The Nut Paradox

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Nuts are powerful—and polarizing. Should we congratulate ourselves for eating them, or apologize?

I spend a disproportionate amount of time these days considering the topic of nuts. They’re on my mind, and not just because they are major players in my diet: I mix walnuts into my morning granola, snack on organic salted almonds all afternoon and throw some sort of toasted nut on top of most salads I eat at night. I’ve upped my consumption because nuts, according to an avalanche of reports I’ve read, are miracles of nutrition,a virtuous, high-protein anti-meat. But I am also aware that more recently, nuts have been demonized as thirsty, greedy for water, sucking California dry. Now, when I eat a nut, I cannot decide whether to congratulate myself on my healthy snacking or apologize to my two young sons for ravaging their country’s agricultural future. Nuts seem to embody all the extremes of our various food obsessions—our health, our environment and, of course, our menus, which manage to grow ever more sophisticated even as our choices of guilt-free foods become more limited.

Nuts as Health Food

For people who want to eat well, in every sense of the word, nuts are a not-so-secret weapon. Each year, another study seems to tell us that they provide the sure path to longevity and litheness, that they have almost supernaturally protective powers. Nut eaters are better defended against heart disease and various kinds of cancers than those who don’t consume nuts, the research suggests. Dieters who eat nuts lose more weight than dieters who do not. Nut enthusiasts have smaller waists, even, and less body fat than those who refrain. No amount of fat in nuts like almonds—and they are loaded with healthy fat—makes them fattening. They seem to defy and complicate the assumptions so many of us have in our deep-seated, psychologically loaded relationship with food. They are brilliantly designed by nature: efficiently crammed with nutrients, conveniently slow to spoil—they even travel well.

When I eat an almond, I feel simultaneously spoiled and virtuous, two desirable emotions that almost never coexist. Eating them, I have the same feeling a reality dating-show junkie would have if a major study proved that watching those shows improved her vocabulary. Provided one does not have a deadly allergy, nuts are the perfect health food.

Culinary Chic

For many of the reasons above, nuts are having a moment in restaurants. They’ve become a favorite ingredient for chefs who create innovative food with unexceptional ingredients. At The Four Horsemen, a new but already beloved wine bar and restaurant in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, the Brazil nut—that oversize oval, the unwanted outlier of many a cocktail mix—has found a new form. Chef Nick Curtola deeply roasts the nuts, then shaves them into soft, almost furry flakes that dust thin lardo slices; they add a feather-light layer to the smooth salumi. In this dish, the Brazil nut has gone quiet, rather than crunchy; its subtlety focuses the attention, the effect people sometimes have when they whisper.

The new Seattle restaurant Manolin has a small, well-curated menu with nuts appearing in virtually every course: There are crumbled cashews on a plate of ceviche mixto; spicy almonds in a vegetable slaw; hazelnuts in a dish of burrata, cantaloupe and shishitos. At the outstanding San Francisco restaurant State Bird Provisions, pastry chef Nicole Krasinski’s most popular dessert is a digestif made from peanut milk, amplified with a little cream and dark muscovado sugar. These nuts are not used as flavorful thickeners, blended and transmogrified into something else altogether, as they are in pesto or romesco sauce or even some white gazpachos; these are nuts that insist—discreetly—on the integrity of their separate, essential nuttiness. They have a place at the table.

It was perhaps inevitable that chefs would be drawn to nuts. As diners look to eat less meat for reasons that include health and the environment, nuts have become a more sophisticated alternative: They are the socially conscious, thinking- diner’s protein. “Like cheese and anchovies, nuts bring a fat and a richness to the dish,” says Curtola. “Especially with vegetables, they bring out a meatiness, an umami.”

Nuts do not scare off certain diners the way that butter or, God forbid, bread might; they are trusted to “add bulk and texture to some of the really, really light dishes we serve,” says Manolin chef Alex Barkley. It is true that chefs need to be sensitive to nut allergies in this increased era of awareness; but as headaches go, says Barkley, this one is far less a menu-curtailing crisis than the gluten-free phenomenon that is making chefs everywhere rethink pasta.

Eco Concerns

Nuts have always seemed to be on the right side of ethical issues. No animals are killed so we can consume nuts. They do not exude methane or accrue mercury. They are not endangered. And then, in 2014, not long after a massive longitudinal study confirmed the astounding health benefits of nuts, a bit of astonishing news hit. A slew of articles informed us that almonds, an ever-important California crop, were consuming unthinkable quantities of water, all of it in the midst of a drought. For every almond, a gallon of water: It was a grim bit of environmental math. “Your almond habit is sucking California dry,” Mother Jones magazine told me, told us; the almond habit—not just ours, but the world’s—was so powerful, and so profitable, it was forcing farmers to tap the state’s aquifers for precious, last-resort water reserves. With every bag of almonds that I tossed into my shopping cart at the market, I started to feel I was helping sink California millimeters deeper into the sea.

“I’m still eating almonds,” Michael Pollan, the country’s definitive expert on ethical eating, wrote to me on the subject of drought-challenging foods.

Meat is considered both bad for our health and bad for the environment; those twin evils have been conflated, as if one caused the other. That almonds could be so good for our health but so bad for the environment is therefore an unexpected blow. The drought in California has meant that the almond—or, as some media outlets have cheekily characterized it, “the devil’s nut”—has become yet another loaded food choice.

More than just damning the nuts, the concerns about almonds’ toll on the water supply seem to speak to some larger disillusionment, a greater psychic unease about the food chain—the increasing challenge in finding foods one can consume with pure pleasure and not guilt.

The Voice of Reason

To eat or not to eat an almond? Should I refrain from nuts, rather than risk environmental harm or, less significantly, risk looking like someone who is oblivious to that harm? What would Michael Pollan do?

“I’m still eating almonds,” Pollan, perhaps the country’s definitive expert on ethical eating, and the author of Food Rules (among other influential books), wrote to me when I emailed him to ask his thoughts on drought-challenging foods. “Focusing on one crop like almonds—which is healthy food for people—misses the larger picture.” Tear out the almond trees, he predicted, and the state would just go ahead and plant more alfalfa, which uses even more of California’s water and mostly goes to feed cattle overseas. It takes four gallons of water, a subsequent story in the New York Times reported, to create a sliver of avocado, and 221 gallons to produce four glasses of milk. The problem of the drought is bigger than how many avocados or almonds I eat; and the challenge, for each of us, lies not in renouncing one food after another but in thinking bigger about our politics and the environment, and how much we support people thinking even bigger than we do.

Which is not to say that I will stop feeling slightly conflicted when I do eat nuts. Given everything they have come to represent in our culture—health, the environment, culinary chic—they are, for me, as loaded with significance as they are with protein and fat. I think that is one reason why the gentle dusting of Brazil nut on a dish at The Four Horsemen stays with me. It demands a bit of attention and focus, the kind of mindfulness that enhances any food.

Susan Dominus is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine.

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