Shelling Christmas Nuts The Old-Fashioned Way

TO lull me into a fast-buying mood, some Yuletide money hunter wants to me to please my friends this holiday with gifts of authentic nutcrackers.

Neither of my friends is expecting much, and expects to get, as usual, a felt pen wiper as shown on the needlepoint page of the Youth's Companion for Oct. 23, 1906. That was a good year, and it's the spirit that counts.

But I do have an authentic nutcracker from away back that becomes a conversation piece, and happy Christmas to all! My authentic nutcracker has two moving parts. The first piece is a standard household flatiron that hasn't had an authentic hot kitchen range to sit on in a Victorian diamond jubilee. This is the flatiron Mother always used for shirtwaists.

The second part, or piece, is a peen hammer. The hammer head is in good shape, but the handle broke years ago and Uncle Jedediah fashioned a ``tempewary'' replacement from an alder sapling. Uncle Jed always had teeth that talked funny. The last time I used this nutcracker on anything except nuts was in 1932 when I crimped a grommet on the tarp to my saw rig.

As an authentic nutcracker, this was as good as we needed. For one thing, we didn't have too many nuts to crack. Maine didn't run to that kind of nuts, and of the autumn offering of woodland nuts the acorns, horse chestnuts, and beechnuts completed the list. Acorns were still ``mast'' to our older folks and would make pig feed if raked up. And horse chestnuts were good only in our boyish slingshots to knock off any window pane that posed as Goliath.

I think nobody ever ate a horse chestnut. The beechnuts were delicious little tastes. They came with the first frost and had to be hunted and found hidden in the woodland duff - before the squirrels got them. The household cooks tried to promote a cupful or two of shelled beechnuts to go in the poultry stuffing for holiday dinners, and that meant a lot of work. Uncle Jed would say that shelling ``them midgets'' was like shearing a pig - ``Gweat cwy and little wool.''

We did have an occasional shagbark about the village that had been planted as a shade tree, but owners of such were possessive. And hazelnuts could be found wild along stone walls, but too early for winter purposes.

So we had butternuts. They could be gathered from the ground under a tree, to be spread out in the barn for the husks to dry, and to be guarded against invading squirrels.

Our two authentic butternut nutcrackers were the flatiron and hammer and the machinist's vice that was attached permanently to the workbench in the shop. The vice couldn't be carried into the warm kitchen for cold-weather ceremonies, but worked well, if tediously, on temperate days.

The butternut to be relieved of its carapace was fitted between the jaws of the vice, and then the handle turned until compression set in and the nut shell collapsed. The screw on a machinist's vice is designed for power rather than speed, so crushing butternuts took time.

When first extricated from its burr, a butternut is nine parts Bessemer steel and eight parts Kineo flint. But, and no ``but'' ever butted in English composition so meaningful a ``but'' as this one, butternut nut meat is well worth going after. The peen hammer method required less time than the squeeze of the vice, but it could be dangerous.

Those stove-top flatirons had a detachable wooden handle. While the iron was heating on the stove, getting ready to press the laundry, the handle was removed and inserted when it was time to lift the flatiron to the ironing board. As an iron cooled in use, it would be returned to warmth again and the handle put into another iron already hot. Mother planned on all day Wednesday for ironing, and went to bed exhausted right after supper, leaving the dish washing to fend for itself. She was grateful that a little paraffin on the bottom of the hot iron made it slip easier over the shirts.

This merciful slipperiness of the bottom of the iron was what could maim people all up and down the land. The operator would arrange a rocking chair, a cushion or ``piller'' at his back, and feet up on a hassock or the hearth, would hold the flatiron handle between his knees as with a clamp. A basket of nuts to be shelled was within reach, and a pail for excoriated shells.

Selecting a butternut, the operator places it on the upside-down flatiron, holding it between thumb and forefinger, and he swings down the peen hammer with malice aforethought. If all goes well, he makes no comment and bestows the nut meat and shells to ready for another nut.

Now and then, such is the perversity of the authentic nutcracker, the peen hammer will arrive at a ``slarnt,'' or the butternut will be disposed at the imperceptible downhill cant, and the slippery nature of the waxed flatiron will contrive a contretemps that sends the nut off like a bullet to imbed itself in the wall, or possibly in Auntie Maudie, who is minding her own business and was about to fetch a pan of drinking water for Ludwig, our live-in dog. Having jumped out of her gussets, Auntie Maudie is about to expostulate when the sheller of butternuts dutifully shouts, ``Look out!''

This was a close one, for we need Auntie Maudie at this moment. It was she who, earlier in the day, had said, ``If somebody'll crack me some butternuts, I'll make a batch of my ever-popular maple and butternut fudge.''

Then Uncle Jed asked, ``Where's the flatiron?''

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