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Hickory nuts mean kanuchi
As a food source, Cherokees value hickory nuts bearing thinner shells and larger nut meat. (Submitted photo)
By Shawna Cain
Cherokee National Treasure
Mon, Oct 26, 2009
The archeological and historic record demonstrates that hickory trees have played a vital role in Cherokee culture as an important source of food and medicine, as well as a medium for constructing tools, weaponry and many other cultural items.
Hickory continues to assume a significant place among contemporary Cherokees, utilized for making ball sticks, traditional baskets, bows, arrows, medicine and kanuchi.
There are up to a dozen species of deciduous hickory trees native to North America, which produce oval nut fruits measuring 2 to 5 cm long and 1.5 to 3 cm in diameter. As a food source, Cherokees value those hickory nuts bearing thinner shells and larger nut meat. The most popular of hickory nuts are the mocker, shag bark and nutmeg. Ideally, hickory nuts are collected as soon as they begin falling from trees and before the first frost of the year. Late October through November is the most plentiful time to gather hickory nuts. However, as one elder known for his skill in making kanuchi balls for hickory nut soup warned, to gather the appropriate nuts for making kanuchi, one must learn to “get up early and beat the squirrels to the best nuts.”
Hickory nuts are enclosed in a four valved husk which splits open when mature. Cherokee elders teach that the outer green husks must be immediately removed and the hard exterior shell seasoned by placing near a wood stove or heat source for further hardening to prevent bug infestation. Hickory nuts must be seasoned for at least one month before used in kanuchi-making to ensure that the taste is mature and not green. Once seasoned, hickory nuts may be stored for up to a year for making kanuchi balls.
Seasoned hickory nuts are then cracked open with a rock or hammer with the larger shell portions discarded. The remaining nut meat and shell fragments are then laboriously pounded until pulverized until they begin to stick together. This poultice is then shaped by hand into a soft-ball sized form, held together by the natural oil of the pounded hickory nut. After shaping, kanuchi balls are usually wrapped and preserved in a refrigerator or freezer until ready to cook.
Accomplished kanuchi-makers today are few and far between, making procurement of kanuchi balls difficult. The art of making traditional kanuchi balls has become endangered with fewer Cherokees gathering nuts and participating in the labor intensive processes involved in this ancient tradition that archeologists date back as early as 2000 B.C. However, today one may find kanuchi (hickory nut soup) still being served at the tables of a few Cherokee traditionalists and area stomp grounds located in northeastern Oklahoma.
All information provided is given with the expressed permission and encouragement of Cherokee elders.