As our apple trees put on their fall growth (and garden weeds think about dieing down), we take up the chore of gathering hazelnuts and walnuts–and dyeing T-shirts.
Hazelnuts–There are several species of hazels in cultivation. We are partial to the native (Corylus americana) because it grows as a hedge, which works well on our city lot. We have three of these fellows in a narrow bed by our front porch.
Hazels take several years to get established, but when they start producing, they give a good crop every year. We prune ours to make them fit between a walkway and property line, but the yield is still good.
This year we started harvesting the bronze husks the first week of September. Those that were still green we left on the tree to ripen, but ended up having to gather the bulk of the crop a little green to keep a pesky squirrel from stealing us blind.
The husks of a hazelnut are messy and sticky to shuck when you first pick them, so we stored ours in baskets on our front porch to dry. It only takes about a week for the husks to dry enough to be workable. Longer than that and you have to do more peeling than popping.
We will dry the nuts in open plastic containers for another month or so–sometimes placing them under the ceiling fan above our kitchen table to make sure no mold gets started. After that, we’ll crack the nuts and put them in the freezer.
Then on to the glory of hazelnut pie. I follow the recipe for Pecan Pie in the Southern Living Cookbook and sub brown sugar for white, and hazels for pecans. I know you’re not supposed to brag on your own cooking–so I won’t. But I will say that makin’-do never tasted better.
Not all of the crop is worth gathering though: the smallest nuts may be immature or hard to crack. And the nuts must be hulled not long after they are gathered. (We use a mallet or a corn sheller; some folks run over them with a car wheel, or press them with their foot.) Hulled nuts should be stored in an airy, squirrel-proof container and left to dry ’till around Christmas. We have a Potter Walnut Cracker that does a fine job with this tough customer. A ball peen hammer is the time-honored method of grandmothers and hungry kids.
I should say too that not everyone likes the extroverted personality of black walnut as it dominates any recipe it is part of. And of course, the whole process of gathering the nuts, hulling them out, and cracking out the meats is labor intensive–and notoriously messy. Gathering walnuts with a hole in your glove will give you a Tennessee manicure for sure. For a unique Christmas fudge, or just for eating nuts out of hand, though, a supply of black walnuts is hard to beat.
T-Shirts–I suppose it was the Tennessee manicure that got me thinking about dyeing T-shirts. We tried this for the first time last year, and ended up with several nice tans. This year we made a second run with similar results, except that I made the mistake of hanging the shirts up to dry some out of the pot, thinking that this would deepen the final color. Instead it caused the dye to migrated thru the shirt, which led to light and dark patches. If I had read my instructions more closely–the article, “Vegetable Dyes,” by Alice Schlein in The Family Creative Workshop (Plenary Publications, 1976)–I could have avoided this mistake. But to salvage the error, we had only to dye the shirts again.
Most vegetable dyes require a mordant (alum, iron sulfate, etc.) to make the dye colorfast. Walnuts hulls contain their own mordant in the form of tannin, so no other ingredient is necessary. The steps for the entire process (for one pound of fabric) may be summarized as follows:
- Soak 2-3 pounds of chopped or ground walnuts hulls overnight in a five-gallon enamel dye pot. (Green hulls with black spots make the darkest dye.)
- Fill the bucket 3/4 to the top with water and stir the mix to distribute the dye.
- Set up an outside burn pit–a few bricks and an old grill grate will work fine.
- Add several shirts to the mix–a half dozen is not too many.
- Bring to a near boil, and maintain at this temperature for an hour or more, stirring occasionally to prevent scorching.
- Damp the fire and allow the pot to cool. A half gal. of cold water may be added every ten or fifteen minutes to hasten cooling.
- Rinse the shirts in a tub of cool water, and continue with new water until little or no color washes out.
- Wash the shirts with a little detergent in cold water on a gentle cycle.
We use the heaviest T-shirts we can find. One brand that looks sharp and holds up well is Saddlebred. We also gave one of my old Carhartt button T’s a color overhaul–it came out looking like a teenager. Next up, if time allows: a pot of golden rod which makes a gray-green color. After that, we may try some Pigweed which yields a moss or forest green.