By: Linwood Watson, MD
(picture by Linwood Watson, MD)
As so many of us race to a new smartphone or app update, one lesson the NC Native Ethnobotany staff has noted is how crucial old skills and tools are to real, meaningful food production. When we say “real”, we mean food that is more than a purchase, two minutes of rudimentary nourishment, and a crumpled wrapper. Certainly, not every meal can be like the after church grand Sunday lunches and dinners at Grandma’s. Hopefully at least a handful of times a year though, your food is an experience with a plant, family, community and others. These meaningful relationships require some time and appreciation. Much like ceremony, one has to want to participate and see the benefits as part of the larger whole of life-even if the connections are not immediately obvious. As many elders have told us, “You have to have faith in The Creator. You have faith. That is the first step.”
A few weeks ago, it was such blind faith that spurred me to break out an old family tool, an old lever action manual pecan sheller. Many people scoff at older tools as relics, no longer useful in the modern times. However, many an old farmer will admit to you, old tools tend to be works of art in efficiency. Even in larger farm families of past years, labor was a resource not to be wasted, and these tools could get the job done with minimal fuss. Moreover, because they survived to be old, many of these tools by definition are good enough to have stood the test of time. As tool users, we just have to escape our bias and assumptions that newer always means better. It does not!
Older tools have another vital trait. They have a lineage. They hold memories, associations, and connotations that, when picked up again, are just as fresh. It is this subtle renewal that can occur with old tools that does not exist with the “As Seen on TV” purchase from a big box store.
Recently, the Hansens at Ozark Akerz Regenerative Farm, friends of the NC Native Ethnobotany mission, passed along a grocery bag of pecans to me during a trip to see their heritage breed Pineywoods cattle. The Hansens had spent most of the winter amazingly successful at battling squirrels and utilizing the pecan crop from 2 grandmother trees on their homestead that appear to be at least 150 years old. At one point the small farm anchored the trees, now the trees were anchoring the farm.
And so, on a rainy Saturday morning I broke out at the manual pecan sheller, a relic from my childhood, found while cleaning out my parents’ home. I don’t have any pecan trees in my yard, but I still saved as a keepsake of good times gone by. The old sheller has the patina of old, meaning that even when you dusted it- it still looks dusty. I am in my mid 40’s, and I could recall the sheller from the earliest days of elementary school. It was not a purchase; rather, the sheller had been handed down much earlier to my parents after an “old friend down the road” passed away.
Initially, I remembered the frustration of working to open a shell only to find grubs had left an eaten black dusty mess inside and me empty handed. Even still, I hesitantly asked my youngest child, still in elementary school, if she wanted to help me shell pecans. I held my breath and then…
She said, “Sure daddy, what is that metal thing?”
I said, “It’s a pecan sheller little lady. Your grandparents had it. Now we use it.”
She looked at me quietly.
“Here, watch this,” as I took out a pecan, laid it in between the mashers, and pressed the lever.
Her eyes got wide with a crack and a crunch as the shell burst open, one fragment careening about a foot to the right on the kitchen table. She watched as I took a pocket knife and carefully took out each half of the nutmeat. Then, the 2 pieces were plopped into a metal pan. Perfect.
With the suddenly and immediately gratifying prospect of “smashing something” my youngest was off to the pecan shelling races. I gave her a dull pocket knife so she could pick out the nutmeat fragments herself, and then time dissolved. Before I knew it, our hull bowl was full, and we had a gallon Ziploc bag of succulent nutmeats to freeze for later use.
As she ran to play outside in her customary childhood fashion…meaning without cleaning up the area…I thought about the old sheller as I wiped up the pecan dust. I thought about my parents and how I missed them. I could picture the house I grew up in. I recalled chasing around and rasslin’ with my brother. I was thankful for the Hansen’s generosity and their pecan trees. And of course, I was immensely thankful for the fun time with my daughter. As many parents can relate to, when I asked her to join in I was expecting:
1. Her interest to last about 45 seconds, with boredom and complaining then setting in.
2. Not to “accomplish” anything, meaning the Ziploc bag would be about 2/3 empty due to teaching, cajoling, whining, etc.
3. When I was not looking, she would grab my knife and cut herself, and we would both then drown in tears and band-aids.
4. Some combo or all of the above.
And yet, the old pecan sheller, with just enough “hands on” charm, had wooed father and daughter for almost an hour-and had nuts to show for it. If you think about it, maybe we are the “tools” for not respecting our old tools and the food traditions they can yield. I am convinced these tools help one’s spirit as much as they help get the job done and put crops in the field or food on the table. Next time you see an elder and you see an old plow, farm implement, or kitchen utensil, ask him or her about that tool. Ask what memories they have about it. Who knows, in time you will be making your own memories as your food becomes more than a purchase with no background and only a UPC code. It will be nourishment, something we all can use a little more of as we aim to emerge from COVID.
1. Ozark Akerz Regenerative Farm. Visit www.ozarkakerz.com to learn more about this homestead working hard to restore a resilient heritage breed of cattle, Pineywoods cattle, to the world.