The bowl came out every December, a faux wooden vessel patterned intricately with fall leaves. A little acorn in the center held a hinged nutcracker and two picks. Throughout the holidays, the bowl would hold a wide array of nuts in their shells — pecans, English walnuts, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, almonds, curious and somewhat exotic creatures that we rarely saw any other time of the year.
To my child senses, the nuts were as foreign and fairly impenetrable as the exotic quartz, jasper and agate stones we sought out in a new shipment of driveway gravel. They were enticing and rumored to be edible, but it took a heavy and pinching handheld implement to grip, squeeze and shatter hard nutshells, as well as sharp, pointed metal sticks to excavate what could be eaten from inside.
Once I discovered how delicious nuts were, I understood what all the fuss was about and why the nuts had a special bowl and why my mom and dad cracked and picked their way through the holidays, munching nuts by the handful and tossing the shells into the fire. Whole nuts even found their way, somehow, into our Christmas stockings alongside oranges and chocolate. My sister and I were eventually schooled in the skill of cracking and picking, and soon, we (mostly) got the hang of it.
Nuts had to be shelled for any holiday baking we did, too. I remember, back then, that if you wanted walnuts for banana bread or spice cake, almonds for cookies or pecans for a batch of toffee, you had to spend some time planted in a chair, with aching hands working a nutcracker through a pile of nuts to crush out your quarry, often sending sharp nutshell shrapnel (or even whole nuts that slipped) to the far corners of the kitchen to be sniffed and dismissed by wanting pups or batted around by the house cat.
You come to know your food in a very intimate and sensory way when you have to work so hard for it. The hours and energy spent in pursuit of nutmeats by hand-shelling them gave me an early, clear picture of their every nook and cranny and hard-won taste.
The beautiful hazelnuts, looking like small, polished wooden acorns, were one of the hardest nuts to crack, along with the dark, stone-like Brazil nuts. But hurting one’s little hands was worth the effort for their tightly packed, ample nutmeats that looked and tasted the most like fresh coconut.
The golden English walnuts were like little lidded treasure boxes holding large, ruffle-edged riches that were crisp, sweet and earthy.
The almonds were my early favorite because they were so easy to crack — I could even crunch their thinnish, dimpled, yellow shells between my teeth — and they held a perfect eye-shaped, slightly rumple-skinned kernel that was mildly bitter, but often cherry-sweet.
My ultimate nut favorite, though, was always the pecan. Fairly thin-shelled, it was one that allowed me to successfully manage the nutcracker, even at an early age. The only challenge was picking out the meat, which lay cloaked in a corky red pith that was so bitter, just a bit attached to the shelled pecan would make anyone eating it literally down in the mouth. But the pecan, that tenderest of nutmeats, beyond its rind, was full of the best delicate buttery flavor.
Despite the extra work required to get at ’em, keeping nuts in their shells has long served a practical purpose. According to “Joy of Cooking,” “Because nuts contain oil, they turn rancid over time and are best stored in their shells” and can last two months or longer. We also always kept some unshelled nuts in the freezer to be used throughout the year.
Nutcrackers with picks for table use became common in the late 1800s, according to “The Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink,” edited by Andrew F. Smith (Oxford University Press; 2007). Victorian-era households featured fruits and whole nuts (served with accompanying tools) as dessert. Nutcrackers were adapted into all sorts of variations and styles, including those in human form that ended up inspiring that famous 1897 holiday ballet.
In our modern, pre-packaged, ready-to-use times, I’m always surprised to see bins filled to the brim with mixed nuts in the shell in the grocery stores every holiday season. There they are, those old friends. I am as heartened to see these decidedly old-fashioned gems as I am my favorite Christmas ornaments, unwrapped from tissue paper each year. I wonder who buys them and carries them home, and ends up sitting to patiently crack open their shells in a time-honored holiday tradition. I’m just comforted to know that someone still does.
Rebecca Howard grew up in Kansas and has written for the Los Angeles Daily
News, the Los Angeles Times and LA Parent Magazine, and currently writes the food blog, “A Woman Sconed.”
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