The cocoanut is the largest edible nut in our markets, and is very widely known. It is sold in the markets with the outer husk removed, but with long, bristly fibers adhering to the very hard, thick shell lined by the white meat, which surrounds the watery fluid called cocoanut milk. They a.e large in size, ranging from six to twelve inches long, and three to six inches in diameter. They are borne on lofty tree-like palms (Palmae or Palmaceae), which are natives of Africa, India, and the islands of the Indian and Pacific Oceans. They grow sixty to ninety feet high, and have pinnate leaves from ten to twenty feet long. The nuts hang at the base of the leaves, in clusters of from eighteen to twenty. This tree yields cocoanuts, drink, fuel, and clothing, and is the most useful of all trees, thriving only near the seacoast, or where the sea breezes reach it.
The natives eat this nut in its immature state, when the flesh is soft and very much like a delicious custard. It can be eaten from the shell with a spoon. In this stage it is very easy of digestion; but when it becomes mature, it is quite woody, and hard of digestion. In this country it is principally used for flavoring, and for its oil, in which it is very rich, containing thirty-six per cent, of fats, eight per cent. of albuminous material, and one per cent. of salts.
The oil consists of a peculiar substance called cocinin, a combination of fatty acids and a very small quantity of olein. The cocoanut-oil is liquid at eighty degrees; below this temperature, down to fifty degrees, it is of the consistency of lard; and below that temperature it is quite hard. Under pressure, the oil separates, forming not only a liquid but a solid substance. The solid portion, called "cocoa stearin," is manufactured into a butter called "cocoanut stearin," and used for lubricating the skin in giving massages, etc. The stearin is also used for making candles. The cocoanut-oil is utilized in manufacturing toilet and fullers' soaps.
There is a company in the United States that manufactures a butter from the cocoanut which they call "Nutcoa." It is of a clear, whitish color, and is composed wholly of fats. It is better for cooking purposes than for table use, although it is finding its way to the tables of the poorer classes as a substitute for oleomargarin. It is, of course, free from tubercular germs, by which so many of the cattle of this country are afflicted.
In countries where they are indigenous, cocoanuts are used in many ways. The young and tender sprouts are cooked as we would prepare asparagus. A cream is made by grating the cocoanut fine, and rubbing it well with the hands in as warm water as possible. The oily part, perfectly emulsified, rises to the surface, and is poured off, leaving the coarser part to settle to the bottom. Cocoanut cream is excellent on grains, or for seasoning other foods. The oil can be made by grating and rubbing like the above, and then boiling for an hour or more in plenty of water. When cold, the oil will rise and the woody portion will settle to the bottom.
The husk, or fibrous pericarp of the cocoanut, is termed "coir," and is used in various ways. Coir is prepared by soaking the husks for several months in water, and then beating with heavy weights. Coir yarn is imported into America, and is preferable to horse hair for stuffing mattresses, cushions, chairs, and saddles, as it is indestructible and never harbors vermin. It may also be made into very strong, light rope, formerly of great value to seamen, as it floats in water and is unaffected by it. Coir is also made into mats; and the twisted and braided fibers are used by the Polynesians in the place of nails in the construction of houses and canoes.
The small and immature nuts arc grated fine while green, and used for medicinal purposes. A healing salve may be made from the unripe nuts, by mixing with the oil of the ripe nut. The trunks of the trees are used for building purposes.