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The Walnut Kid


I grew up with 2 1/2 acres of walnut grove for a back yard, and my earliest distinct memory is the bitter, urgent scent of crushed walnut leaves. My father had bought the land just before I was born with the idea that the walnuts would cover the property taxes of our new home. The San Fernando Valley had been a walnut-growing center for a long time, though, and the trees were old and eventually they didn't crop enough to sell, but for a couple of years in the '40s, I was a walnut-farming kid.

The growing year was marked by plowings: harrowing to keep the weeds down and furrowing to put in irrigation ditches for the two dozen trees. Twice a summer we'd run water down the ditches, hastily damming it away from gopher holes that could swallow up all our agricultural allotment from the Water Department. (The Cry of the Irrigator, according to the neighborhood joke, was "Dam it! Dam it!")

I remember thinking long, deep thoughts in the shade of the eucalyptus windbreak while irrigation water gushed out of tall cement cylinders called standpipes. For instance, I knew the water came to Van Nuys from Colorado, and I knew we were at war with Japan. What would become of us if Van Nuys ever went to war with Colorado?

When we were still raising walnuts to sell, we hired Mexican migrant workers to harvest the nuts. They were the most exotic people in Van Nuys in those days, whole families that would camp out in the orchards for a night or two dressed in amazingly colorful clothes. Later, when the crops declined, we shook down the nuts ourselves.

These days there's a machine that shakes the whole walnut tree, but we used walnut hooks, stout poles 10 or 15 feet long with heavy iron hooks bolted onto the end. You'd spread tarpaulins under the trees and shake the branches one by one. The nuts didn't all ripen at the same time, so they had to be harvested twice a season.

When the nuts were gathered in, we had to peel off the meaty, green hulls. That was a vile job that immersed you in an acrid smell much like crushed walnut leaves and stained your hands a dirty gray color for months to come. Throughout the fall semester, my older brothers would walk around high school with their hands in their pockets so people wouldn't see the stains.

When the nuts were hulled, we put them on lath racks and left them in the sun to dry. Then we packed the dry nuts in burlap sacks and hauled them down to the broker's shed. The sacks came by the bale, tied up in baling wire, and had an imperious, woody smell I actually liked, but I was probably alone in this.

Later, on top of the falling yields of the old trees, we started to have problems with a wasp that planted its eggs in the walnut hulls, turning them black. This didn't affect the quality of the nut meats, but it stained the walnut shells black, so we didn't get as much money for them. They couldn't be marketed as No. 1s but only as No. 3s, which went direct to the candy manufacturers.

So we stopped trying to sell them and just gave them away to our family and friends. And the trees stayed on our property, providing wonderfully sturdy real estate for building tree houses on. Walnut catkins--droopy green spikes of tiny, petal-less flowers--burst out gorgeously all over the trees every spring, filling the air with random wisps of yellow pollen (and making life miserable for people with allergies).

Best of all, for years we continued to have one of the greatest luxuries on earth--fresh, new-crop walnuts. There's no way to tell anybody who's only had store-bought nuts how creamy and sweetly fragrant a fresh walnut is. We had the best Tollhouse cookies in the world, the best walnut cakes and breads, and the best whole walnuts anybody ever cracked on a fireplace with the claw hammer his father was looking for. It was worth the smell of walnut leaves that seeped through every window in the house.

This complexly flavored stew comes from "Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook," by Anya von Bremzen and John Welchman (Workman).


(Chicken With Walnuts)

2 pounds chicken breasts with bone, well rinsed and patted dry

2 pounds chicken thighs, well rinsed and patted dry

2 quarts chicken stock or canned broth

3 1/2 cups walnut pieces

10 large cloves garlic, coarsely chopped

1 large bunch cilantro, stems removed

1 small dried red chile, chopped

1/2 teaspoon coarse (kosher) salt

3 teaspoons unsalted butter

3 large onions, finely chopped

1 tablespoon flour

3 egg yolks

3/4 teaspoon sweet Hungarian paprika

1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or more to taste

1/2 teaspoon ground fenugreek

3/4 teaspoon ground coriander

Dash ground cinnamon

3/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

1/2 teaspoon dried tarragon

Salt, optional

3 tablespoons white vinegar

Walnut pieces

Cilantro sprigs

Combine chicken breasts, thighs and stock in large soup pot. Bring to boil and skim off foam as it rises to top. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until chicken is cooked, about 45 minutes. Strain out chicken, reserving 6 cups stock for sauce.

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