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. 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.

  2. 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…

  3. 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!

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

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