Black Walnut Stew

Yesterday I sat outside on a nice, sunny 70 degree afternoon and shelled a large tub of rotten black walnuts that had been soaking in water overnight.  Beneath the shells were hundreds, thousands of ants.

These aren’t ordinary walnuts – they were gathered from the ground beneath a black walnut tree that grows at Poverty Point (with permission from the site manager.)  And they will be cooked down into a (hopefully) thick, dark liquid that I will use as a dye on another project.

As I sat outside, cross-legged on the ground and shelled the walnuts I thought about the ancient people at Poverty Point.  They weren’t farmers so they would have gathered nuts, probably even black walnuts, and removed the husks in a similar way.  While I discarded the nuts for the squirrels and raccoons, they would have been an important part of their diet (the nuts as well as the squirrels.)  When finished, I was left with a pile of husks, the ant colony and the pot of water they had been soaking in.


I have the pot of walnuts cooking on my stove this morning.  Somewhere in the vast world of the internet someone wrote that the aroma smelled like decaying limbs and leaves and was not unpleasant.  I’m not sure that Febreze will want to replace their “Linen and Sky” scent with it, but it’s not too bad so far.  These will cook at least a day, maybe longer, until the stew reaches the desired level of deep, rich brown that I’m after.

According to a book written by Daniel Moerman called “Native American Ethnobotany” (yes, again, the internet) black walnut bark was used by the Cherokee, Chippewa and Meskwaki to make dye.  I’m not sure how this experiment will turn out but spending some time with Poverty Point walnuts and a Native American process seems like a good way to spend a now dreary March weekend.

About Jenny Ellerbe

I am a photographer living, and working, in northeastern Louisiana.
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2 Responses to Black Walnut Stew

  1. Linda says:

    I can’t wait to learn what you will dye.
    Was Poverty Point used for burial? If so, you have more than the spirit of the natives with you there in the walnuts and ants….
    (I would not be surprised at all to learn that you had persuaded Febreze to try the fragrance and it was a new market sensation !)

    • Nope, the mounds at Poverty Point weren’t used for burials. Just another mystery. And after a day with the black walnut steam, I really don’t see it catching on as a fragrance.

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