Passion for Nuts Started 80 years ago and Going Strong
Jim Sunnerville started cracking nuts with his mother when he was 10 years old. He can remember gathering Black Walnuts with his mother and they would “Smunsh em,” or in nut talk shucking. Jim can’t remember all the ways his mother used them. He is still cracking nuts and comparing trees for the tastiest kernels.
His “nut passion” started with gathering, mostly Black Walnuts and Hickories. Only after he moved out to his place in Otsego 50 years ago did he start planting his own trees.
As a young man Jim had become aware
of Butternuts. He was visiting his girl
friend at the time and her family had Butternuts. He was used to picking up nuts, so he picked
up some to take home and check out. They
were tasty and that hooked him on nuts.
Jim says there were lots of Butternut trees around until the 1960s. In Jim’s youth he started collecting Butternuts. When he bought his own place, Jim started planting nut trees. The first trees he planted were Butternuts. Like almost all other Butternuts they eventually died of the canker. But that did not stop Jim from pursuing his passion for nuts.
About 40 years ago Jim went to the Allegan County Fair and saw a display board in the Ag Building Exhibit Hall that had all the nuts you could grow in Michigan. He saw Heartnut on the list. He had never heard of Heartnuts before and the grower’s name was on the board. Jim went over to the man’s place and found “all these people running around picking up nuts off the ground, they were putting them in hardware cloth baskets.” Jim thinks they might have had some kind of a power washer that took off the outer shell. The grower wouldn’t give him any of the nuts from that year’s crop but told Jim he had some left over from the previous year and he could have them. Jim took them and planted 15 nuts; they all grew. Then he planted two more rows with the nuts he had left, they all grew also. One row didn’t produce because it was too shaded, Eventually the other trees started to shade each other so he thinned them down to 6 trees. Those are the original Heartnut trees he has today.
Through all these years Jim’s main interest has been nuts in the Walnut (Juglans) family. He has a collection of Heartnuts and what he calls “halfbreeds,” Heartnut and Butternut crosses. Most nut growers would know Jim’s “halfbreeds” as Buartnuts. He calls his heartnut/butternut crosses “halfbreeds” because he simply doesn’t like the sound of the word Buartnut. Every tree Jim has planted from those first Heartnuts has been unique. So somewhere there must have been some Butternuts left. But where? And are they still there?
In Jim’s opinion, there aren’t many true butternuts left after the canker infection in the 1960s. He believes that, because heartnut and butternut cross so readily, anything we would call butternut today is not the butternut of his youth. Jim said “today, very few people know what butternuts taste like.”
Jim says Buartnuts do not have that unique flavor of Butternut. But he says he knows where there is one Butternut tree that has survived the canker. That one might be one of a few that survived the canker. But he didn’t reveal the location. Can it be that Butternut trees are as elusive as mushrooms? Jim’s son camps on North Manitou island every year. His son says there are all kinds of butternut trees there on the island, Jim has asked him to bring him back some, but he hasn’t tasted them yet so, for now, Jim will take his son’s word for it.
For many years now Jim and a friend have been collecting nuts from a Heartnut/Butternut cross in Constantine Michigan. He calls them “Constantine” nuts, from one specific tree. Jim says, “my assumption is that there is probably no other tree in the US or anywhere that has a nut exactly like these.” He says these are the best cross he has come across: they crack easily, usually in fairly big pieces, have a light nut, and a mild flavor. In a good year that tree will have 10 nuts (as opposed to the 3-4 in a bunch on a Black Walnut) on one stringer. Last year Jim and his friend took a generator and shop vac, sucked them up and didn’t have to lean over. They collected 3 washtubs full.
What is this year’s favorite?
This year Jim likes the large “halfbreed” in his front yard. He almost always gets at least half a kernel in one piece. He likes the “halfbreeds” from that one tree because they are large, easier to crack, and have a tasty nut that they use in many ways.
Donna, Jim’s wife, makes halfbreed waffles, pancakes, cookies, pie, and a caramel candy from a recipe from Chicago. Jim says for the caramel candy you get your nuts ready, cook the caramel to soft ball stage, pour in your nuts, and then ”stir like hell and pour it out” Butternuts were his favorite to use in the caramel, but now uses Halfbreed or Constantine nuts.
How do you crack a nut anyway?
You start out by finding a comfortable chair, then you bolt a “nut holder” onto the arm of the chair. This keeps the nuts from shooting around the room because you put the nut into the indents in the cracker. Then you can get out the hammer.
Be sure and put a glove on the non-hammer hand so you have some cushioning from any missed hammer blows.
Jim says you don’t have to hit the halfbreeds very hard to crack them. Once they are cracked they are quite easy to get out of the shell.
Even though Jim grows many nut varieties on his farm, his true love is for the “halfbreeds.” Jim also grows Hazelnuts (from a bag of nuts he bought at Meijer’s – the nursery trees he bought died), and every tree has a unique size and shape of nut and exterior shuck. No varietal selection evident. He also still gathers nuts wherever he finds them. He has Hickory trees on his property, but his favorite Hickory nuts are from a tree down the road. He just walks a bit and gathers them from the road as they fall.
As I was leaving Jim smiled and asked me, as he surveyed all the screens of drying nuts covering most of the floor in his sunroom, “do you think I have enough nuts for the winter?” “Maybe” I replied.
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