You Call It Juglans Cinerea—-I Call it Agony


Anybody out there recognize that picture?  Anyone out there know what that is?  The scientific name is Juglans cinerea but the common name is Butternut.  Not squash although the above picture shows a squashed butternut in the Mason City Public Library parking lot.  It is a type of walnut. It is sometimes referred to as a white walnut.  I refer to it as agony.

Why, in heavens name, would I call this simple and seemingly innocent item “agony”?  It doesn’t look like it deserves that title at all, does it?

Flash back about 48 years or so to a brick two story house sitting on the banks of the Ohio River at Hannibal, Ohio.  Let me take you inside to the kitchen where four silver pie tins are arranged neatly on the yellow formica topped table. Beside each pie tin is a nut picker.  Inside each pie tin is a collection of broken shards and bits and pieces of shells in various stages of brokenness.

In our household we had a job list on Saturday mornings.  It was not uncommon for us to be woken up on Saturday mornings with loud music blasting through the parsonage.  My Daddy loved music and he loved to use this method to wake up sleepy heads on Saturday mornings when he thought we had been sleeping in too late.  I imagine it was a reasonable hour but I clearly recall that when I heard the strains of Handel’s Messiah drifting up to the bedroom that I shared with my older sister I cringed and hid under the covers.

Why?  Because I knew one of the jobs on the job list for each of us was to pick out that dreaded pie plate full of nuts.  I hated it.  If there were still bits of the outer shell my hands got stained with the blackness and I hated, absolutely hated. that job.  The pick would never cooperate.  I could never get the nice large chunks out of the nut fragments like my siblings could.  I got teeny tiny bits and pieces.  Crumbs.  We had a saying in our house growing up that “crumbs are more”.  This usually applied to cookies .  When all that was left in the cookie jar was one cookie and  a pile of crumbs we tried to justify it by saying that “crumbs are more” and convince the other sibling to take the crumbs.

Those nuts got the best of me many times.  I would do all of the other jobs on my job list that was usually posted on a sheet of newsprint.  My Daddy loved newsprint.  He loved lists.  He loved making lists of jobs for us to do.  And he obviously loved the taste of butternuts in cookies and nut breads so he tortured me with that silver pie plate of broken nuts—just waiting to be sorted and picked.  Ugh.

I am scarred by the experience of picking butternuts.  When I saw the broken pieces on the cement in the parking lot, staining the area where they fell and got run over by the many cars that come and go, those memories came flooding back to me.  The agony of sitting there picking away at the nooks and crannies of the nut.  Accidentally poking myself with the pick and drawing blood.

Oh I know that it really wasn’t that bad but in my young mind it was right up there with cleaning the bathroom sink that I could never get clean enough to suit my mother.  She would always tell me to use more “elbow grease” to get it clean.  Since I was such a naive little thing I asked where I could find elbow grease.  My siblings lovingly concocted some awful looking container of ingredients that I could use.  I have no clue what was actually in it but I do know that they got a good laugh at my expense.

Seeing the butternut brought back a flood of memories of childhood for me this past week.  I quite honestly had a wonderful childhood filled with many happy memories .  The butternut incident might have been exaggerated in my mind a bit but it did make me remember vividly how much I disliked that particular job.

butternut2Chris rode in my car last weekend and he picked this out of my cupholder to put his travel cup in its place.  He looked at me with an expression that had me laughing.  “Why is this in your cupholder?”  When I responded “For a blog post” he calmly put it aside and said “it figures”.  Yes…..nothing is safe from being written about on It’s Just Life.

Have you ever had an object trigger a vivid childhood memory like this butternut triggered mine?  I would love to hear about it—comment in the comment section and remember that your comments are helping to make a donation to Hawkeye Harvest Food Bank this month. 



  1. I’d never heard of butternut, but the more I looked at your photos, the more I remembered my own experiences with the black walnut — Juglans nigra. Yep: they’re cousins, both in the walnut family. The butternut also is known as the white walnut.

    The thing about the black walnut is that you had to get the husk off first. Hammers were good. And then there was that interminable process of picking out the meat. We did it only around the holidays, and Mom made the very best ice box cookies with them. I still have the recipe she used, clipped from the Des Moines register: Mrs. Stovall’s Ice Box Cookies.

    A few years ago, black walnut ice cream started showing up down here. Then, I found a source for already shelled nut meats. I sent a couple of pounds of them to my aunt in Kansas City as a Christmas gift, and finally ‘fessed up. No, I hadn’t picked them myself. I bought them. “Smart girl,” she said. “I always hated that job.”

    • So it wasn’t just me?? I feel vindicated!!! Yes–these also had the icky outer husk that my dad took the hammer to. If he were still alive he would have laughed at this post. I imagine my mom will have a few words about it.

  2. Love this story 🙂

  3. We have the black walnuts all over my area. The critters love them, especially the squirrels. I don’t mind them, though some neighbors hate the mess it leaves on their sidewalk.
    I have an incredible memory, which is a blessing and a curse.

    • Yep–the black ones are very similar and I thought that these were those but my sister corrected me awhile back. They do make a mess but they are good in baked goods…..I guess.

