oh nuts!

Story and Photos by Cheryl Angelina Koehler

It’s worse than a bad hair day… you know…mega-disaster: Your food isn’t arriving from the other hemisphere the way it’s supposed to. Everyone’s getting hungry. What are you going to do?

If you live in California, you will have done well to keep a supply of locally grown walnuts, almonds, or pistachios on hand. In the shell, nuts can last at least a year, and probably much longer. What’s more, they have enough calories to help you survive until the people in charge figure out how to get the food moving again.

Almonds and walnuts are two of California’s most prodigious, nutritious, and storable crops. We produce virtually the entire supply for the United States and still have plenty left over to export around the world. If you have any doubt about this, just take a drive into the Central Valley and that orchard you’re looking at is likely to be walnuts or almonds. Even here in our diminishing Alameda and Contra Costa County growing regions, there are a few small-scale growers of almonds, walnuts, pistachios, and pecans who bring their products to market.

Until last Spring, I was unaware that pecans grow locally. The revelation came when I acquired a gunnysack full of pecans in the shell from a friend who said they came from a ranch in Vacaville. The rancher, Randy Garcia, didn’t want them and gave them to his dad, John Garcia, who in turn gave them to his neighbor, Ralph Prince of Richmond, who in turn gave them to me. At the time, John Garcia was moving out of his house, and as he handed the sack of pecans over to Prince, he also passed along an old nutcracker that had been moldering in his garage. The nutcracker sent Prince back into a childhood reverie.

“I hadn’t seen one of these since the late 50s,” he told me. “My stepfather and Aunt Edith were always giving each other comical gifts, like a bag of prunes or this nutcracker, and sometimes they would pass the same gift back and forth—he to her and her to him. We called this a ‘Texas Nutcracker.’” Prince demonstrated how the clever rubber band-powered contraption explodes the pecan’s shell inside a metal capsule, leaving the nutmeat entirely whole. Once we got the hang of it, we were able to crack seven pecans in a single minute.

Grabbing the nutcracker, I ran out to the Walnut Creek Farmers’ Market to show it to Jim McKeown, “The Backyard Farmer” of Danville, who tends one large pecan tree along with many citrus trees, walnut trees, plum trees, and various row crops. I guess it ought to have been no surprise, but there was McKeown, working his way through a sack of pecans, using his own Texas Nutcracker.

“I used to put them out in the shell, but nobody bought them,” he said. “Then I found this old nutcracker in the garage—it was Grampy’s Christmas gift in the ’60s. I sit here at the market every week for four hours, so there’s plenty of time to crack pecans.”

As McKeown cracked the nuts, he explained that Grampy’s farm was one of the first properties to be developed in Danville. When they bought the land in 1952, it was all monstrous valley oaks. Now, over fifty years later, the nut and fruit trees they planted loom almost as impressively as the oaks.

On returning home, I went looking on the Internet for some information on the Texas Nutcracker, and found “The Nutcracker Guy” who’s been making the Texas Native Inertia Nutcracker in the mountains of western North Carolina for more than 25 years. He says the nutcracker is named for the “Texas Native” pecan, and while he’s a “Tarheel by birth,” he’s a “Texan at heart.”

To get your own nutcracker, go to inertianutcracker.com. If you simply want to see it in action, look for Jim McKeown at the Sunday Walnut Creek Farmers’ Market.


Lemon, Parsley, and Pecan Pesto over Pasta

This delicious recipe comes from the Georgia Pecan Commission, and is printed here with the permission of the Georgia Pecan Commissioner himself, Mr. Charles M. “Buddy” Leger.

Serves 4

¾ cup pecans (halved or chopped)
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 cup packed fresh parsley leaves
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
10 ounces dry pasta
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Heat a small skillet over medium heat. Add pecans and toast lightly. Transfer nuts to blender or food processor. In same skillet, heat oil over medium heat. Add garlic and sauté 1 minute. Add garlic and oil to pecans.

Add parsley, Parmesan cheese, and lemon zest to blender or food processor. Puree until smooth. Prepare pasta according to directions. Drain pasta, reserving about ½ cup of the cooking water. Stir pesto and reserved water into hot pasta and mix until well combined. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.

Variation: Substitute walnuts for the pecans.