From the Homestead Kitchen: Walnuts—A Gift that Keeps on Giving

by Alexandra Rasic

Last Saturday, our Collections Coordinator Michelle Muro took viewers on a virtual tour of some of the Homestead’s most popular holiday decorations from the 1870s through the 1920s. (You can find a recording of the program here.) One of the topics she covered was how gift-giving changed over time. She noted that during the Victorian-era, oranges and walnuts were considered treasured gifts. Program attendees shared happy memories of giving and receiving these treats well into the present day. Lucky for Californians, we have a long history of producing great quantities of both! 

Our Victorian era table-top tree on display in the Workman House.

Talking about walnuts immediately made me think of what is most likely the smallest recipe booklet in our collection. Produced by Diamond Brand Walnuts, it measures 3 1/2 inches wide and 2 3/4 inches tall, and is cut in the shape of a walnut. The booklet has no publication date, but we believe it’s from the 1920s. Not surprisingly, of the 29 recipes featured, 13 are for breads, muffins, and cakes. Writing on the first page indicates that the booklet was produced to coincide with a new package design for the walnut brand.

“This new package puts an end to your buying walnuts of an unknown quality. The CALIFORNIA Walnuts in the DIAMOND BRAND package carry an absolute guarantee of quality—well-filled shells—rich, nutty white meats. The kind of walnuts you always want to buy—but have never before had any way to identify them.”

Diamond Walnut Growers, Inc. was founded as a member-owned cooperative in 1912. It was organized by Charles C. Teague, who had also been a founder of the California Fruit Growers Exchange, which we know today as Sunkist Growers, Inc. Diamond’s origin coincided with the rise of the advertising industry. In 1919, they were the first nut producer to launch a national advertising campaign, and in 1950, they were the first nut company to advertise on television. Our little keepsake booklet is a wonderful example of a marketing tool they used to help keep the brand on the minds of consumers. 

The two commonly known species of walnuts are the Persian, or English walnut, and the black walnut. The English walnut comes from present-day Iran, and the black is native to eastern North America. While the majority of what is grown commercially today is the English walnut, the Agricultural Marketing Resource Center notes that the black walnut is mostly used as the rootstock for English walnut cultivators. California is noted as representing “virtually all” almond, pistachio, and walnut production in the United States. Figures from 2017 show that globally, China leads in walnut production (1.92 million tons), with the US (.57 million tons) and Iran (.35 million tons) coming in second and third.

This section of a large panoramic photograph by Huddleston Photo Company of Los Angeles from the Homestead’s collection shows dozens of employees of a Diamond Walnuts packing plant in the region.

Writing about the local walnut industry and the above photograph, our Director, Paul Spitzzeri, noted that “Southern California, from the 1880s through the 1920s, was the center of the walnut industry, producing some 95% of the state’s output.  Much of this was raised in the San Gabriel Valley and, in the early 1920s, the town of Puente (now La Puente) had the distinction of having the world’s largest walnut packing house.” Walter Temple had large walnut orchards at the Homestead in the 1920s, and his father and grandfather, F.P.F. Temple and William Workman, experimented with them, too.

Want to know what drove me nuts in doing research for this post? Learning that walnuts are not, technically speaking, nuts at all. Truth be told, most of what we call nuts aren’t either. They are drupes, which are fruits with thin skin and a central stone. So think of walnuts as the stone fruit of the walnut tree. As Lee Zalben explains, “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.” 

Going back to our little booklet, I decided to make two recipes printed on the last page: Walnut Molasses Candy and Salmon Salad.

It was getting close to dinner time, which is why the salad caught my eye. After mincing the salmon I added the 1/2 cup of walnuts (Diamond brand, of course!), and 1/3 cup of diced celery. As suggested, I added the juice from one lemon and salt, and then I did what I usually do when I make tuna salad. I added 3T of mayonnaise, black pepper, a dash of cayenne, and 2T each of chopped fresh dill and parsley. It was fantastic. I don’t know why I never thought of making salmon salad vs. tuna salad before, and I had never added nuts to a tuna salad, but we really liked the texture and nutty flavor that the walnuts added. And I guess we were really hungry because I forgot to take a picture!

Cycling back to Christmas, I decided to make the molasses candy hoping that it would be a treat I could share with my neighbors as a gift for the holidays. But in a rush to get dinner on the table, I got lazy. I dutifully mixed all the ingredients and boiled the mixture for a couple of minutes before adding it to a butter pan—and I took a picture! But after, I wondered if I should have researched a little more to make sure that I understood what “Boil until hard in water” meant. Instead of Googling this, I did something better, and something I should have done before I made the recipe. I texted my colleague Gennie Truelock, our resident baker and candy maker and frequent contributor to this series. “Have you seen the expression ‘boil until hard in water before’?” I asked. “What does that mean?” Her answer: “Before common use of candy thermometers that was how to test the setting stage of the candy by dropping the boiled sugar into water to see if it is at a soft, firm, or hard ball stage, or if it is setting at the soft or hard crack stage.” Oops.

This morning I optimistically took the pan out of the refrigerator hoping to find my set molasses candy. Instead I found that I had only reached the “soft-ball” stage. I had thick, gooey molasses sauce. Maybe it will be good on ice cream or apple pie? It sure tastes good. I’ve still got some walnuts left, so I think I’ll try making Squirrel Bread to give as gifts instead.

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