Emotional Baggage About a Bag of Holiday Nuts

Diamond Mixed Nuts

I don’t know about you, but I’m very careful with my nuts. I have to be. I’m not allergic or anything, but I hold dear a cabal of prejudices stemming from what amounts to early childhood traumas. And my particular brand of nut crazy kicks in big time at this time of year.

It started in November 1966, when we moved into our new home, which my dad built. My mother had a holiday tradition of setting out a bowl of Diamond mixed nuts in the shell on the low-slung living room coffee table. (Momma Leite was mightily influenced by mid-century Danish design.) My dad had his own ritual, which he brought over from Portugal: making an “X” in the bottom of a dozen or so chestnuts and tossing them in the oven.

Surrounded by mixed nuts, I grew curious. I grabbed the heavy etched nutcracker, the kind that could do damage to a two-pound lobster, and had at it. It was then I began to understand that not all nuts are created equal.

Let me break it down for you:

Walnuts were the hardest nut to crack. Anytime I tried to get one into the cracker, it ricocheted off glasses, vases, or the hi-fi, and eventually wobbled under the furniture, only to be found by my panic-stricken mother sometime in February.

“You’re feeding mice!” she’d say, waving the nuts, now coated with dog hair, in my face.

“But, Ma,” I tried to reason, “we don’t have mice.”

“Keep this up, young man, and we will,” she answered, as she slapped the walnuts in my palm. And with that, she’d make me skulk out into the woods behind our house and toss the offending orbs. In the end it was never particularly hard to abstain from walnuts because I found them too bitter.

As for the rest, well, Brazil nuts were too weird for me then, and I still don’t like them now. It’s like biting into a flavorless, oily macadamia nut. (Desculpe, all my Brazilian brethren, but it’s the truth.) Almonds in their shells reminded me of  peach pits sucked dry by toothless octogenarians.

My dad’s nuts, his beloved chestnuts, were never quite a favorite. Although I loved the slightly bitter, woodsy smell of them roasting in the oven and adored how they looked like blooming flowers as their skins peeled back from the heat, I always found them a schooch too starchy. (But recently I did find and have come to enjoy jarred chestnuts, which are just the slightest bit sweet and mild tasting.)

Then there were the hazelnuts. They looked too much like acorns, and I was emotionally scarred by acorns in my youth. What happened, since you asked, was that one September afternoon I dumped a T-shirt’s worth of acorns I had collected into my top bureau drawer—I think I was going to do some craft project with glitter. (Note: This was waaaaaaaaay before Martha ever did anything with nuts and/or glitter, thank you very much.) Several months later my mother bolted from my room screaming at full throttle. The reason? The bottom of the drawer was covered with maggots. Apparently, they were growing in the acorns and hatched just in time for the holidays. Since then, a barely audible retching sound manages to escape whenever I look at a hazelnut in the shell.

Pecans, I like, and I carry no emotional baggage about them. Their shells looked like beautifully carved and hand-burnished chair finials. Plus they’re pretty easy to crack open, and their meaty, slightly sweet flavor is addictive.

All these years later, I’ve come to love just about every nut, especially when roasted, but I’ve carried my nut bias into the kitchen, where, I must admit, I’ve become a bit of an autocrat as to where and when they can be used.

To whit: No nuts of any kind can or should be added to chocolate chip cookies. Period. It’s an abomination against God and the memory of Ruth Wakefield, the creator of the cookie. Walnuts can, on occasion, make an appearance in brownies, but they must be chopped. They can, however, figure prominently in all types of fudge. Nut brittle? Puh-lease, only if it’s made with roasted peanuts. I adore hazelnuts, but only in paste or ground form. You’ll rarely, if ever, see a whole hazelnut in my pantry—for the obvious reason. Brazil nuts are systematically ferreted out of any mixed nut bag or jar and tossed to the squirrels outside, whom I don’t think bother with them.

Pecans are graciously welcomed into my recipes. I love making pecan pies—but only with whole pecans carefully placed in concentric circles on top. Pies made with chopped pecans point to a weak and flaccid character. Chocolate-covered turtles, as well as sandies, should only be made with pecans, thank you very much. (Don’t even think of making walnut sandies.) And I do, on occasion, make allowances for almonds and pine nuts in the freezer, too.

Moving into the holidays—the great nexus of nuts—my neurosis will no doubt start to whine at a pretty high pitch. But I will persevere, as is my wont. After all, this really amounts to just a hill of beans. Or in my case, a pile of nuts.

