Wherever Rebecca walked, the angels shone a spotlight on her footsteps. Though she was diminutive and, when I met her, quite frail, she was still a figure that commanded attention. I was at a garden party when I first set eyes on her, invited by the owner of a local seafood restaurant I frequented in the mid-90s.
Earlier that summer, I had started providing smoked salmon for the restaurant's appetizer menu. The deal was simple: Dave would give me 4 salmon filets. I would cure and smoke them, bring him back three and keep one for myself. These were warm-smoked, cured with juniper, and kept at 132° F for 4 hours in alder smoke. Dave’s head chef, Gordon, was catering the party and had whipped up some of the salmon into a delicate mousse.
I was sitting at a picnic table near the serving area when my eyes were drawn to Rebecca, wearing a white Sunday dress and standing in that spotlight. It was just brighter where she stood. In her left hand she held a bagel chip with a generous heaping of salmon mousse, but it was her right hand that grabbed my attention. She was pinching her nose in the way one does when there is a strong smell in the air, wrinkling her nose and shaking her head. My first reaction was that she thought my salmon stunk, but someone quickly pointed out to me it meant she really really dug it.
I laughed and held my nose too.
A few days later I asked Dave about her. Her full name was Rebecca Clark. She had “adopted” Dave when he was running for state representative in the 1960s. In May of 1961, she had sponsored a stop and accommodations for the first Freedom Ride when it passed through Chapel Hill and gave similar support to the subsequent rides. As a community organizer, she organized colorblind voter registration drives and threw her full support behind candidates, like Dave, when she liked them. And, oh yes, she was Doug Clark’s mother.
Flashback: September, 1965, Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas. Like many college dropouts turned draftee, I had just arrived at Brooke Army Medical Center for lab technician training - which was a good thing, because lab techs tend to be kept behind in hospitals rather than traipsing around carrying an M-14 in a jungle. I immediately made friends with a couple of guys named Rodney and Dave. They educated me about Doug Clark & the Hot Nuts, who played many a fraternity party on the southeast coast in the 60s. I had never heard of them before then and the stories were bizarre - like the time the band took the stage wearing nothing but jockstraps. Dave and Rodney also taught me the words to many of their “hits” (which, of course got zero airplay) such as “Barnacle Bill” (“Open the door, you dirty whore! Says Barnacle Bill the sailor”), “Roly Poly” (“Roly Poly, tickle my holey, up my slimy slew” – now just the girls sing!), and their signature piece, “Hot Nuts” – which you just have to hear to believe (NSFW, even now, some 50 years after it was recorded!):
One Sunday afternoon (in the 90s), I was sitting at the bar in Dave’s Seafood chatting with my favorite bartender when in walked three gentlemen dressed in suits, obviously fresh out of church. I picked up, from the conversation they were having, that they were there to take their mother to lunch, two brothers and one grandson. They seemed to be having so much fun, laughing a lot, and downing a shot or two of tequila before Mom showed up. I toasted them and downed a shot with them, what the hell. Then Mom arrived, in the angels’ spotlight. It was Rebecca Clark. Holy Shit again. I just had a drink with Doug Clark, his brother John, and son Doug Jr.
Rebecca Clark passed away in January 2009, preceded by Doug who died in September 2002.She had worked diligently in 2008 to elect Barack Obama and lived to see him elected, if not inaugurated. She was 93. The Hot Nuts still perform, with Doug Jr. on the drums.
Time for some hot nuts....
We'll get started by making some chili powder. It's not really necessary, but the powder you make will be better than the stuff you buy. Alternatively, you can just jazz up the stuff you buy with some additional peppers. The dried peppers I’m using today, in order of heat, are:
- 4 Ancho (1,000 to 2,000 Scoville units)
- 4 Cascabel (1,000 to 2,500)
- 4 Chipotle (2,000 to 5,000)
- 5 Arbol (10,000 to 30,000)
- 1 TBL Pequin (50,000 to 100,000)
Ancho, arbol, and pequin are easy to find in the Hispanic aisle of your local Piggly Wiggly. You might have to order the cascabels and chipotles. Or substitute other peppers. You can make you powder as spicy or mild as you like by keeping an eye on the Scoville units.
Cut peppers open with scissors, remove the seeds, then cut up into small strips.
The other ingredients, to round out the flavor:
- 2 TBL whole cumin seeds
- 2 TBL whole coriander seeds
- 2 TBL garlic powder
- 2 TBL dried oregano
Roast the chilies in a cast iron pan over medium high heat. I suggest using ventilation when you do this. Roasting accomplishes two things. It releases the aromatic oils from the cells and dries out the pepper so it will powder easily.
Set the peppers aside to cool when they finish roasting – about 3-5 minutes or when you start coughing as you stir them. Next roast the cumin and coriander until the cumin seeds start popping, about 30 seconds to 1 minute if you used the same pan. Let everything cool for about 15 minutes and pulse all the ingredients in a blender to get them down to size. Finally, use a spice grinder, working in batches, to completely pulverize. It’s a very good idea to “let the dust settle” after each round of processing so you don’t breathe any in. That really smarts. Yield = ¾ cup and it will keep at least 6 months in a lidded jar.
Preheat oven to 250°F
- 1 16-ounce jar of dry-roasted peanuts
- 2 Limes, juiced
- 2 TBL Honey
- 3 TBL Chili powder
The nuts have to be there, of course. The lime juice is there to give 'em that extra chile y limón boost. The honey is for Rebecca, one of the sweetest women to ever set foot on this planet and the chili powder is there for her son Doug, the man who originally made nuts a hot item.
Mix all ingredients in a bowl and transfer to a roasting pan. Speaking of which, what you see pictured above is a nut roasting pan that I bought on Woot for 8 bucks a couple years back. It’s useless for that purpose. The nuts get stuck under the stirrer and eventually all just go around like a nutty merry-go-round as you turn the crank. Maybe, I sometimes think, if I took the wooden handles off, it would sorta work as a cake pan. More likely, it will soon be donated to Goodwill to sell to some other unsuspecting true believer, just to free up some shelf space here.
So I used a flip pan for roasting, even though flipping didn’t work too well either. In this case it was because the honey kept the nuts pretty well bound together, a congealed mass that just wouldn't flip. Stirring them with a silicon spatula worked great. Give the nuts about 10 minutes over medium heat, just enough to evaporate the liquid. They'll come unstuck after spending some time in the oven.
From there, put the nuts on a parchment-lined sheet pan. Bake for 40 minutes, taking them out to mix ‘em up a bit every 10 minutes. After they cool, they’ll be sweet with a hint of lime and subtle heat. Most importantly, they’ll be crunchy – much better than the hot nuts you get from the peanut man or flight attendant, a finger food that won’t muck up either your fingers or your boarding pass.