SPICY-SWEET BOURBON PECANS
Does the thought of the approaching holidays fill you with panic? If so, you are not alone.
December can be a particularly chaotic time for most families. There’s shopping, school holiday events, office Christmas parties, family get-togethers (and the nagging worry that Uncle Fred and Aunt Velma might be there this year), along with concerns about weather, travel, world peace … and everything in between! It seems odd, though, doesn’t it? The holy day that commemorates the silent arrival of the God-Man more than 2,000 years ago is often experienced today as a tightly wrapped package of anxiety and stress. That can’t be what God intends for the celebration of Christmas, a solemnity imbued with a sense of graciousness and hospitality.
That first Christmas night — the night that Jesus was born — is adorned with a silent beauty and humility we often overlook. I know I overlooked it for years. The reality of Christmas didn’t really hit home for me until 1989. It was during the Advent and Christmas seasons that year while I was in formation with Mother Teresa’s priests — the Missionaries of Charity Fathers — in Tijuana, Mexico. I was 19 years old.
Our schedule in the seminary included daily Mass and gathering in community four times a day to pray the Liturgy of the Hours. It was the first time I had experienced the full liturgical life of the Church … and it rocked my world. At 19, I found myself immersed in Scripture. Not as a scholarly work or a Bible study, but in prayer and in my day-to-day experience. Praying the Liturgy of the Hours (also called the Divine Office) daily meant that the words of the psalms and many Old and New Testament canticles ran through my mind … not only when I was praying, but throughout the day. I simply fell in love with certain psalms and Scripture passages like this one from St. Paul to the Philippians:
Though he was in the form of God, [Jesus] did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance (2:6–7).
It goes on. I know it by heart now. And it comes to mind whenever I think of Christmas. Christmas is about the humility of God, the humility of Jesus, and I find it breathtakingly beautiful.
That Advent and Christmas in Mexico, on my knees in prayer before the manger, I came face-to-face with the humility of God in the humanity of Jesus. Born as a tiny baby. In a cave. Among the animals. No fanfare. With only foreigners from the East and the poor and smelly shepherds from the local area to acknowledge his arrival and pay tribute. It’s humbling for me to recognize that this is how he chose to come to us.
To most of the world at that time, this baby was a nobody. He was not important. He didn’t matter. And yet he was everything. He was the gift of the Father, the long-awaited Savior. And just so there would be no mistake that Jesus was meant not only to save us, but also to be our very sustenance as the Bread of Life, God had him born in Bethlehem (a city whose name means “house of bread”) and placed in a manger … a feed trough. If you’re familiar with French or Italian, you might recall that “manger,” or mangare, means “to eat.”
Jesus comes to us with the utmost graciousness and hospitality. Later in his ministry, he will dine frequently with tax collectors, prostitutes, and other public sinners. So much so, in fact, that he will get the reputation among some of being a drunkard (see Matthew 11:19 and Luke 7:34).
Also in his ministry he will tell stories about the kingdom of God, comparing it to a wedding feast (see Matthew 22:1–14). He will announce to the world that he himself is our food, the Bread of Life, and that we are to consume him in order to have eternal life (see John 6:48–51). He was speaking of the gift of himself in the Eucharist, a gift that he gives to us at the Last Supper and upon the cross. But even here, at the beginning, at his birth, he shows himself to be the most gracious and hospitable host, inviting strangers and the poor to come and to be filled with wonder and grace.
Graciousness and hospitality are two attitudes I want to adopt this Christmas so I can be a little more like Jesus. Mother Teresa used to allude to the fact that sometimes it’s the people in our own families that are hardest to love. Such close proximity means that we can’t pretend in front of them that we are better than we are. And vice versa.
Extended family gatherings around the holidays can sometimes be fraught with tension as old family disagreements come closer to the surface and fester. Maybe I think that Uncle Fred or Aunt Velma aren’t living the right kind of life. Maybe I don’t agree with their political stance. Maybe they have done something to hurt me in the past. It is freeing to know that I don’t have to change them. It fills me with joy to think that I can be like Jesus and meet Uncle Fred and Aunt Velma right where they are without making any demands on them.
I can be gracious and hospitable. If I’m honest, I probably have some of the same faults and failings that they have. As imperfect as I am, Jesus welcomes me to his table. I might think that Uncle Fred and Aunt Velma are nuts. And that’s OK. As long as I recognize that I’m a little nuts, too.
If you’re anything like me, sometimes you might need a little help remembering to be gracious and hospitable. A dish filled with spicy-sweet bourbon pecans sitting on the counter at the next extended family Christmas gathering might be just the thing we need to remind ourselves that we’re a little nuts, too. Remembering our nuttiness may help me to extend a little graciousness and hospitality to our fellow nuts. Merry Christmas!
1 cup sugar
¼ cup water
6 tablespoons bourbon
¼ teaspoon ground
½ teaspoon freshly
½ teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon coarse-
ground kosher salt
16 ounces pecan halves
Roasting the pecans
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Place the pecans in a single layer on a baking sheet or a baking stone. The pecans should be dry. Don’t add any butter or oil.
Place the pecans in the oven on the middle rack and roast for 5 minutes. At the 5-minute mark, stir the pecans, then even them out on the baking sheet again. Allow them to roast for another 5 minutes.
Remove from the oven and transfer to a cool baking sheet or a large wooden cutting board. Allow them to cool completely before proceeding.
Making the spicy-sweet bourbon pecans
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
Heat a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat.
Combine the sugar, water, bourbon, cinnamon, nutmeg, cayenne, and salt in the skillet and whisk well so the sugar dissolves.
Bring to a boil. Once the “bubbles have bubbles” (this should not take long once the mixture starts to boil), add the pecans and stir until all are well coated.
Transfer the pecans to a prepared baking sheet, separating each individual pecan.
Set aside and allow to cool completely before serving.