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Comments
Comments
  1. David, love your writing as always. I agree on no nuts in chocolate chip cookies (but your link should have been to your recipe, not NM, IMO.) As a southerner, I’m so glad that the amazing pecan is on your ‘A’ list.

    • David Leite says:

      David, thank you! Well, I didn’t link off to my chocolate chip recipe because, well, I’ve linked off of it every place else! Wanted to give the other guys a chance. And, yes, the mighty pecan is quite a nut.

  2. Mariko says:

    Very, very funny. I feel terrible that hazelnuts will forever be maggotted for you. Do you at least enjoy nutella? (as long as you don’t make it yourself?)

    I agree about no nuts in chocolate chip cookies. I usually lose all respect for a baker who posts such a recipe. I have a problem with pecans. I always get that little piece of shell (or is it just skin?) that makes my jaw seize completely up in bitterness. I can taste it on the back of my tongue right now, just thinking about it.

    • David Leite says:

      Mariko, I love Nutella. I had it the first time in Paris more years ago than I’d like to admit, and it felt so exotic. I had a Nutella crêpe. I also mic hazelnut paste with the Nutella, which is lovely.

  3. Susan says:

    My parents kept a bowl of mixed nuts on our coffee table during the holidays, too. We weren’t allowed to crack them unless my Dad was around. He corrected our technique as diligently and sternly as my Mother would correct our English! I buy them shelled now.

    • David Leite says:

      Susan, it’s amazing how dads and holiday nuts go together. I wonder if it’s because they think we’ll take out an eye or something while trying to crack the shells.

      • So true! My dad was (and is still) obsessed with having a holiday nut bowl on the coffee table each year. I bet there are at least three nutcrackers stashed in the house, including the bronze one shaped like an alligator (you crack the nut between its jaws – HOURS of childhood fun).

  4. Katie K says:

    I don’t think brownies should have nuts, but I like them in chocolate chip cookies. BTW, what about cashews?

    • David Leite says:

      Katie, what kind of nuts in chocolate chip cookies?

      As far as cashews, I adore them, but I have yet to find a recipe that I like to use them in. I think their flavor is best right from the jar. And roasted and salted. Always roasted and salted.

  5. Dale C. says:

    Seriously funny! Your flashbacks remind me of my own childhood. Chestnuts are handy for defending a treehouse though. Don’t do this kids; it can be as dangerous as using a nutcracker in unskilled hands.

    • David Leite says:

      Dale, I just remembered something I hadn’t thought of in years: Walking to work one day when I lived in Ft. Greene, Brooklyn, I was suddenly beaned by a volley of chestnuts from a group of high schoolers. Those things hurt!

  6. This is great. All I could think of was going to all our grandparents’ friends’ house, where the nut stand was always by the couch. It closely resembled an ashtray stand but with metal surgical tools sticking out like a cyber-porcipine surrounded by a squirrel’s dream!

    • David Leite says:

      Tripp, my godparents had one of those nut stands. I thought they were so elegant back then….

  7. JodieMo says:

    Great post! I am also quite picky about my nuts. Although I am more adventurous in my recent years than I was as a child. I have found that I still like only a handful of the nuts in the mixed bag. Of course as a kid my biggest pleasure came from getting out the hammer and whacking a few of the wonderful orbs rolling around during the holidays. Usually I would completely obliterate any edible nut, but the ones I tried especially hard not to smash to smithereens were the pecans and walnuts. My two favorites.

    • David Leite says:

      JodieMo, my Dad, who was a carpenter, never let me use a hammer. I have a history with common household tools. The week before we moved into the house, as I said my Dad built and Mom decorated, I decided to cut an apple with a brand new knife (I was all of six), and push it almost all the way through my right hand. Instead of covered it and running to my mother, who was down the hall, I bolted, waving it above my head like a red, dripping flag. In the process I got blood everywhere along the white floral-patterned wallpaper.

      Yeah, I was that kind of kid.

  8. SMITH BITES says:

    Yet again, a joyous read! Brings back so many memories of nut bowls at my grandparents’ house (notice I did NOT say ‘nut cases’!) during the holidays; funny, but that was the only time of year they had one sitting out now that I think about it. Am so glad you were at BlogHer Food this year or I would have missed this!

    • David Leite says:

      Thanks, Smith Bites. Yeah, nuts and the holidays, they go together.

      And re: Going to BlogHer. It was the best decision I’ve made in a long time. I met a lot of great people. And Thoroughly enjoyed our conversation on the plane home.

