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.
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.