Nuts of Missouri

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Missouri contains six types of nuts: hazelnuts (Corylus avellana), chestnuts (Castanea species), black walnuts (Juglans nigra), hickory nuts (Carya species), pecans (Carya illinoinensis), and last but not least acorns (Quercus species). The black walnut is the most abundant of these in Missouri as Missouri is the world’s top producer of black walnuts and is responsible for 65% of the annual black walnut harvest in the U.S.

Nut Definition:

 

A nut is “the dry fruit of some trees, consisting of an edible seed within a hard, outer shell, or the seed itself” as defined by Cambridge. Sometimes the simplest things are the most difficult, and when defining nuts - the same food generations upon generations of humans have used as both a means of survival or as a delicacy - complications quickly arise. The reason being is that not all nuts are what we deem “tree nuts.” Almonds, cashews, and pistachios are not part of the club as they are seeds rather than the actual fruiting body of a tree. Peanuts, the most ubiquitous American “nut,” is actually a legume. The coconut, which even contains the word nut in its name, is a drupe. The task of creating a universally satisfying definition for nuts is not an easy one and some botanists simply choose to avoid using the word altogether. None of this is to say that people should re-evaluate the way we collectively define what is and is not a nut; on the contrary, the way people currently group nuts in a culinary sense is a good schema to have and to keep. Even though walnuts drop from trees and hazelnuts come from bushes, encompassing them and others in a broad definition of “nuts” is a helpful way of simplification, as they fundamentally share little difference when in our favorite protein or candy bar. 

 

Nut Composition and Health Benefits:

 

A consistent and pesky idea regarding nuts is that they aren’t good for you. How could they be, some ask, if half of their calories come from fat? The truth is, that in addition to nuts being an almost ideal snack in that they are compact, transportable, and non-perishable, nuts are indeed a healthy food source and recommended by major health agencies such as the American Food and Drug Administration and the World Health Organization. Nuts contain all macronutrients - fat, protein, carbohydrates, and fiber - as well as important micronutrients such as Vitamin E, calcium, magnesium, potassium, and folate (a B vitamin). As for nuts’ fat and carbs, they are both healthy in nuts and should raise little concern. Nuts have a very favorable lipid profile, containing mostly monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Most of its carbs come from a strong fiber concentration, and nuts are second to only cereal as the most fibrous plant food, ahead of legumes, fruits, and vegetables. Nuts help lower the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, atherosclerosis, type 2 diabetes, inflammation, and certain types of cancer.  Additionally, research suggests that those who eat the recommended amount of nuts per day - 1.5 ounces/42.5 grams - do not gain but in fact occasionally lose weight, as nuts’ high fiber content creates more satiety and helps with “weight maintenance.”

 

Nut History:


Nuts have been part of the human diet since the beginnings of our history. The first physical evidence of nut gathering dates as far back as 780,000 years ago, before the rise of homo sapiens. A site in Israel had traces of almonds, water chestnuts, pistachios, and acorns, all of which also needed to be cracked with at the very least some sort of blunt tool. It can be deduced that if hominems had the sophistication and means to collect nuts, it no doubt it has been done by human beings ever since. It is also important to consider how long than nuts have been part of the human palate, as agricultural developments are only believed to have started as late as 12,000 years ago. While it is a stretch to conclude humans couldn’t have survived without nuts, we can say that nuts were for hundreds of thousands of years one of the only other things eaten by people in concert with meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, and other plant matter. 

Part of people’s fascination with nuts has been with regards to their shape. Often, people would compare nuts to the shape of one’s head. The word for head, or glans, directly translates to acorn in Latin. The walnut, for example, shares almost uncanny resemblance to the human brain, with its two distinct lobes and wrinkles up and down its figure. The shape of an almond (a “mandorla”), on the other hand, is considered almost divine across religions. The “Mandorla, (Italian: “almond”), in religious art, almond-shaped aureole of light surrounding the entire figure of a holy person.” Buddhists thought it to be a holy shape and Christians considered it a figure of creation. When Jesus was painted within the confines of the shape it represents his bridging of the two worlds of creation and being. Pythagoreans also took extreme interest in the shape, believing that its geometric ratio, the shape when two circles overlap (think Venn Diagram), was a key to understanding the harmony of the universe. 

 

Walnut:

 

Missouri is home to black walnut (Junglans nigra), and produces the most black walnuts in the world. The quintessential nut, walnuts have found use in cultures throughout history and are actually what the word nut refers to etymologically. The most common walnut is the Persian or English walnut (Junglans regia), favored due to its large kernel and thin shell, and was termed by the Romans, meaning “Jupiter’s royal acorn.” Persians also reserved the nut for royalty and many years later the nut was introduced to greater Europe around the year 400. Walnuts contain a high amount of fat and in some folk traditions their oil was used as a healing remedy for coughs, stomach pain, and cancer (however there is no link between walnuts and healing). Walnuts are an excellent source of healthy fats, as they contain mostly HDL fats and are high in omega 3. There are many studies linking a beneficial relationship between walnuts and coronary heart disease, and in 2004 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration seconded the claim that a daily serving (1.5 ounces) of walnuts each day may reduce the risk of coronary heart disease.

 
Black walnut ripening. eight cent. Flickr, creative commons
 
The black walnut is an easy to identify nut - it is covered in a sort of green globe, almost looking like a tennis ball, with a smooth and fleshy husk. When opening the nut, inside is the unmistakable, eponymous black and ink. The ink has been used throughout history as a dye and was common during the pioneer days. As the ink is strong and non-toxic, it can be easily created as a DIY ink by just crushing the husk of the nut and adding water to think out the black solution. As for dehusking the walnut itself, the task is not easy and is certainly made more difficult by all the non-removable ink in the way. You can go at the shell with a knife, stomp on them with your shoes, hit them with a blunt object (not too hard), or if you’re feeling particularly confident you could try opening them with just your bare hands. If nothing works immediately, don’t be too disappointed, after all, these were the same nuts the nutcracker was designed after.
 
Chestnuts:

 

Chestnut trees (Castanea spp.) are part of the beech family Fagaceae and its four main species groups are American, European, Chinese, and Japanese. The chestnut prefers a more temperate climate (typically warm summers and cold winters) and has been planted on all northern continents as well as Australia. While chestnuts are still relatively abundant due to commercial production, the days when Chestnuts trees lay rooted far and wide in the American landscape are a distant memory. What was once a prominent trees in the Eastern United States was almost entirely wiped out by a blight at the beginning of the twentieth century. Most chestnuts now come by way of European or Chinese exports - these faux-American chestnuts, which lack the same taste quality as the originals, have almost entirely substituted the prior nut. So, if you happen to stumble upon a wild Chestnut when roaming in the Missouri landscape, be sure to appreciate that what you have is a true rarity nowadays. 

The Chestnut has been cultivated for over 3,000 years in the Mediterranean and possibly 6,000 years in China. Chestnuts may be consumed raw, but it is more commonly prepared by boiling or roasting. These nuts are harvested starting in September and ending in early November, however, once harvested many people wait an additional few weeks to let the nut’s starches transform into sugar so to give it sweeter and less bitter taste.

 
 
References:
 
Tekiela, Stan. Trees of Missouri. Adventure Publications, Cambridge, Missesota. 2006.
 
Edited by Cesarettin Alasalvar and Fereidoon Shahidi. Tree Nuts: Composition, Phytochemicals, and Health Effects. CRC Press, Taylor and Francis Group. New York. 2008.
 

Ablala, Ken. Nuts: A Global History (Edible). Reaktion Books Ltd, London. 2014.