I picked up the hot pink package of peanuts featuring an angry Cossack wielding a mace because it looked weird and I love weird foods.
Meet pork nuts. They are peanuts that taste like bacon or a particularly funky prosciutto. The secret lies in their thick layer of salt. This magic dust obliterates the unmistakable earthy sweetness that screams PEANUT and replaces it with bacon’s funky, smoky tang. With the exception of Pringles and their ability to transform sawdust into potato chips, few other foodstuffs achieve the industrial alchemy of pork nuts.
Pour a handful into your palm and flavor crystals encrust your fingers and pants. This is good, until you eat them all. You can stare at your thumb for a moment and pretend like you won’t lick it clean. But as the lingering umami teases your mouth, you’ll succumb. Pork nuts are as delicious as they are weird.
I discovered them at a supermarket in Kiev. My boyfriend wanted pistachios to go with his vodka, but they are the only item that costs more in the Ukraine than they do in the US. Peanuts, as always, were cheap and plentiful. We could have chosen blue beer nuts, golden gouda nuts or jet-black Japanese wasabi nuts. I chose pink pork nuts because they were the weirdest.
As one shot of vodka became three and a handful of peanuts became the package, I wondered: Who was the angry Cossack on the bag? Why did he wield a mace? Did he also eat peanuts with his vodka? My boyfriend hid the package to quiet my busy mind. He finished them.
And now for some explanations: peanuts are a standard bar snack because they encourage you to drink more and drink quickly. This isn't because salted peanuts make you thirsty (ed note: pretzels do that). The fat in peanuts balances out the bitter hops in beer, which normally trigger the brain to realize that you’re drinking something alcoholic and should sip slowly. Fat reduces the bitter sensation, letting you gulp down beer with the relish as you would save for a lemonade on a summer afternoon.
But that didn’t explain why the package featured a Cossack showing off his traditional costume and haircut.
Perhaps he symbolized the Ukrainian appropriation of American snack foods as a way to defend his culture from foreign invasion. It sounds lofty for a package of peanuts, but Ukrainians stamp toilet paper with images of Putin. The name ‘Cossack’ was first used in the mid-13th century to describe an individual who laughed at external authority. Since conflict with Russia escalated in 2014, Cossack haircuts and clothing have become a political fashion statement amongst young people. Aware of how their purchases impact the market, young Ukrainians seem likely to choose snacks that represent this combination of traditional traits and modern habits. The Cossack tells consumers that Ukrainians can use their national culture to transform foreign products.
Pork nuts are weird and they are delicious. But their weirdness hides a web of meanings that reflect their culture context. Pork nuts are weird to the American girl looking for pistachios to please her boyfriend. But for the Ukrainian kid seeking a snack that sends the beer down and tells them that everything is going to be okay, pork nuts are another thing to toss into your grocery basket before heading to the check out.