Wood that's hot, hard, strong, and tasty

Indians native to the Mississippi River bottomlands looked to the great shagbark hickory tree for bows and baskets, but they particularly valued its nuts. These they pounded into fine pieces, then boiled. After straining, the remaining liquid contained concentrated nut oil. This was used much like milk in the mixture for corncakes. Pioneer children liked the nuts as well, and ate them as fast they could be cracked.

Their elders, though, favored the shagbark's wood to produce smoked ham and bacon. Burned green, its smoke imparts an unmistakable taste and distinct aroma to the meat.

Besides smoke, hickory wood—that of the shagbark and 15 other species that lumbermen lump together—produces more thermal units of heat than almost any other hardwood. A cord of it equals the heat output of 200 gallons of No. 2 fuel oil, making it one of the hottest woods around. And in native woods, only dogwood and Osage-orange are harder.

Hickory's hardness is only one of many qualities that still makes the wood a favorite for tool handles. That it also resists shock and flexes without breaking gives it a starring role. Few people know, though, that hickory rivals steel in strength (pound for pound), yet is more elastic, less heat conductive, and far less brittle.

With all these traits, it's no wonder that in times gone by craftsmen turned great amounts of hickory wood into the hubs and rims of wagon wheels, trotting-horse sulkies, and loom parts. Today, it has a growing popularity for kitchen cabinets.

Illustration: Jim Stevenson