Audio Postcard: The Pine Nut Harvest
ALEX CHADWICK, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
Pine nuts are the gourmet ingredients in pesto or on high-end pizzas or in good salads. But in the southwestern United States, this fruit of the pinon tree has been a staple food for thousands of years. The trees are found in the Four Corners area, where Utah and Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico meet. They produce nuts only once every five years or so. This year the pinon trees of southeastern Utah are in season. Beth Hoffman went nut-picking.
BETH HOFFMAN reporting:
It's fall in the Utah desert, a time of intense light, of billowing gray clouds and golden knee-high grasses and this year of pinones. The pinon tree is a conifer pine, but it's a shorter, sort of stragglier version of its relative, the typical Christmas tree.
Ms. LUCILLE HUNT: You look for trees that have tons of combs on them.
HOFFMAN: That's Lucille Hunt, a Navajo woman and my pinon-picking guide today. We've driven about 30 minutes west of Blanding, Utah, into a land covered in pinon pines, sagebrush and low-lying prickly pear cactus. The road is full of parked pickup trucks, a sure sign that there are many Navajos and others out here picking on this cloudy day.
(Soundbite of car doors closing)
Ms. HUNT: (Navajo spoken) let's go pinon-picking. See how fun? This is a lot right here. Holy cow. And I hate to step on them. They are just--they're big, too.
(Soundbite of nuts being picked)
HOFFMAN: There are few ways to pick the nuts. Some collect unopened cones and then lay them out in the sun until they open. Others raid stashes of the nuts that animals have collected. But Lucille and most Navajos in this area simply kneel on the forest floor and pick the ripened nuts that have fallen to the ground.
Ms. HUNT: The nut looks like a little bead, but if you look at it close, it's kind of painted with little specks of gold. After you crack it open, it looks like a tooth, the color of cream white. And you just pop it in your mouth and--Yummy--it is so good.
HOFFMAN: The shells are hard but easy to crack with your teeth. And most Navajos eat the nut like this, raw, or roasted with just a little bit of salt. These aren't the pine nuts you'll find in your local supermarket, though. Most of those are imported from China or Spain and Portugal. The pinons here are mostly harvested for personal use or sold with the shells on at local trading posts and gas stations. In other words, no one's getting rich collecting pine nuts in this area. But that's not why Lucille Hunt goes picking anyway.
Ms. HUNT: It just gives me a feeling of security that nature still provides. When you're hungry, you can always depend on nature that you'll find something out there to eat.
HOFFMAN: Picking pinons also reminds Hunt of her childhood, she says. Hunt grew up near the Continental Divide in New Mexico. There she learned from her grandmother Navajo traditions like pinon-picking.
(Soundbite of thunder)
HOFFMAN: Her grandmother also taught her to pay attention when in the wilderness, like now, as a storm approaches.
Ms. HUNT: If there's a lot of thundering like that, the traditional Navajos would just leave. What they believe is the trees and all these things are protected by the gods of nature, and they are very powerful. And if you're there when you're not supposed to be there, it can hurt you.
(Soundbite of rain)
HOFFMAN: But there's plenty of time for Hunt to come back and pick some more. The pinon nut season will last until the snows come in December or even January--that is if the birds and squirrels don't get to the nuts first. For NPR News, I'm Beth Hoffman in Salt Lake City, Utah.
CHADWICK: And NPR's DAY TO DAY continues in just a moment.
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