Making Uksak Ulhkomo: Choctaw Hickory Milk
Updated: Sep 6, 2020
Sometimes something happens unexpectedly and it's like the years that separate the present day from an ancient time just melt away. It can leave you feeling a close connection with those who came before. On our Sunday morning walk this past weekend, we came across something we didn't expect. Our buffalo like to make wallows in the dry, sandy ground, to combat the biting insects of summer; wallowing is also one of their social displays. As we inspected one of these wallows last Sunday, we noticed a rock that looked out of place. Upon turning it over, we saw that it was a nutting stone. Long ago, someone had painstakingly pecked a round depression into its flat surface to hold hard-shelled nuts, as they were cracked one at a time with a sharp, downward blow from another rock. Sharp indeed! Whoever used it last had smashed a nut hard enough to break this particular nutting stone in two, right down the middle. In addition to the broken nutting stone, this buffalo wallow also held the tip of a stone knife blade that had been chipped by a very skilled artisan. Judging from the knife blade, I'd surmise that this nutting stone cracked its final nut around 2,000 years ago. We spent a few minutes relishing the connection that holding these artifacts in our hands brought with the ancient people who used to live on this same land. We snapped a few photos, respectfully set the artifacts back where we had found them, and went on about our walk.
I'm an archaeologist by training, and I haven't come across very many nutting stones in my career. Interestingly, on our walk through a different pasture just the Sunday before, we had come across a complete nutting stone. Finding the two nutting stones on the farm within eight days of each other is all the more interesting because now is the time of year for the native nut harvest. 2,000 years ago, perhaps on the very days of the year that we found these two stones, they were being used to process hickory nuts gathered on the hills nearby. The people who used the nutting stones were the ancestors of today's Caddo Nation. However, the hickory nut harvest that they were participating in extended across the eastern United States and through the homeland of our own ancestors. After coming across the nutting stones, it seems only fitting to share a traditional Choctaw recipe for an ancient, healthy, and really tasty dish, made from hickory nuts. It is called "Uksak Ulhkomo"
Uksak Ulhkomo literally translates as "hickory nuts mixed with water". In English, it is usually called "hickory milk". It was made in two different forms. One was a thick liquid, intended to be used soon after preparation, by adding it to stew, as a dip for traditional breads, or as a drizzle. The other version of Uksak Ulhkomo is a kind of hickory nut ball, which could be stored for a while before being dropped into a boiling stew. In either form, hickory milk is rich, very tasty, and filling. It contains a good balance of fats and provides complex carbohydrates, protein, and more calories than most other wild plant foods. Many of today's traditional Choctaw elders in Oklahoma grew up enjoying it, but almost no one makes it anymore because of the amount of work involved. Hickory trees still grow all around southeastern Oklahoma, and work aside, this amazing traditional dish deserves to be remembered, and maybe brought back to the family dinner table. Doing the research for the Choctaw Food book, I came across no less than six different ways that Uksak Ulhkomo was traditionally prepared. Below is how we prepared the hickory nut balls pictured at the top of the blog.
First, you have to make the nutting stone to crack the nuts. It should be made from a type of hard, durable stone such as basalt that will not to grind into powder during use, or break easily. I found a flat piece of quartzite about the size of my hand. Then, I took a heavy, hard piece of flint and chipped a dull point on it. I set the rock that would become the nutting stone on a firm support, and then bashed the tip of the flint into the middle of the rock. Each blow removes a tiny pieces of material. After a few hours of work, and a few replacements of the flint pecking tool, I had made a round depression made into the stone, about the right size for the bottom quarter of a golf ball to fit into.
There are a number of different hickory species. Kingnut and Shagbark were Choctaw favorites for Uksak Ulhkomo, but any species of hickory tree that produces sweet-tasting nuts will work. After gathering the nuts, I removed the green, outer husks. Then, I built a fire and let it burn down to a bed of hot coals. I put the hulled nuts on the coals and left them until the shells started to discolor (about 10 minutes). Parching the nuts in this way makes the nutmeats shrink, pulling away slightly from the inter-fingering hickory nut shell. This saves work later, during the shelling process. In the past, parching had added importance because hickory nuts were bulk processed for dry storage and parching helped them to last for up to three years.
Continuing with the recipe, set the nutting stone in a large, flat basket. Put one hickory nut in the depression in the top of the stone and hit it hard with a round, heavy rock. The shell should break. Keep hitting it until the shell and nut are in fragments and let them fall into the basket. Continue this process with more nuts until the desired amount of crushed nuts has been produced. Next, carefully pick the nutmeats out of the shells. This is time consuming, and you'll appreciate the fact that parching makes this process a little easier. Next, grind the shelled nutmeats into small fragments in a wooden mortar and pestle. Mix the pulverized hickory nutmeats with just enough water to form into balls. These are Uksak Ulhkomo. They can be stored for a period of weeks. When ready to use, drop one or two nut balls into a pot of hominy or stew. The flavor and richness that they impart is worth the work.
Hints for the Modern Kitchen - Collecting hickory nuts is a great early fall family activity. If hickory nuts are not available in your area, they can be purchased commercially. As in the past, if the nuts are not going to be processed immediately, they should be parched. First, hull the nuts. Then, place them in a single layer on a cookie sheet. Bake at 500 degrees for approximately 10 minutes.
Freshly hulled nuts, or nuts that have been parched, can most easily be broken in a lever style nutcracker that has been specially designed for hickory nuts. Carefully remove the nutmeats from the broken fragments of shell using a metal nut pick. Then, pulverize the nutmeats in a food processor. Mix with a few drops of water and form into balls as described above. Wrap each ball individually in plastic wrap and freeze until you need it. The next time you're making Tanchi Labonna, drop a couple of the Uksak Uhlkomo balls in and see what you think. If hickory nuts cannot be obtained, pecans are a decent substitute.
For more Ukska Uhlkomo recipes, or for more information on the culinary and cultural uses of hickory see "Choctaw Food: Remembering the Land, Rekindling Ancient Knowledge" (Thompson 2019).