Friday, December 23, 2016

An Unexpected Cooking Lesson

It’s curious how common items either go out of use or their intended purpose alters. One of those is the nutcracker. Most people nowadays think this term refers to a seasonal ballet where they might enjoy watching children or grandkids dressed up as old-fashioned ornamental German nutcrackers wearing military-style hats or as dainty sugarplum fairies. Others may store treasured family heirlooms until they retrieve them to decorate their tree. I recently had occasion to realize that actual nutcrackers frequently found in auction boxes serve a real purpose.

As a kid, my family bought whole nuts at Christmas time and offered them in a decorative bowl along with a metal pincer-style device and a silver pick for getting at hard to reach nutmeats. This practice continued a custom both my parents grew up with during the Depression. Their frugal families passed on a ritual long followed by their ancestors.

At our house, one of those traditions included filling Christmas stockings with an orange, an apple, and either some unshelled peanuts or whole nuts. Knowing many generations practiced this holiday tradition reminds me of a time when fresh fruits and nuts were luxuries one enjoyed only on special occasions. Despite knowing I’d see nuts every holiday that required a special opener, I never considered the nutcracker tool an essential kitchen utensil until I recently received a 5 lb. bag of fresh pecans.

An Oklahoma friend lives near the many groves in Eastern Oklahoma and shared his bounty. When I first saw lumpy grocery sack, I imagined it full of ready to eat pecans. When I opened this treasure trove, I realized my mistake. This freshly picked harvest had gone through a mechanical cracker to make it easier to extract the tasty center. However, I had to peel away shattered outer husks and separate the two pecans halves each shell once protected.  

It didn’t take long to understand why nuts are holiday treats and why some people esteem pies, cakes, cookies, candies, and butters made with them. As a person who considers walnuts, pecans, peanuts, cashews, and almonds edible only when served by themselves but not in baked goods, I missed this message growing up.

After I spent a couple of hours freeing nutmeats from shells, I understand why I find nutcrackers at almost every auction I attend. They were essential in old time kitchens. Cooks didn’t go to the store to buy a sack of already shelled nuts. They roamed creek banks to harvest nature’s encased proteins and then spent hours extracting meats from hulls. Knowing how my grandmas made use of everything, I’m sure they saved the inedible material to create fabric dyes or enrich garden soils.

This lesson humbled me. I’ve enjoyed preparing family recipes from scratch for decades. I never considered how I take for granted buying already-ground flour or churned butter quarters at the market. This nutty experience reminded me that not-so-distant family cooks would consider such easy access to ingredients an extravagance.

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