Sometimes it’s necessary to turn to the simple things–like cracking nuts.
Totally burned out by the election, I arrived home from tutoring Thursday unwilling to see or hear one more thing about it. And there in the kitchen sat a big bowl of pecans my sister had given me. They were ready to be cracked, and that was how I wanted to spend my evening.
I laid a newspaper out on the kitchen table, got my new nut-cracking tools and a glass of wine, and set to work. I finished at about 9:00 that evening. This was not an easy task, but it was almost a meditation, every nut a new experience, every nut both a challenge and a teaching.
As I worked, an excerpt from the autobiography of a western pioneer came to mind. The author, “Uncle Walter” to my friend who shared his story, had grown up in Texas in the late 1870s. He wrote about finding pecans, black walnuts, and hickory nuts in the forests and on prairies and storing them until they seasoned in cracks in a log cabin. After dinner and around a fire, the family would gather to feast on nuts and hear stories about Indian wars and battles with rustlers.
The nuts the family ate had been cracked with rock, hammer, and an iron wedge. I needed practice with my new tools, and nut by nut, I searched for technique. Do you squeeze the fat part of the pecan first or the point? That wasn’t working too well. Pieces of shell were flying all over the table and onto the floor. Eventually I realized that there is a vertical seam on the nutshell. Should I try to crack vertically? On the seam or on the opposite side?
Nut after nut, I experimented. I’m into achievement. I hoped to do it just right, split it down the middle in order to get out clean halves. If I made a pie from these pecans, I needed clean halves for the top. Not so easy to come by. Every nut was individualistic, hard to read.
My mind drifted back to my childhood. Although things are so much more convenient now, in some ways life is not as much fun. I remembered summer visits with my grandparents in the tiny outpost of Darnell, Lousiana. I guess they were poor, but they had endured the Great Depression when everyone became poor. They had a big vegetable garden, a cow for milk, chickens for eggs and meat, and my grandfather caught catfish. It was great fun learning about how to live that way. My grandmother was a wonderful cook, and every meal was delicious. To satisfy my sweet tooth, she would make a special snack–a cold biscuit covered with butter she had churned and sprinkled with sugar. Funny that the taste of countless subsequent M&Ms does not compare with that memory.
I remember a chicken flopping around in the yard, its head lying on the big tree trunk where it had been chopped off by my grandfather. I would help my grandmother pluck feathers and burn off the down with a match. I remember the adventure of collecting eggs from the chicken coop and dropping in horror one with a leathery shell. I thought my touch had somehow ruined it.
Back at my contemporary kitchen table, I was getting better at the cracking, nut by nut. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I might want to write about this, so I worked on getting a photogenic pecan. Funny how intensely one can engage with a simple task. I struggled to read each nut, figure out where the half point was within the shell, where the exact right pressure point was. For a while, I even imagined myself poor, living through a really tough time; and I searched the table for every chip of nut meat, the fat and protein it contained essential to my survival.
As I worked, I also thought about the pie I would make, including a crust from scratch. I don’t know about other women, but during this very stressful time, I have taken refuge in many domestic chores that may not be all that common anymore, like making pie crust. I’ve also ironed pillowcases and sheets and napkins. Then there is the housecleaning, which I’ve always enjoyed and found great therapy in the worst of times.
The significance of this election is complex. However, to some of us it reflects the will in part to consign the feminine to our “rightful place.” As we try to assimilate what has happened and its larger significance, I will take comfort in the maintenance of order and beauty in my home. And I’ll be thinking very hard about where we go from here. Fortunately, I learned from my experience with the pecans that every nut is vulnerable to a mind analyzing its structure and its vulnerability to pressure. As we go through the coming months and years, I know that the potential of that patience and determination is boundless.