Emotional Baggage About a Bag of Holiday Nuts

Emotional baggage about a bag of holiday nuts explains the story of David Leite’s disturbing contact with holiday nuts in his youth and how it caused him to be a bit militaristic when it comes to cooking with nuts later in life.

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. Originally published November 16, 2010.

David Leite's signature



  1. Shocking revelations but thanks for baring your soul. I like walnuts in banana bread or a pumpkin loaf for some extra grit. My brother-in-law has brought me a tub of walnuts every year for as long as they have had their tree. They are perfectly “shucked”. How he does this is a mystery to me. It sounds like something that involves patience. I love your dry humour and storytelling. Glad you are avoiding the Covid. God keep us all safe if I might be so bold. Happy Holidays

    1. Dale! Thanks for the kind words. I’m truly envious of you–freshly shelled walnuts. What more could a person ask for? Wishing you and yours a happy holiday season.

  2. My grandparents had a holiday nut bowl as you describe. I never saw anyone actually eat them or use their peculiar nutcracker. Thanks for bringing back a long lost memory!

  3. During the holidays there was always a bowl of whole mixed nuts on the coffee table, right next to the one of Nuts and Bolts, AKA homemade Chex Mix. I fondly remember my aunt’s nut bowl sawn out of a piece of log, finely polished and with little holes for the nut picks surrounding that silver etched cracker you mentioned. No fancy “soldier” nutcracker for her, we had to work to get those little suckers out of the shell.

  4. Ok, I acknowledge being late to this party, but in all fairness, I am only now just recovering from the holidays. While I may disagree with you about the nut/chocolate chip controversy, we are in total agreement about Brazil Nuts. Besides, they are just too big, and not to mention more often than not rancid. And furthermore David, I am sure I would approve of your mom’s low slung midcentury coffee table if only the link would work.

  5. Oh dear, David, the walnuts or pecans are what make chocolate chip cookie for me. (Don’t hate me.) But I’m in agreement with you on hazelnuts, although I love Nutella. Go figure.

      1. I kind of like nuts in brownies, but find them equally as tasty without nuts. (Could I be any more wishy-washy here?)

  6. For your cashew conundrum: I work with several people from the Philippines and they introduced me to a cake called “Sans Rival”. It consists of several layers of meringue with chopped cashews folded in, which are then sandwiched together with custard. It is outstanding!!! I googled a recipe for it and made it once, and it was totally delicious. A pain to make, but really delicious!

  7. I loved reading your story, David! Thank you! My grandparents were Italian/Sicilian but we had the same nut situation at their house – bowls placed on the table after dinner with various nutcrackers. I agree re the Brazil nuts – they always looked weird to me. Same with the chestnuts and “x” on the bottom – I never liked them, but remember them smelling good. It’s all about the smells that bring back the memories, right? After Christmas Eve dinner platters of finocchio would also be set out – this will forever remind me of Josephine and Antonio and our huge table in Brooklyn. Hope you have a great holiday! Here’s a recent photo taken at my uncle’s house Thanksgiving.

    Table with a basket of  nuts, a cake, and grapes

  8. THANK YOU, David.

    This nut business brought a lot of memories.. especially the chestnuts. I grew up in Brazil and my dad was Peruvian, he also made an “x” at the bottom. I have always wonder about that, but dad told me that it was a Christmas thing. I went along since there was no other logical answer. My mom, she was British, also had the holiday tradition of setting out a large bowl of nuts…those traditions NEVER get old. And now, after all those years, the traditions continue with my children. You also answer a burning question that I had…your surname name, “Leite,” and I knew that it had to be Portuguese. Obrigado for the wonderful memories…maybe a receita de Rabanada Tradicional would be wonderful addition para o Natal, don’t you think?

    1. Elizabeth, you are more than welcome! Your dad was right: The “X” allows the shell to split and bloom. And rabanada Tradicional would be great. They’re simply French toast. But, have you tried it with a dense massa sovada (sweet bread). It’s out of this world!

  9. David, I’m so glad you reprinted this as I wasn’t a subscriber way back in ’10. My sister discovered you first and spread the word. Thank you sibling!! Anyway, I laughed myself silly at your assessments of the nuts in those bags. We also had a bowl of them put out during the holidays and I’m sure my share of walnuts ended up under the couch as well only to be forgotten until spring cleaning time. My nut story is when we would have unshelled mixed nuts put out. If I dared to eat too many of the beloved cashews my father would lose his mind…How dare we children eat his favorite!! Let’s just say my dad had his autocratic side and expected his desires would always be at the top of the food chain. I think a lot of families were like that then. If he were still alive, I would buy him many bags from Ocean State Job Lot and make his day ;-). Thanks again, for being the food blogger with the best wit and recipes ever!

    1. Ann-Marie, you are the reason why I re-post my essays. Many of our readers weren’t on the site when I first wrote them. So, thanks for that. And please extend my genuine thanks to your sister! Yes, it’s funny how nuts bring out the nuttiness in families, especially in the old days. Now you can buy huge containers of any nut you want–cashews, pecans, pistachios, walnuts, peanuts, etc. I feel like an old man when I say to our niece, “In my day, you had to crack open your own nuts….”

  10. Weak and Flaccid?! Ugh! Now I really feel bad! For the first time ever I put chopped pecans in my pie filling this Thanksgiving. What the heck was I thinking? You were right, David, they should be only put on top!

    One of my favorites from childhood were hickory nuts!! But they are a pain in the you-know-what to shell! We would sit there for hours at the kitchen table probing away with that scary looking dental pick trying to get one little morsel out!

    1. Sarah, the dental probe! Yes, yes, yes! That was always a part of the process. (And my godfather, when he was done gorging, would lean back and indeed pick his teeth with the probe. Class!)

  11. My father loved nuts, especially pistachios. We could always tell when he’d been eating them. Picture the way an otter floats on its back & eats shellfish. My dad would sit in his recliner with a bag of pistachios on his belly & the front of his white t-shirt would turn pink from the red shells.

  12. I feel your acorn pain. My first year in my first home in the country, I gathered acorns and put them in a beautiful jar to be an earthy decoration. I loved that jar of hand-selected perfect acorns, until the morning I discovered the worms at the bottom of the jar. Which was on the kitchen table. Eeeew. From that day forward, the only earthy decorations that make it into my kitchen are rocks and seashells.

  13. 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

    1. 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.

  14. 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.

  15. 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. 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

  17. 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!

    1. 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!!

  18. 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.

  19. 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!


    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…

  20. 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!

  21. 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!

    1. 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.

  22. 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.

    1. 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.

  23. 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!

  24. 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.

    1. 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!

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

    1. 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.

  26. 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.

    1. 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.

      1. 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).

  27. 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.

    1. 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.

  28. 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.

    1. 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.

Have something to say?

Then tell us. Have a picture you'd like to add to your comment? Attach it below. And as always, please take a gander at our comment policy before posting.

Upload a picture of your dish