Manataka™ American Indian Council
By Shawna Cain
Cherokee National Treasure
As a food source, Cherokees value hickory
nuts bearing thinner shells and larger nut meat.
The archeological and historic
record demonstrates that hickory trees have played a vital role in Cherokee
culture as an important source of food and medicine, as well as a medium for
constructing tools, weaponry and many other cultural items.
Hickory continues to assume a significant place among contemporary Cherokees, utilized for making ball sticks, traditional baskets, bows, arrows, medicine and Kanuchi.
There are up to a dozen species of deciduous hickory trees native to North America, which produce oval nut fruits measuring 2 to 5 cm long and 1.5 to 3 cm in diameter. As a food source, Cherokees value those hickory nuts bearing thinner shells and larger nut meat. The most popular of hickory nuts are the mocker, shag bark and nutmeg. Ideally, hickory nuts are collected as soon as they begin falling from trees and before the first frost of the year. Late October through November is the most plentiful time to gather hickory nuts. However, as one elder known for his skill in making Kanuchi balls for hickory nut soup warned, to gather the appropriate nuts for making Kanuchi, one must learn to “get up early and beat the squirrels to the best nuts.”
Hickory nuts are enclosed in a four valved husk which splits open when mature. Cherokee elders teach that the outer green husks must be immediately removed and the hard exterior shell seasoned by placing near a wood stove or heat source for further hardening to prevent bug infestation. Hickory nuts must be seasoned for at least one month before used in Kanuchi -- making to ensure that the taste is mature and not green. Once seasoned, hickory nuts may be stored for up to a year for making Kanuchi balls.
Seasoned hickory nuts are then cracked open with a rock or hammer with the larger shell portions discarded. The remaining nut meat and shell fragments are then laboriously pounded until pulverized until they begin to stick together. This poultice is then shaped by hand into a soft-ball sized form, held together by the natural oil of the pounded hickory nut. After shaping, Kanuchi balls are usually wrapped and preserved in a refrigerator or freezer until ready to cook.
Accomplished Kanuchi-makers today are few and far between, making procurement of Kanuchi balls difficult. The art of making traditional Kanuchi balls has become endangered with fewer Cherokees gathering nuts and participating in the labor intensive processes involved in this ancient tradition that archeologists date back as early as 2000 B.C. However, today one may find Kanuchi (hickory nut soup) still being served at the tables of a few Cherokee traditionalists and area stomp grounds located in northeastern Oklahoma.
All information provided is given with the expressed permission and encouragement of Cherokee elders.
Making Kanuchi Balls
Kanuchi is considered to be a real delicacy. The nuts are gathered in the fall and allowed to dry for a few weeks before the Kanuchi making begins. It is a simple process, but that does not necessarily mean that is easy. The hickory nuts are cracked and the largest pieces of shell removed either by shaking the pieces through a loosely woven basket, or picking them out by hand.
Traditionally, a log was hollowed out on one end into a bowl like shape. The shelled hickory nuts are placed in the hollowed log and pounded with a long heavy stick with the end rounded to have the same contour, more or less, as the cavity in the log. The nuts are pounded until they are of a consistency that can be formed into a ball that will hold its shape. Kanuchi balls are usually about three inches in diameter and must be stored in a cold place. Today Kanuchi is usually preserved by freezing.
To prepare Kanuchi for the table, place a Kanuchi ball in a saucepan with about a quart of water and bring it to a boil to dissolve the ball. Allow the Kanuchi to simmer about ten minutes and then pour it through a fine sieve. (A colander lined with cheese cloth works very well for this.) All the remaining shells are left in the sieve.
If you have the time and patience you can pick the larger bits of nut meat from the shells in the sieve and add them to the liquid Kanuchi. The Kanuchi should be about as thick as light cream.
Most traditional cooks will add about two cups of homemade hominy to a quart of Kanuchi.
Some cooks prefer hominy grits, which are prepared according to package directions and added to the Kanuchi. Such things as consistency and how much hominy or hominy grits to add are, of course a matter of taste, as is the addition of salt or sugar.
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