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

Comments

  1. 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?)

  2. 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!

  3. 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

  4. 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!

  5. 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….”

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