Monday, June 06, 2011

A Tough Nut to Crack – But an Easy One to Like

It hits you the moment you open the bag: a sweet, toasty aroma like the hot caramelized nuts sold by street vendors. The little treasures inside look like pygmy pecans, but they’re nothing so tame. These are wild hickory nuts, one of America’s most distinctive and delicious foods – and one that is in danger of being lost forever.

Such an idea would have been unimaginable a century ago, when Americans knew well the fragrance and rich flavor of these sweet beauties, which have been called “a walnut in a tornado.” In those days, cracking the smooth, hard shells and carefully extracting the small, toothsome meats was a job given to children armed with hammers and patience. Their reward came in the form of delicious cakes, fudge, and pies. The nuts were a central flavor in the young country’s developing palate: Thoreau gathered them at Walden, and hickory cake was famously President James Polk’s favorite treat.

Today, a group of Slow Food activists and innovative chefs have taken on the job of reintroducing hickories to the table. Unlike their Southern brother the pecan, the smaller, rougher-looking wild hickories have never made the transition from foraged food to crop. The tree’s slow growth habit is one deterrent, but the bigger problem is the nut’s unyielding, half-inch thick shell, which defies industrial processing equipment.  These tasty nuggets can only be cracked by hand, one by one.

The nut’s fate has consequently been left in the hands of a few dedicated gatherers and hand-crackers who sell at farmers’ markets, through craigslist or in classified ads. But their numbers are dwindling. Among those who remain is Ray Pamperin of Wisconsin, a retired dairy farmer who offered hickories at farmers’ markets for 25 years. Now he sells exclusively online at, mostly to older people like himself who are nostalgic for a taste of their childhood.  He gathers some of the nuts himself from his own land or, with permission, from the trees left standing on other people's properties. Some he buys from those willing to forage, but not crack. Linda Schaalma, Ray’s daughter and manager of his business, sees her father as one of the last protectors of an American treasure.

“As the older crackers give it up, one way or another, the supply will become even less.  Unless the younger generations see the time investment like the older generation does, it may become a lost food,” Schaalma says.

Pamperin gets more orders than he can fill, but others can’t find a significant market for their product. Patrick Kompf of Vermont’s Native Nuts sells just a few hundred pounds a year, primarily around Thanksgiving and Christmas and mostly to customers over age 50.  
“They’re probably one of the best tasting nuts out there, but people aren’t really aware of that,” Koomf says. “The typical customer is 50 or 60 years old.”

Despite the aging of hickory’s fans, the future for the species may not be so bleak. New technological innovations have led to effective processing equipment, removing the most significant barrier to larger-scale production. But unless there are enough customers, the financial return on foraging will not warrant an investment in machinery, let alone spur a movement to plant trees.

Gary Paul Nabhan hopes to create the necessary demand. Nabhan is the driving force behind Reviving America’s Food Traditions (RAFT), a project dedicated to the protection of heritage foodstuffs. RAFT includes the hickory on its endangered foods list, along with heirloom apples, tomatoes, and breeds of livestock popular over a century ago. The organization sponsors events that allow chefs and consumers to sample these goods, on the principle that tasting is believing. RAFT’s efforts have been successful in convincing growers to invest in over 150 of the foods they champion, a victory that Nabhan describes as “huge.” 

Nabhan is convinced that RAFT’s work holds hope for a hickory renaissance. And, indeed, adventurous chefs are beginning to showcase the rarities on their menus, exposing a new generation of eaters to their pleasures. At the West Town Tavern in Chicago, chef-owner Susan Goss creates elegant dishes that combine the nuts with other traditional American foods, like a salad with roasted hickories and maple vinaigrette, and pork shoulder with hickory-wild rice pilaf  and a blackberry barbecue sauce.

“I like to feature hickory nuts in salads or as a garnish on meats or fish,” she says. Despite the traditional association with sweet foods, Goss prefers savory uses. “I don’t cook the nuts into cakes and pies; the delicate crunch and flavor comes out best when simply prepared.”
Other chefs use the nuts for entrees  and desserts alike.

“Hickory nuts are worth searching for at the market because of their unique taste and aroma,” says Chef Tory Miller of Madison’s L’Etoile. He prepares these old-fashioned favorites for a wide range of uses by salting and toasting. “We always start by drizzling them with a tiny bit of vegetable oil and then a liberal dusting of kosher salt, then they go into the oven at 375 for about 6 minutes. Then they are free to be used in pies, crackers, as a topping for sundaes, in salads.”

