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Tasty Tradition | Winter 2015 Out Here Magazine

By Marti Attoun

Photography by Dean Curtis

Every fall, wild black walnuts ripen and drop onto yards, pastures, forests, and along riverbanks in the Ozarks. And no one appreciates the gift from nature more than Brian Hammons.

“The walnuts taste earthy, with a little bit of sweetness,” says Hammons, president of Hammons Products Company in Stockton, Mo., the world’s largest supplier of American black walnuts. “You don’t just get a crunch, but you get a burst of flavor.”

For generations, Ozark families have gathered the hard-shelled nuts to add crunch and punch to their homemade candy, cookies, and cakes. The trees grow wild throughout the Midwest and Southeast, but Missouri produces 65 percent of the crop.

Hammons’ late grandfather, Ralph Hammons, knew the feisty flavor would have national appeal. In the small grocery he ran in downtown Stockton, he began buying black walnuts and selling them to a Virginia nut company. His freight bill to ship the heavy nuts by rail ran into the thousands of dollars. When the Virginia company closed, Ralph Hammons bought his own cracking machine in 1946.

His first year in the shelling business, Ralph Hammons bought 100,000 pounds of walnuts that farmers hauled in by wagonload and truckload.

A heavy-duty machine cracked the nuts and pin-picking machines removed the shells from the nutmeats. In a coal-fired oven, Ralph Hammons pasteurized the nutmeats to remove bacteria.

His packaged ready-to-eat black walnuts, which he labeled “Missouri Dandy,” were a convenience for home bakers who were used to shelling their own.

“Cracking is a challenge,” Brian Hammons says. Compared to the more common thinner-shelled English walnuts that are cultivated in orchards, wild black walnuts truly are tough nuts to crack. When they drop from the trees they’re covered with a fleshy green hull.

“People tell me they’ve put the walnuts in the driveway and let the cars run over them to hull them,” he says. “Some people put them through a corn sheller.”

After the hulls are removed, the hard brown walnut has to be cracked with a hammer or a heavy-duty nutcracker. Then the nutmeat is removed with a nut picker or other sharp tool. It’s akin to digging for buried treasure, because the good nutmeat makes up less than 7 percent of the entire black walnut.

It’s much easier to let Hammons do the shelling in a modern automated plant where the nuts are cleaned, cured, and run between giant stainless steel wheels in the cracking machine. Rollers with saw-like teeth separate the nutmeats from the shells. After the nutmeats are graded by size, electronic-sorting machines pick out any remaining shells.

Harvesting By Hand

What hasn’t changed one whit about the processing in 70 years is the harvesting by hand. Thousands of country and city dwellers still head out each fall with buckets and bags to collect the walnuts to sell at Hammons’ headquarters or at one of the company’s 215 buying-and-hulling stations located in small towns across 12 states.

This year the company is paying $14 per 100 pounds of hulled black walnuts and expects to buy and process 24 million pounds by the end of November. Harvesters make extra spending money and it’s as close as you can get to money growing on trees, Hammons says.

“People tell me how when they were growing up, they’d pick up black walnuts to have money for boots or for Christmas gifts,” he says. “Parents like getting outside and showing their kids that they can make money from working.”

Norman Cross, 76, first helped his parents with the harvest when he was 10. He’s still picking up black walnuts from the same trees on his 400-acre family farm near Stockton. The only difference in his harvesting technique today is that he wears knee pads.

“You have to enjoy it or you wouldn’t do it,” he says with a laugh. “I get down on my knees in the sticks and weeds and cow piles and fill my bucket. I can get a pickup load pretty quick, in a day or two, if I really work at it.” Last year, he picked up about nine truckloads and earned $900.

Hammons sells the bulk of its black walnuts to ice cream manufacturers, including Baskin-Robbins, Braums, and Blue Bell, and to home-baking retailers. The company packages under its own label and others, including Fischer and Diamond.

Discarded shells are put to use, too. They’re ground into six sizes and sold to industrial customers for use as filtration media in the oil industry and abrasives for cleaning. Shell particles helped clean the Statue of Liberty.

Historically, wild black walnuts have starred in desserts, but now they’re popping up in salads, sauces, and entrees as the health benefits of the high-protein, low-fat nut boosts its popularity.

Hammons’ favorite recipes haven’t changed, though, since he was 6 years old and helping his dad, Dwain, now retired, stuff envelopes with mailers advertising the Missouri Dandy black walnuts.

“My favorite is black walnut sheet cake,” he says. “Oh, and any chocolate chip cookie recipe with black walnuts.”