By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily
What do you imagine with the onset of fall in New Mexico? For me, it is looking forward to cooler days, longer nights, kivas or fireplaces burning, new bright red chile ristras hanging in markets and chile roasting under our turquoise blue skies. The scents of the above mentioned are also a passage into autumn in our state in some instances. The piñon wood burning in the fireplaces, the chile roasting — are there any better aromas? These are just some traditions, that are unique to this state more than anywhere else, and us native New Mexicans love them all.
Our rich Hispanic and Native American heritage goes hand-in-hand with traditions of the changing of the seasons, such as stringing the beautiful red chile ristras. The one tradition I would like to feature today is the gathering of piñons (pine nuts, pinyons or in Spanish piñons). When the air begins to cool and daylight hours shorten, pine cones begin to open, bringing forth the fruit for man, animal and bird. A part of our state’s tradition is the yearly ritual of families gathering the pine nuts.
For the Mescalero Apaches, the Navajos (editor’s note: the Spanish gave the tribes the name Navajo, but they call themselves Diné, which means the people; the same goes for Mescalero Apache who call themselves Nde, which means the people, as well) and the Native American tribes living in pueblos, it was a staple of their diet. Usually, the nuts were gathered from the ground, but animal hides would also be laid out under the trees and the nuts were shaken onto them. Later, brightly woven blankets were used. Sometimes they (native New Mexico people) would raid the nests of pack rats, where they could yield up to 100 pounds instantly. Traditionally, the nuts would be roasted on hot rocks around the fire. The flavorful nuts would be used in soups and piñon-seasoned venison stews; the natives would boil them, mash them, roast them, eat the nuts raw and grind them into flour.
An excerpt of an article in the Albuquerque Journal, dated Aug. 18, 1940 reads:
“Pinons play an important part in the economic life of the Navajo and Spanish-American families, according to Dr. Little.
“Pinon pickers get anywhere from 7 to 22 cents per pound for their harvest and at 10 cents a pound can make up to $2 a day. Quite a bit more, of course, if they find a pack rats’ nest loaded with nuts. Whole families join in the picking and sometimes make up to $500 for the season.
“The pinon crop is ready for harvest soon after the first frost, and the picking generally lasts in a good crop year until the snow flies.
Some pinon pickers can make more harvesting nuts for a season than they can make working for a whole year as a ranch hand.”
For families of Spanish origin — much like at Dia de Muertos (Day of the Dead) — it was a tradition each year in the fall to come together under the turquoise skies. They would go to the hills in the surrounding areas, take their blankets and have picnics. From the oldest to the youngest family member, they would gather piñons in buckets, bags and pillowcases, whatever was handy. The blankets would be spread out on the ground, under the trees, and one member of the family would climb the tree and shake the branches for the nuts to fall. A favorite way to consume the nuts was roasted, to use it then ground in coffees, mixed in foods such as squash, or to eat them as a snack. They were used in deserts and empanadas (turnover pastries) as well.
For both groups, it was, and is, a rite of autumn, a time of the family togetherness and fun. Piñon pickers gather the piñons on hands and knees — a rather arduous task. They then sort through the harvest, separating the good dark nuts from the bad, lighter colored. There is an easy way to tell if collected nuts are good or not: Dump all the nuts in a bucket of water. Most of those that float are no good. The sinkers are the keepers.
If you ever stop to buy piñons from one of the street vendors, just know that the price they ask is probably a pretty fair price, as they are so hard to gather, and the harvest — depending on the year — may not be that plentiful.
Piñon nuts come from a certain species of pine tree, a two-needled pine tree, which grows wild in the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.
Editor’s note: In 1987, New Mexico passed the Piñon Nut Act to support the state’s piñon nut industry. It is illegal in New Mexico for anyone to label and sell pine nuts from species other than those listed in the law under the label of piñon nuts. The law’s purpose was to distinguish local piñon nuts from imported pine nuts. The law authorizes the New Mexico Department of Agriculture to examine pine nut dealers’ records to verify that they are selling piñon nuts and not fraudulently labeled pine nuts from species not included under the law.
No fee or permit is required for personal use harvesting (where permitted).
Personal use is the harvesting of relatively small amounts of piñon nuts not intended for sale. Personal use limits range from 25 pounds per year in Nevada and western Utah to 75 pounds per year in Colorado and New Mexico. For more information, visit pinonnuts.org.
The piñon tree has its place in history — records exist that mention the consumption of pine nuts around the beginning of the Christian era. The ancient Greeks and Romans appreciated the taste of the pine nuts, as well. The nuts were often preserved in honey. Archaeologists have found pine nuts in household food pantries in the ruins of Pompeii, which was preserved during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. and covered in ash.
The Roman legions carried pine nuts among their provisions, evidenced by pine nut shells uncovered in refuse dumps of Roman encampments in Britain which date to the middle of the first century.
For many centuries in European recipes, the nuts were blended with meats, fish and poultry, and have been used in many sauces, such as pesto.
Pine nut harvest in North America is modest in comparison with that in Europe. The Italian pine tree, with superior timber, is larger and grows faster than the stunted piñon of the Southwest United States. Italian stone pine plantations are well-established in the Mediterranean area, while the American pine tree remains mostly overlooked, wild and uncultivated.
Epicureans use pine nuts roasted and ground with their coffee beans for flavorful piñon coffee. They are used in stuffings, sprinkled over ice cream, baked in cookies, even made into pine nut bourbon — the uses are almost endless. Following is a soup recipe from the Mescalero Apaches:
3/4 pound raw piñon nuts
4 cups milk
2 cups chicken broth
1/3 cup sliced green onion
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
Salt and Pepper to taste
Chopped green onion for garnish
Put the oil in a saucepan and heat.
Put the sliced green onion in the saucepan and stir until translucent.
Then add the piñons, milk and broth and bring to boil.
Reduce the heat and cook covered for 20-30 minutes.
Purée soup until smooth.
Season with salt and pepper and garnish with green onions.
Celebrate our beautiful New Mexico changing of the season. Pack a picnic, go to the mountains with family and friends, throw out a blanket and find some piñon trees to harvest. Even if you don’t harvest the piñon, enjoy our beautiful fall days under the turquoise skies and relish in the season, the sights, the aromas and the cooler days.
Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.