Extreme Food Processing: Flaming Nuts and Poison Ivy Spray

Extreme Food Processing: Flaming Nuts and Poison Ivy Spray

I was harvesting fruits down by the classroom this week when Jenny walked by with a line of high school students, en route for the river trail. She paused for a moment as she passed.

“We're roasting cashews at five tomorrow. Why don't you gather some from the ground here and bring them?”

As I nodded in reply, she kept walking, the line of students slowly disappearing into the trees.

I looked down at my harvest—a small sack of red lovi-lovis, pink water apples, and green peppercorns. Friendly faces of the fruit world, each one unique in form and function. The lovi-lovis bright and tart, the water apples soft and quenching, the peppers prized for their addictive pungency. Understanding each one's harvest, preparation, and usage is one of the true joys of farming and cooking; each new discovery a revelation in the subtle and powerful nuances of the life around us.

The cashews, though. The cashews were dangerous temptations.

I looked up from my harvest. The Ranch cashew trees were close enough that I could smell the fruits, softly sweet, with a piercing astringency. Cashews are mythical beasts of the fruit world, strangely formed in an unlikely combination of parts. The fruits themselves are soft and oval, and vary in size and color like apples do, most red or yellow. They have a soft, waxy skin and extreme juiciness—which ironically leaves your mouth completely dry when you bite into one, courtesy of the high quantity of astringent tannins. But the strangest part is the seed. Instead of hiding buried inside the fruit's flesh, the cashew seed dangles in a curved shell on the bottom of the fruit itself, like a tiny curled finger, beckoning and warning.

Each February and March at the Ranch, as soon as the first mythical cashew beasts begin to form and dangle from the trees at eye level, an urgent announcement is made to all apprentices, guests, and passersby: do not touch the cashew nuts or they will get you!! Like all mythical beasts, cashews come with a set of strange powers. In addition to the fruits sucking all the saliva out of your mouth when you eat them, the nuts are covered in urushiol, the same chemical substance that gives poison ivy its poison and people a terrifying rash when they touch it. Nuts nuts nuts!

I happen to be extremely allergic to lots of plants, including plain grass. My legs from the knees down still bear hundreds of poison oak scars. Urushiol is my nemesis, and I always lose our battles. So when Robin warned us about the cashew nuts' latent danger—don't touch them the wrong way, don't look at them the wrong way and above all else, don't try to roast them—I took the message to heart as fair warning and good advice. After all, this sound advice was preceded by experience: on the two occasions when people attempted to roast the nuts at the Ranch, both events ended in trips to the hospital for steroid injections. Swelling of the entire body after consuming urushiol is apparently even worse than itchy legs. “Robin had a cashew trauma,” Jenny later described it. Some fruits are better left untouched.

And yet. My friend Amanda who, bless her lovely heart, is afraid of nearly everything in the jungle, including insects, sounds, and rainstorms, happened to tell me just that morning that she was enjoying cashew processing with her four-year-old daughter Lily. “We just cooked them in the fire and then Lily broke open the nuts with a rock and they were really good,” she said. And then there was the time last year that we filled a whole sack full of cashew nuts from the driveway, and Junior was thrilled to lug the things back to his place to roast and eat. And of course the fact that there are cashew trees everywhere in Mastatal and everyone seems to eat them. Maybe it was time to try again.

The next morning at meeting I announced my plan to collect the nuts and bring them to Jenny and Marcos's to roast. A small sea of terrified faces looked back at me. “Its okay!” I said, “It's okay!” Having no idea if it would be okay or not, but hoping.

“For anyone that chooses to participate, we will help you in any way we can, but you will be responsible for the cost of your own transportation and hospital visit,” added Robin.

That afternoon I took a bag to the cashew tree patch, scavenged for fallen nuts, and thought about my future. Would it be bright? Painful? Delicious? It was easy to gather a good quantity of nuts in a half hour or so. I stuck them in a backpack along with a take-out container of salted Maya nut seeds to share. Just before leaving I asked Robin what part of the roasting process she had been allergic to. “The nuts, the utensils that handled the nuts, everything that touched the nuts, the smoke, and everything the smoke touched,” she said. I added a bottle of benadryl and an emergency inhaler to my backpack, and Rachel Jackson, Jess, and I set out walking to Marcos's.

