Why Cashews Remind Me of My Bar Mitzvah

That's Nuts

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

"I still wonder why someone would go to all the trouble of half-dipping a cashew in chocolate. Wouldn't it be easier to just enrobe the whole nut?"

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[Photograph: hilliardscandy.com]

When I turned 13 years old, like most Jewish boys in the Philadelphia neighborhood where I grew up, I had a bar mitzvah. My family and friends and I went to synagogue together that Saturday morning, I read from the Torah, made a short speech, and received the customary blessings from the rabbi and cantor. The bar mitzvah experience is an awful lot of pressure for a young boy, and to be honest, it's all a bit of a blur.

However, the part that I do remember very clearly is the party. Most of the food was mediocre catering hall fare at best, but the thing that everyone was buzzing about was one of Mom's signature touches—she had boxes made of dark chocolate set on every table, and when you removed the lid (yes they even had lids!) inside each was a pound of roasted cashews, each of which had been half-dipped in chocolate.

They were the hit of the party and as the night drew to a close, guests were fighting over who got to take home the few remaining boxes.

To this day, I still wonder why someone would go to all the trouble of half-dipping a cashew in chocolate. Wouldn't it be easier to just enrobe the whole nut? I have this vision of a room filled with silver-haired ladies plucking roasted cashews from barrels, dipping just half of each nut into vats of tempered chocolate, sharing the latest neighborhood gossip as they work, and placing each nut on wax paper-covered baking sheets to set.

It is ironic that this kind of tedious candy-making is what comes to mind when I think of cashews—because cashews are in fact, a very labor-intensive nut to harvest. Perhaps the most labor intensive of all the culinary nuts.

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The cashew fruit. ©iStockphoto.com/adrovando

Like peanuts, cashews are native to South America and were transplanted to Africa and Asia by Portuguese traders. While peanut plants are legumes, cashew trees are technically fruit trees, with a very interesting variation. The seed pod, or cashew nut, grows outside of the cashew fruit (commonly referred to as the cashew apple).

The cashew fruit falls off of the tree and is gathered, usually by local people. The nuts are twisted off, soaked in water, then dried. They are shelled, and the skin of the nut is removed. To this day much of this is still done by hand.

The other interesting thing about cashews is that the oil in the shell of the cashew nut, called cardol, is toxic. The cardol needs to be drained from the cashews before they can be processed for eating. It has a number of commercial uses so it is often saved and sold to chemical companies, depending on the method used to extract it from the seed pod.

So with all that time-consuming manual labor required to bring us cashews, I guess the extra step of hand-dipping individual nuts in chocolate doesn't seem like so much extra work.

What do you like to cook, bake, or candy-make with cashews? And to what lengths are you willing to go to prepare elaborate cashew creations?