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. 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!)

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

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