  9. Kathy Clark says:

    Great read; I had so many memories that came flooding back after reading your blog (mostly good). We had the nuts and the crazy, hard to manuever nutcrackers during the holidays as well. I was always intimidated by those things and could never crack the walnuts either.

    I’ve conquered that thing for the most part anyway and have grown to love them all. I always find myself grabbing a bag or two this time of year.

    I’ve got to have walnuts in my brownies but other than that the pecan rules!

  10. Karen says:

    David, as usual, you “crack me up!”

    Speaking of nutcrackers (we were, weren’t we?) I don’t bother with using them for any nuts. Around here we use them on crab-legs at shrimp and crab boils. I wish I were closer to Lobster-Land and I could get in a few good cracks at the big boys!

    Karen

    PS One of the best ways to use your crackers is to open those pesky small jars of green peppercorns. Oh, and I don’t put nuts in my chocolate chip cookies either. In fact, I don’t even like chocolate chip cookies. Shock! I much prefer Oatmeal cookies with the magic secret ingredient…

    • David Leite says:

      Karen, I want you yo put your right palm on your forehead and shout very, very loudly, “DEVIL, COME OUT!” Not like chocolate chip cookies? Jeesh!

  11. Mary says:

    My mother still has our wooden nut bowl with the built-in nut cracker, and it makes an appearance every fall. Sometimes with the same nuts as the previous year, I think. As a child, my father taught me to crack walnuts in my hand, and I still do this, even though they’re not my favourite–that honour goes to the pecans and almonds.

  12. Bev says:

    I can actually picture your mom putting that nut into your hand and lecturing about mice! I laughed so hard when I read that, I think I’ll call her!

    • Bev says:

      Ut oh I called her, she said something about “mother bashing” I tried to help by saying there was “father bashing” too, but I think I got you in trouble! Sorry David!!

  13. Carol Hargis says:

    Cashew Chicken? (thebittenword) Pistachio ice cream? (Padma’s?) Hello? =)

  14. Momma Leite says:

    Hi, son. Never will I open the top drawer of your old bedroom bureau (yes, we still have it) and not visualize those acorn maggots daring and staring me down! YIKES! Some say, “the apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree!” I guess in our family, we say, “The NUT doesn’t fall too far from the oak tree! Hee hee. Keep the humor going.it keeps you, and us, young! We love you and God bless. God loves nuts, too! : ) Mom and Dad

  15. Angelina says:

    I don’t know if it’s because I was raised by a vegetarian hippie or not but we didn’t have a holiday nut tradition, we had them out all year round. I like most nuts but never in a chocolate chip cookie and I’m glad to hear so many people agree with you on that.

    I have always hated hazelnuts. I live in Oregon which produces about 80% (maybe 90) of the world’s hazelnuts. I am surrounded by them. There is a lot of pressure here to adore hazelnuts in everything. EVERYTHING. I am adamant in my dislike. Hazelnut orchards, however, are beautiful, I always feel like I’m in a cathedral of trees.

  16. Mike says:

    I live in Brazil a short drive from the largest cashew tree in the world, but even besides that one, cashews are everywhere here. I’ve come to the conclusion that I could do away with all the other nuts in the world, as long as cashews keep on existing. They just melt in your mouth!

    I just wanted to add something about cashews that I’m sure a lot a people don’t know, and that I didn’t know before coming to Brazil. They grow as a weird green appendage on the cashew fruit, and they only become nut-like after roasting. Here in Brazil (particularly in the Northeast), the cashew fruit is also used to make juice. And I love cashew juice too – second only to acaí juice.

  17. Joan Wilder says:

    I’ve just found you and am loving reading you. this nut one is hilarious. so good. love the description of pecan shells (they ARE gorgeous: like reclaimed distressed hard wood from a tropical rain forest). have been searching for people who write about food but aren’t food bloggers–i.e., the writing is more important than the food (but just a little). anyway, btw, peanuts are very interesting, aren’t they?–in that they’re like the working class of the nut world but probably the favorite, no? i rarely eat them but i probably like them more than any other nut. i dislike few foods (barley) but hazelnuts are one. for me, almonds are the work horse of the nut world, i eat them daily–for protein and general get up and go.

    cheers, joan

    • David Leite says:

      Joan, thanks for the kind words. Glad you enjoyed the piece. Yeah, it takes me a very long time to write and craft a piece, which is why I don’t post to The David Blahg daily.

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