ground below. The squirrel's hind claws grabbed the edge of the deck the way a swimmer's toes grab the starting platform, ready to push off. When it had chiseled away enough of the outer green fruit and dark nut, and was close to the shell where the meat is, the hard work was over. I imagined it wanted to hide the product of its efforts ASAP. Its brown, beady eyes surveyed the area before it sprang from the deck to search for a suitable burial spot for its prize. If, during the winter, the squirrel should fail to retrieve this treasure, there would be a chance for a new Juglans nigra tree to sprout from the forgotten nut.

Our field tree that produces these nuts is of the solitary, unruly type. It stands in the middle of the field and blocks our view across the Shenandoah Valley. The tree is 60 to 80 years old, which means our spritely 60-something neighbor, Susie, whose family homeplace this once was, might have grown up with it. There is too much history in this tree to consider sacrificing it for the view.

When Susie was a child, she used to shell walnuts for Christmas-present money. Grandma Maggie, the matriarch of Susie's family, died in 1962 at age 80. She had lost her husband at a young age and worked hard to raise her four kids on this farm that yielded nothing easily. Maggie collected chestnuts, which, unlike walnuts, needed no manual processing and were easily gathered from what locals call "the gov'ment", the national forest. Maggie drove her horse-drawn wagon down the rocky dirt road, the few miles into town to sell them, sometimes with little Susie along for the ride, strapped to the buckboard. The wagon shed is still here, halfway across the field from the walnut tree.

Susie also remembers her grandmother shelling black walnuts on the porch when Maggie was old but still sighted. Shelling walnuts is a laborious and dirty activity yielding very little, at a per-hour rate, besides brown-stained hands. It's a process of many weeks and several phases. Separating the dark, inner hard shell containing the nutmeat from the surrounding nut with its green outer skin, is accomplished by sometimes bizarre means. Some do-it-yourselfers cover an area of their driveway with green fruit and let the weight of vehicles do the work of softening and hulling until only the brown nut remains. Then they cut a hole in a thick piece of wood just slightly smaller than the nut, jam the nut in the hole and smash it with a hammer, hoping the shell will fly free of the nut, through the plank, and into a handy receptacle.

In the next step, the shell has to be opened to get at the nutmeat. This is not for the faint of heart, or those who actually need an efficient source of income. But, it's a pleasant activity in winter when the nuts are softer, and the shells tossed into the flames of a warming fire crackle like distant fireworks.

A few years ago, my husband Chuck decided to harvest black walnuts from our tree. He wanted to do something that was part of the tradition of this place. After gathering hundreds of green fruit fallen from the tree, he spread them on our gravel driveway and let the car traffic soften them. This initial step took a few months, after which time he gathered the nuts and hammered away at each one until he uncovered the hard brown shell. This was the phase during which people who caught a glimpse of his stained-brown fingers and palms would ask, "Been at the walnuts?"

Next, he placed the nut in a device that—if he applied just the right amount of pressure—would crack the shell in half, revealing the nutmeat stored safely inside like a gold nugget in Fort Knox. If he applied too much pressure, the whole thing would fracture like porcelain.

Once he opened the shell, the black walnuts didn't free-fall into Chuck's hopeful, stained palm. He had to pick out the meat from the shell in small pieces. I can still picture him sitting on a stool, holding a small cracked nut close to his face, picking away with a dental tool to prize whatever little chunks he could. The result was often bits of walnut meat that were too small to be of culinary use. Nevertheless, after many tedious weeks, my patient husband harvested about two cups of black walnut bits. We savored every single one, portioning them carefully, proudly serving them in brownies or cookies with the best of friends. Since then, we have purchased our black walnuts from locals in the Valley who are more efficient at the process—and we gladly pay their price.

Now, in late fall, the leaves and fruit are gone from our tree. The stark branches and twigs form a chaotic silhouette against the sky, like dendrites in the brain spreading out from their axons. As the night sky darkens, a deep pink and orange sunset seeps across the western horizon, the branches frame the color as in a stained glass window. Tomorrow is another Sunday; another opportunity for breakfast with the nut of Jupiter.


Previous Piece Next Piece