The hickory nut doesn’t get even half the attention that it’s subtropical cousin the pecan does, but hickory nuts are very tasty and similar in nutrition and caloric values. Unlike the pecan, however, you aren’t likely to find hickories in the grocery store because they are rarely, if ever, commercially cultivated for the nuts, although they are grafted and grown for the nursery trade. Where you will find hickories is almost everywhere in the United States east of the Mississippi except in the warmest and coldest latitudes. While they may not have the sweet richness of pecans, they pack a big punch of flavor, and if you are used to bagged or canned nuts from the grocery store, the aroma upon cracking open a nut will make it hard not to eat every single one.
For my tastebuds, the Shagbark (Carya ovata) hickory is the best, the Shellbark (Carya laciniosa) comes in second, and the Pignut (Carya glabra) is so inconsistent I don’t find them worth collecting, especially with Shagbark trees so numerous here. However, individual trees of any species are highly variable, and I suggest a taste test before picking up a bunch and hauling them home. If you find a good Pignut tree, by all means collect and enjoy.
In addition to enjoying the nuts raw or toasted, they can be pulverized into a nut milk much like the recently popular almond milks in the health food section of your local grocery. Nut milks, if you are seeking to reduce or eliminate dairy or just the calories in dairy, are quite good and you’ll scarcely notice the difference in your cereal or coffee. Hickory trees can also be used to flavor sugar syrup with the bark, although I haven’t tried this myself. Shagbark hickories naturally exfoliate, so removing the loose bark in reasonable quantities does the tree no harm.
Hickories are another tree that you plant for future generations, if you plant one. Taking upwards of 10 years for any significant nut production, it’s hard to justify the space and time for the tree when in many regions they are very widespread in the wild and easily foraged (if you beat the squirrels to them). But if you are in a temperate climate in the US and would like to incorporate large nut producing trees into a permaculture landscape, either oaks or hickories will be your choice — and hickories are much less work than acorns to process and eat.
Acorns are a foraging story for another day.