Growing up in Adair County, Oklahoma, you learn there are certain things so deeply embedded in the collective consciousness that they are regarded the way one regards air or dirt: They exist simply because they do. Kanuche (pronounced “ca-NUHchee”) is one such thing, an ancient Cherokee food made from ground hickory nuts that has survived through the millennia to this day—long enough for aunties to fight over whose recipe is better or whether one should use salt or sugar. But more on that later.
Using nuts gathered from one of the 12 species of hickory trees native to North America, the basic method for kanuche-making hasn’t changed since the time of Stonehenge. After drying for several weeks, the nuts were then cracked and shelled, the meats pounded in hollowed out tree stumps using a wooden stick about the size and weight of a large baseball bat. From there, they were shaped by hand into balls ranging in size from golf balls to softballs and stored.
Originally, the kanuche balls were soaked in cold water and strained to produce a kind of drink. At some point in time, they began being used to make soup, usually mixed with rice or ground hominy. High in good fats, protein, magnesium and B-vitamins, kanuche is a super-food, but it’s hard work. Today it’s considered a highly-prized delicacy among tribal members, as production has declined precipitously in the age of processed, pre-packaged foods.
“The utilization of hickory nuts goes back to the time of paleo-Indians, who hunted and gathered what they ate and used either rocks or wood to get to the meat from the nut,” says Pat Gwin, director of the Natural Resources department for the Cherokee Nation. “Prior to the Walmart era, it was a process to render high fat caloric content from nuts that sustained our people for thousands of years.”
Deceptively simple, yet versatile, kanuche recipes are tightly guarded family recipes and the subject of robust debates over the orthodoxy of whether one should use hominy and salt (for, say, a savory soup recipe) or rice and sugar (blasphemous to some, a treasured dessert to others).
“As long as I can remember, kanuche has been around,” says Mike Doublehead, a member of the Cherokee Nation from the Cherry Tree Community. “My mother always had a big pot on the stove at Christmas with rice and sugar. We used a cup—not a bowl. And we drank it as a dessert.”
“My mother boiled the balls and broke them up and strained them [to remove leftover shells],” says Ruth Victor. “And she added either rice or hominy, like a soup.”
“My mom always made kanuche balls with ground hominy and a little honey, but my Aunt Mae used rice,” says Cherokee elder Douglas Walkingstick from Bell Community. “Of course, I liked my mom’s better. We ate them dry in place of candy at Christmas.”
Today, kanuche balls are now often sold by word-of-mouth by those who still venture out in search of hickory trees every fall, preserving a tradition that began thousands of years ago. Throughout history, tribes also relied on hickory trees not only for their food, but also the wood for bows, lacrosse stick handles, shelter and fuel, while the bark and leaves were used for making syrups, bug repellant and medicines.
“I don’t take kanuche for granted because for us it is tradition,” says Doublehead. “It’s who we are.”