Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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Crack Nuts and Cry Yule

Yule, Yule, my belly's full; crack nuts and cry Yule!

(Yorkshire, 17th century)

Well, it's not quite time to cry Yule yet, but in preparation I've certainly been cracking my share of nuts lately. From my Samhain trip down to Midwest Witch Country, I brought back several bags of hickory nuts and black walnuts gathered from the forest floors of the Driftless.

Delicious as they are, I can see why neither species has ever become a commercial success. Their shells are uncompromisingly hard, the nutmeats seated snugly. Shelling them has been an hours-long, involved business of hammers, picks, and tweezers. If ever I wondered what the ancestors did during the long nights of early winter, I now know.

But now, for all my labor, I've got two bags of treasure.

Although I restrained myself during the shelling process, I tasted just enough to know that the flavors of these wild nuts are incomparable. The hickory nuts taste like the best and freshest pecans that you've ever eaten, but with a slight, surprising, gaminess to them. And the black walnuts have an earthy pungency uniquely their own. If domestic walnuts were cow's milk, their wild and untamed kin would be goat's. Not to everyone's taste, maybe, but certainly to mine.

I've got plans for those two bags of treasure, now snugged in the freezer door: hickory shortbreads and black walnut sugar cookies, the sweetness carefully measured to balance and showcase that wild, aromatic bitter.

And soon they'll join grandma's lemon poppy-seed cake and date-apricot roll on the creaking Yule board.

But even that won't be the end of the story.

The black walnut shells now wait in a bag of their own on the back porch. Come evenday (equinox), they'll dye up eggs to the rich, dark chocolate brown of good, tilled loam.

And the Sun shall come up early.


Above: Preparatory to the great winter solstice festival of Chaumós, strings of walnut meats garland the gandau (funerary effigies) of the Kalasha, the last indigenous pagans of the Hindu Kush.



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Tagged in: Driftless Kalasha nuts yule
Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


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