My dad just turned 93, a big number, and I asked him what kind of cake he wanted for his birthday. Before he could answer, my mom chimed in and shared that “he loves hickory nut cake!” Now I’ve known this guy for a long time, seemingly a lifetime, so how could I not know this?
“His Aunt Lillian made him a hickory nut cake for his eighth birthday,” my mom went on, “and quite a few times after that. She even mailed the cakes to him when he was in the Army.” My dad’s eyes lit up as he remembered those cakes.
My dad had his own cake stories, of course. “Aunt Lillian would gather shagbark hickory nuts from the tree right out front of her house,” he told me, “and she would sit at the table and pick the nuts for hours on end. Even the squirrels avoided hickory nuts, because they’re hard as hell to pick. But she made me a cake most every year…until her eyes got bad.”
“She probably went blind from picking those damned nuts!” my mom interrupted.
“Lillian always lived with Inez and Sarah and Uncle Nicky,” my dad continued. “And she was very smart. She was the bookkeeper for Aunt Inez’s Milliner shop.”
“What?” I responded. “I thought Aunt Inez was a hatmaker?”
When my dad was growing up in Savannah, hickory nuts were easy to gather all over the green spaces of the city, and they probably still are. Hickory nut cakes were pretty popular in the 1930s, maybe because the Great Depression put a premium on recipes that required a trip to the park instead of a trip to the store.
Hickory nuts aren’t quite as easy to gather where I live in Virginia, but I was able to buy some on-line from a guy in North Carolina. I was psyched to find them, although it marked the first (and perhaps last) time I’ve done business with someone called “Carolina Nut Dude.”
My dad didn’t have any details on Lillian’s recipe, but I was able to find several recipes for “old fashioned hickory nut cake” on the net. The recipes were pretty similar, with most of them calling for flour, egg yolks, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and vanilla. I made mine in a loaf pan with brown sugar frosting, just as Aunt Lillian used to do.
We enjoyed our cake as my parents reminisced about Savannah in the 1930s. They shared fun memories of Lillian and of things that they did as kids, pretty amazing considering that it all happened 85 years ago.
As for shelling those nuts, that part hasn’t changed much. It is still a very tedious and time-consuming process. My mom jumped in to help me when I was making my cake, and then summarily stabbed herself in the wrist with a nut picker—reminding us why everybody needs a nutty aunt like Lillian.