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grub: Hawkin' Walnuts: Ruth Lanham

The ads are sport, shock and deadly serious all at the same time, as good a read as any dime-store mystery novel. And here was a gripping subplot — a bucket of black walnuts for sale for 10 bones. It seemed the negotiation alone would be worth the money.

When I reached Lanham she told me the ad had been running for a week. As for calls, she'd received not a one. "You don't see black walnuts around here," she said, sounding somewhat dejected by the lack of activity. "I figured somebody would want them." She'd decided on the $10 price tag, she said, because it just seemed right.

Lanham ought to know — she has her own rich, and sometimes sordid, history with the nut. Strong memories of shelling and eating them return to her — she's smashed countless numbers of them to bits with a hammer just to pick their meat. They've brought her pleasure (the pound cakes and brownies flavored with them) as well as pain. "I had to get rushed to the hospital one year," she says, recounting the time oils from walnut husks got in her eye while she was harvesting a batch. "My son was doing 80 miles per hour down those windy roads," she says. "I thought I was going blind."

The debacle was not enough to keep Lanham from the nut, and last year found her picking them off the ground again. She returned home with another ripe batch. "I have a little bucket in my kitchen," she says. "It's just something I like." Selling them, she says, was a way to make a few extra bucks.

Prized for their smoky, rich flavor, black walnuts are called for in dozens of recipes, and their husks generate a powerful dye. "This is an old-time thing," Lanham says, referring to the ceremony of using the nuts. "I remember eating them out of the shell. If you had a 10-pound bag of walnuts to crack then, you were in for a day's work."

The history, the fabled taste — I was sold. It was negotiation time. But there was suddenly a glitch. Lanham admitted she didn't have the walnuts anymore. "I left them outside and it rained and the bucket tipped over," she said. "The squirrels got them."

Just like that her entire inventory was lost, but no matter — Lanham already had another ad running in this week's issue to fill the void. This time she was hawking a frying pan. Asking price: $17. "It's an old family skillet," she says. "It's really nice." When I ask why she was selling it, she didn't bat an eye. "Frankly," she said, "I need the money." — Dave