Hickories are not an acquired taste – they share the sweetness of pecans, with a better crunch and a little more depth. They’re easy to like and easy to cook with, which bodes well for their advocates. If the RAFT activists and the committed foragers and chefs succeed in their mission, the nearly-forgotten nut might return to its place of honor on the American table. Search out these wildlings – in the fields on or the internet – and serve them with slices of heirloom apples and wedges of crumbly Vermont cheddar to experience a plate Thoreau might have eaten. Gustatory time-travel can be delicious.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Food Hacker

Below you can find another early piece from my food writing class, a profile of food writer Ike DeLorenzo. What I didn't say: I found Ike's lightning-fast move from "I think I want to try food writing" to "I'm a regular at the Globe and the Atlantic"  to be inspiring, intimidating and inducing of envy to the point of queasiness. In manner and looks, he reminded me of Rob Morrow, but I feared the instructor wouldn't know who Morrow was, so I didn't mention that. Also, Ike seemed really, really nice, like someone I would want to be friends with, except that he clearly had money. Quite a bit, I suspect. As I get older, I find it harder and harder to make friendships that bridge the ever-widening gap between income levels. With old friends, there can be enough history to fill the space. But new friendships just don't spring up between people who live in nice condos in the stylish part of town and people who live in rental apartments in the frumpy neighborhood. If the basis for the friendship would be a shared interest in food, the problem become even more complex. Food can be marvelously democratic - the best apples in the world can be purchased by all but the poorest - but five-star dining is simply not a possibility for most people. When your idea of an indulgent, celebratory restaurant meal is a $20 entree, how do you talk food to someone who considers that weeknight fare? It's a conundrum. Anyway, that's a huge topic I'm not going to delve into now, but do read about Ike. He's pretty cool.
The Food Hacker
Only three years ago, computer-geek-by-day, foodie-by-night Ike Delorenzo submitted his first story to the food pages of the Boston Globe. Today he is a regular contributor to the section, as well as to the online Atlantic Monthly Food Channel where he rubs virtual elbows with such culinary world luminaries as Corby Kummer and Marion Nestle.  His meteoric rise reveals readers’ continuing hunger for fresh and unique voices: in his case, a gastronomical sensibility that owes as much to Silicon Valley as Napa Valley.

Former Vice President for Product Design at and still employed as a consultant in the field, DeLorenzo  incorporates technology into each step of the writing process. He utilizes digital cameras, recording devices, organizational software, and an automated transcription service to write his stories, then tracks his success through Twitter and Facebook.  And when it comes to cooking, he continues to think like an software engineer.

“Food is the newest thing you can hack,” the writer declares. 

For one of his most popular stories, De Lorenzo bought every espresso machine offered for sale on Craigslist for under $100. He then tested them with a range of beans and came to a surprising conclusion: freshly ground beans from the local coffee shops were not as good as the pre-ground Italian brands, and technique mattered more than equipment. With the right grind and the right skills, cheapo espresso makers could make a cup to match any barista.

It was a typical techie’s approach to a problem: lay out the possible factors, test them one by one, and let the conclusions fall where they may.  The fact that the results were unexpected clearly delights DeLorenzo, who looks for the counter-intuitive when hunting down a story.  When his mother’s Wesson-oil-based piecrust recipe won out over traditional lard and butter crusts in a Globe writer contest, he scored another point for evidence-based cookery.

“I like to find out about new, crazy ways to do stuff,” DeLorenzo says.

He is hardly the first foodie to treat the kitchen like a laboratory. Alton Brown and Christopher Kimball have built careers on nebbishly fastidious application of the scientific method.  But this enthusiastic geek brings the methodical approach to culinary journalism, a field dominated by two poles: the warmly effusive and the comically wry.  In contrast, his anything-goes hacker enthusiasm is tempered with Gen X skepticism about the food establishment. On his personal blog, The Ideas Section, he eviscerates sacred cows of the restaurant world, describing the clientele at LA Burdick’s, the wildly popular Cambridge chocolate shop, as “Harvard hangers-on” and “windbags.”  He was unafraid to expose Yelp’s dubious practices around restaurant reviews and even challenged world-famous chef Marco Pierre White, taking him to task in the Atlantic for using his celebrity to hawk unhealthy and, worse, unappetizing  products, like Knorr’s  bouillon cubes.

“He would say things like ‘I always made bouillon with Knorr’s bouillon cubes. It’s easier and better than making homemade stock,’” DeLorenzo says with disgust. “Things that were manifestly false.”

DeLorenzo seems more offended by the offense to the public’s palate than to their blood pressure;  he mentions the high salt content, but his real outrage is reserved for the poor flavor. For all his attachment to technology, he remains at heart a man who loves food. Fortunately, he has found a way to indulge both his passions.

“A lot of my stories have a technology thing, because that’s what I’m natively interested in.  I think people bring their own native interests to food, because food is so big.”