When we arrived Arabela was sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch, and Chilo wandered up with a shovel in his hand. I could see smoke coming from behind the house, and Chilo pointed us around the corner.

There was Marcos, shirtless and stirring cashews over the fire with a very long stick. In front of him sat a small crowd of young tourists and volunteers, watching, chatting. Someone strummed a guitar. No one looked terrified or swollen. Jenny greeted us. Smoke wafted from the fire onto the crowd, and Rachel, Jess and I stepped back out of its reach. We explained our trepidation to Jenny, and she shook her head. “It's fine!” she said. “As long as the toxins spray out and burn up its no problem, its good.”

We handed Marcos our sack of cashews and he tossed them on a roofing sheet over the fire and poked them around with the stick. “You have to stir them until they pop,” he explained, “then they open and spray out all the toxins, and it runs into the fire and burns.” After a few minutes the cashews looked black and charred, and I heard the hiss and pop of shells breaking. Marcos pointed out the rivlet of liquid running off the roofing sheet onto the ground. Once he deemed that all the shells had opened, he dipped the end of the stick into the fire, and brought the burning tip up to the cashews. They ignited immediately, and burned like an enormous flambe. After a minute or so Marcos told us to step back, and he flipped the roofing sheet with the flaming nuts onto the ground, where they burned out in the dirt. Jenny used a stick to gather them into a pile and brought them over to us. They were completely charred, the husks burned through. She put one on a rock and tapped it with a piece of wood. The husk fell off, and she picked up the nut. A cashew! Golden brown, with one end toasted slightly black. “If its wet, and bends, don't eat it, its got the toxins,” she said, pressing the nut between her fingers. “This is good.” She handed it to me to eat. It was warm, and tasted sweet and tender-crisp.

We spent the rest of the evening by the fire, cracking open cashews and passing around May nuts. The Maya nut, also called ojoche or ramon, is a native rainforest tree that produces an edible, high-protein nut. The week before, Jenny accompanied us deep into the forest in Zapaton to track down one of the last known mature trees in the area. We hope that by valuing the Maya nuts as a food source and the trees that produce them, we will help drive sustainable food economies that are financially viable and promote conservation of forest ecosystems.

One of Marcos's volunteers took a Maya nut and popped it in his mouth. He looked at Marcos poking another roaring ball of fire on the roofing sheet. “If cashews were in the states people would go crazy, there'd be like cashew parties every year or something. Its so cool!” He took another Maya nut. “What are these, these are good?”

Around dusk it began to rain, and we crowded under the awning of Marcos's house, snacked on Maya nuts, and talked about the cashews. Marcos explained the differences in varieties and processing techniques. We concluded that the Ranch Cashew Trauma was probably a consequence of ingestion of un-combusted urushiol and a serious allergy to it. Even though Marcos made it all look easy, the complete combustion of the toxins in cashew nuts is an extreme food processing technique honed by many seasons of experience. I certainly won't be roasting them by myself any time soon. But hopefully Marcos and Jenny will let us continue to celebrate the season with them in years to come.

A Ranch guest recently asked me why local food traditions are important in Mastatal. Why trek into the jungle to gather rainforest seeds? Why feel the adrenaline spike of watching someone combust toxic nuts in a ball of fire? Why prepare three meals a day from local foods--no boxes, bags, or can openers involved? Why do we do this, and why is it important?

Food is constant. It builds us, it forms us, it unites us. Sustainable food systems are the heart of resilient communities and regenerative ecosystems. If you can do this one thing—food--on a sustainable community scale, everything else will follow. Community cohesion, local economies, conservation of diverse ecosystems, health and wellness, celebration—all fall into place as we create successful, vibrant local food systems. Its not just about the flaming nuts, its about the whole picture, and that's why it worth it.

Laura Killingbeck


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