Workers at the Cashew FactoryThe holiday season is upon us, whether we are in summery Goa or wintery Eugene or elsewhere around the world. Recently three of us from ELAW’s US office traveled to India for the 2012 ELAW Annual International Meeting. Among the many extraordinary experiences and stories of courageous and creative work being undertaken by our partners was a quick visit to a local cashew factory. We all wanted to purchase cashews–they tasted amazing!–but I was struck most by the sheer amount of work being done there…and I got curious.

It turns out that every cashew takes quite a bit of time to harvest, roast, shell, clean and package. Although there is some dispute about where the most cashews are produced now (India, Nigeria, and Vietnam are all vying for greatest production in 2012, depending on what source you read), cashews are originally from Brazil. From there the species went north into Central America, and the Portuguese traders brought seedlings to Mozambique and eventually other countries in eastern Africa, and to Goa, India. Not, interestingly, for the cashews–but because the trees were good at stabilizing sandy soils. Now, although it is one species, the cashew varieties are many: those from Kenya, India, and Panama all taste wonderfully different.

Removing cashew shellsCashews are in the same family as poison ivy and poison sumac and–curiously–mangoes. Like its relatives, it is full of chemical irritants. Happily, the chemical irritants are found in the shell, not in the nut itself. So if you have never seen a cashew shell (you almost certainly haven’t), and you’ve never gotten a poison-ivy like reaction to cashews, that’s because someone else removed that shell for you. In fact someone–or more than one person–did quite a bit of work for you to enjoy that nut. The nut grows below the cashew apple, which itself can be eaten or fermented into feni–a strong and wonderful regional alcohol that our Annual Meeting hosts encouraged us to taste in Goa. The cashew actually has two shells–an inner and outer one. The outer one must first be roasted off to burn away the poison-ivy-related toxic oils. Then the inner shell must be removed, either by roasting again, or boiling. Only after that can the delicate cashew nut be removed and dried for eating or shipping. Note that you can buy “raw cashews” but you won’t be eating raw cashews: they almost certainly have already been roasted twice!

So there you have it. Lots of work and individual attention to each cashew. National Cashew Day (really, such a day exists?!) on 22 November has already passed but the holiday season is full of cashews. Most of us think about cashews as part of the standard fare at a holiday party–as part of baked goods, or salted, mixed in with other nuts. We eat them so casually, without thinking about where they came from or what it took to get them to us.

But the next time I eat a cashew, my mind will connect back to these hardworking women in the factory in Goa and I will be more mindful of and more grateful for where this wonderful food comes from. And I pledge to buy cashews only from companies that are also thinking about the hardworking employees, and using fair trade and fair labor labels. Look for them! And if your store doesn’t have them, demand them!

Heidi Weiskel
ELAW Staff Scientist