  4. huh.. i never knew they were butternuts. 🙂

  5. Every morning of summer vacation, my sister and I would wake up to a list a mile long on the kitchen table. We would wait until the last hour before our parents arrival from work to start our chores. My mother thought this list would keep us busy and out of trouble,ha! Our most hated chore was weeding the garden, well we disliked anything to do with the garden.
    My picking of walnuts was purely for my pleasure. Had I been made to do them for the baking I wouldn’t have been as eager when they started falling to the ground.

    • Great memories, huh? Isn’t it funny how some memories are so vivid and others…..just fade away? I am sure your mother thought you were doing all of those jobs all through the day! Did you stay out of trouble???? 🙂

  6. I bet this blog post takes most of us back to a chore we had to do as a child. We had black walnuts and yep, I remember all too well how difficult it seemed to get the ‘goodie’ (as my mama called the nut meat) out. But the most painful memory I have of them is whenever some bratty boys pelted my friends and I with those nuts still in their hard outer shells! Ouch, did they ever hurt when you were hit with one! But I had to laugh at your hubby finding the butternut in your cup holder – sounds exactly like something I would do and something my husband would say, all for the blog! 😀

    • I bet you had your share of bruises from those stupid nuts! They would really hurt if you got hit by them. Yikes. I would not like that at all!!! And yes—all for the blog!

  7. We had black walnuts! I was the youngest of three kids … and boy would we get in trouble when we threw them at each other leaving those nasty stains on clothes! It was the stains … not the throwing that got us in trouble. 😉

  8. Randy needs to read this story. He likes to collect nuts, stash them in the cupboard with the promise that he will crack them open. But then he doesn’t. I recently tossed uncracked nuts he gathered in a Wisconsin park one year ago.

    You’re right about anything possibly becoming a blog post. But I did wonder where you were going with this one.

  9. And the moral of this story is: “Working with nuts can be agonizing..”

  10. I love this post and makes me think of certain parts of my childhood. Now, they are agony as I stumble on my morning walk or run in the dark of the morning, they litter the sidewalk and threaten a twisted ankle! :-/

  11. We have black walnuts all over the Tiny Ten! I am trying to think of something that triggers a memory for me.. lots of good smells of various foods cooking trigger good memories of my childhood 😀

  12. I’m triggered all the time but not memories that I look on fondly.

  13. Did your siblings nickname you squirrel? Well, my Mom convinced me to trick or treat for 3 years as a Virginia Slims cigarette and every time I see white long johns I’m somewhat traumatized. And a red stocking camp sends me under the bed. My mother was good – very,very good. Warmth was her halloween priority.

    • No they did not. I was just the baby. Virginia Slims? Why does that not surprise me? Very politically incorrect these days just like those candy cigarettes. I am surprised you are not more scarred than you appear to be.

  14. For me it was choke cherries. I hated them with a passion. First we had to pick them in the sand hills on very hot days with many mosquitoes to keep us company. Then we washed them and picked out the twigs and leaves that fell into the pail. Then, this is what I hated most, I had to put them through a sieve with a wooden mallet to squeeze out the juice and leave the pits behind. I would get blisters on my hands doing this and my hands would be stained a deep purple. Of course I enjoyed the wonderful jam mom made out of those miserable berries!

    • Oh choke cherries sounds like the exact same type of experience—–the stained hands, the pain and the agony. Glad to hear that I was not alone in my misery. 🙂

  15. Helen Brown says:

    I am now feeling so sorry about my four kids having such terrible parents that made them do such terrible work. I hated when I was young that I had to go out in the hot sun and pull weeds or even worse, take off the bugs that were eating our garden plants. I would pick them off and put them in a can of of oil which would kill them. Doesn’t that sound like a lot of fun?

  16. Well, down south here we have our pecans! From now through November/December, pecans start falling… any other fruit, there are several varieties. Unfortunately, my Mom would always get the “native” pecans; supposedly they had the most flavor. Native pecans are about 1″ oval round…some a bit bigger while many other varieties are 2-1/2″ oval and larger. Anyways, Dad would crack and then my brother and I would have to use those picks to pick the bits of meat out of the cracked shell. (I too remember stabbing my fingers while trying to pick out the meat, plus the cuts from the cracked shells!) Then after what seemed like endless hours of picking, Mom would use the “pickings” to make a pecan pie! Now, most growers will crack and blow your pecans when you purchase them….yes, only way to go!! We’ve always got our memories; good, bad and all in between!

  17. cleaning tack. ugh. the worst farm job in my opinion. The smell of wet leather can trigger this in me — but it’s the smell of the tack oil/polish that is the worst. I would have rather mucked the stalls. I gotta go rock in the corner now….

    • Ugh—-cleaning tack does sound less than fun. I hope you are not overly traumatized by the memory but I have a feeling you are still in the corner rocking. I’m sorry…..

  18. My mother’s shortbread cookies in the freezer! She would bake her shortbread ahead of Christmas & put them in the freezer. I used to sneak down & steal a cookie or 2 all the way up to Christmas. She never accused me, but I think she knew.


  1. […] I also remember that the Hannibal Locks and Dam were being built when we lived there and since the Ohio River was right across the road from our house (below those two banks which are smaller than I remember) we would watch all the construction workers from the banks and I even remember throwing them apples from our stations on the banks.  I do not remember if we threw them butternuts –oh those dreaded ugly butternuts that I wrote about recently. […]

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