That's Nuts »

A weekly dose of nutty history, pop culture, and recipes from Lee Zalben, aka The Peanut Butter Guy.

Nuts vs. Drupes: What's the Difference?

"Most of what we think of as nuts aren't really nuts at all, they're drupes!"

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Walnuts are technically a drupe, not a nut. ©iStockphoto.com/Ljupco

Yesterday, my friend Elizabeth was telling me about a potluck barbecue she had over the weekend with her neighbors. She bought the ingredients for her burgers on Friday, prepared them Saturday morning, and grilled them Saturday evening.

Something in my mind clicked about halfway through her story. Elizabeth is a vegetarian. Had she started eating meat all of the sudden? I asked her and she shrieked in horror. No—they were veggie burgers! How could I think such a thing?

I was on the defense now, and I felt a little like Larry David, playfully lecturing her on how the word "burger" usually connotes meat and that she had co-opted the term for her own non-meat eating purposes. She argued that a burger had come to mean any kind of patty, in this case one made from veggies and grains, served between two halves of a bun (with or without sesame seeds, preferable toasted or warmed in some way). We called a truce and decided to continue our debate over drinks (a lot of them) sometime soon.

This conversation stayed with me all day and I kept thinking about how names for some things sometimes come to mean something else.

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A hazelnut is a "true" nut. ©iStockphoto.com/fotosav

Most people know that peanuts are not nuts—they are members of the legume family. We usually call everything else "tree nuts" and call it a day. But in reality, most of what we think of as nuts aren't really nuts at all, they're drupes!

Confused? Well, let's start with the definition of a nut. A true nut, botanically speaking, is a hard-shelled pod that contains both the fruit and seed of the plant, where the fruit does not open to release the seed to the world. Some examples of botanical nuts are chestnuts, hazelnuts, and acorns.

So what's a drupe you ask? A drupe is a type of fruit in which an outer fleshy part surrounds a shell (what we sometimes call a pit) with a seed inside. Some examples of drupes are peaches, plums, and cherries—but walnuts, almonds, and pecans are also drupes. They're just drupes in which we eat the seed inside the pit instead of the fruit!

So what do we call all of these different oily seeds that we sometimes eat raw, and sometimes roast and sprinkle with salt or sweeten with sugar or honey, or season with cinnamon or chili powder? Well, the term "culinary nuts" has been coming into favor as a kind of catch-all description, and it's pretty good if you ask me.

So eaters, what are some of your favorite culinary nuts to cook or bake with or snack on? And have you ever harvested nuts or drupes straight from the tree?

About the author: Lee Zalben was a PB&J-loving kid that grew up to be the founder and president of Peanut Butter & Co., which began as a Greenwich Village sandwich shop serving nothing but peanut butter sandwiches and expanded to include the now-famous line of all natural flavored peanut butter. Lee is a graduate of Vassar College and enjoys traveling the world in search of interesting foods made with peanuts, tree nuts, and seeds. When he's not working, eating, flying or writing, he enjoys scuba diving and training elephants.

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