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Experienced holiday bakers are nuts about the annual crop that falls from Wisconsin's shagbark hickory trees.

Considered a delicacy by foodies, hickory nuts are delicious, with a sweet and buttery flavor all the way to the finish. They don't carry the bitter aftertaste some other nuts do.

But hickory nuts are seldom seen in stores because they're so difficult to shell. Few are willing to tackle the tedious job of cracking the shells gently enough to extract the heart-shaped nutmeat halves.

Pete Costello of Eden, who recently turned 89, is not only up to the task, he loves it!

I had the pleasure to sit down with Pete four years ago and watch as he made short work of a bushel of hickory nuts. He told me that a heart ailment forced him to give up his job as a school bus driver, and how he eagerly embraced another pursuit.

Sitting in the basement on a cushioned seat salvaged from a school bus, the octogenarian keeps up a steady rhythm as he breaks open the shells of another batch of hickory nuts scooped from a hot-water bath atop a nearby hot plate.

"I farmed all my life and when I couldn't do that anymore, I began driving school bus," Pete recounts. When waiting for kids to return to the bus at away sports games, Pete brought along a 5-gallon pail of pre-cracked hickory nuts to shell.

"When the kids found out what I was doing, they asked to help. So I'd send a bucket down the aisle, and when it came back, it was empty!" he laughs. "They ate all the nuts."

Pete enjoyed the kids, but after he had to give up driving, he was unsure what his next pastime would be...until friends and neighbors began dropping off hickory nuts and asking him to "go halves" on them.

News of Pete's nutty hobby spread, and soon every shelf in his basement was filled with boxes of nuts waiting to be shelled and meats extracted.

One year he shelled 25 bushels of hickory nuts with the help of Loretta, his wife of 64 years.

"This is my new job and I have the best time doing it," said Pete, adding that he usually shells between 8 to 10 bushels each year.

The sounds of shells crunching between the jaws of Pete's customized nutcracker begins filling the house at 6 a.m. It's silenced only by breaks for meals, an occasional game of cribbage or his daily episode of Gunsmoke.

"I had so many nuts coming in that I fell behind, so now I'm getting up at 5 in the morning," he said. "I don't mind. I enjoy doing this and it keeps me limbered up."

The chipper 89 year old hit a bit of a speed bump a couple of years ago when he suffered a stroke. At the time he told me, "I don't have time for this!" He's back at it, as if he hasn't missed a beat.

"I came out of that in unbelievably good condition," he says. "Having a good attitude makes all the difference. I've got a good wife, great kids and a bunch of grandkids and now three great-grandkids and two more on the way. That keeps me going."

Cracked some mysteries

Over the years, Pete learned a secret or two about removing the meats so intricately entwined in these hard shells.

"If the nuts are dry, the shells shatter when you crack them.  By boiling them in water a couple of minutes, the shells soften and break open more easily," explained Pete, holding a perfect nutmeat half. "Look at that! Now isn't that a dandy?"

Vices, hammers and handheld nutcrackers simply shatter the meats into fragments. Instead, Pete uses a heavy-duty tabletop lever with jaws to crack thousands of nuts every fall.

"One thing you learn is to keep your fingers out of the jaws," Pete said. "You only have to learn that lesson once."

After the Costellos settle up with their nut gatherers, the meats are sealed in Ziplock bags and frozen until sold by a friend at a farmers market.

"The nuts are gone almost as fast as we can crack them," Pete says. "It takes 3 to 4 pounds of hickory nuts to produce 1 pound of meats."

"The Amish are good customers and will take all they can get. We also sell some at a store in Dotyville," Pete said.

While Pete would do it for free, a pound of hickory nuts will fetch as much as $14 a pound. 

Loretta withholds some of the bounty for a nibble now and then, and for baked treats. "Our favorite is hickory nut cake," she says. "And we enjoy hickory nut pie...yes, it's a lot like pecan pie."

Former bus rider Katie Klein says Pete was well liked by schoolchildren who boarded his yellow bus every year.

"He was kind and always cared for his kids," she recalled. "He knew everyone's name and something about each of them. He's one of those sweet fellows that anyone would want as a grandpa."

Pete adds, "I enjoyed driving bus for 18 years, but now I like cracking hickory nuts even at my age. If you enjoy what you're doing, it isn't any work at all."

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