In search of the desert manna

  • IN BETTER DAYS: Paiute Indians harvest pi-on near Lovelock, Nevada, c. 1912

    Buckaroos in Paradise Collection, Library of Congress
 

TAOS, N.M. — Winter was coming, and like so many others, I was broke. I had a freezer full of elk meat, but it wasn’t enough to survive the cold months in the high country. There’s no fat in elk meat; explorers Lewis and Clark lost weight on it, my friends say.

With little money for butter or olive oil, I went in search of the elusive “starvation nuts” otherwise called piñon. But “the manna of the desert” is nearly impossible to find in New Mexico these days. Drought, fire and disease have hammered the piñon pine trees that bear the tiny, fatty fruit. Still, I figured our state tree had to produce somewhere.

I talked to scientists and land managers who get paid to track it. They were short on leads, but gave me some facts. Piñon nuts pack about 2,800 calories a pound, and contain healthy fats. They grow on the Pinus edulis, a tree that dominates the Southwest between 4,500 and 7,500 feet above sea level. Nut production is spotty, with big crops every three to five years, but New Mexico’s ongoing drought means few, if any nuts this year. The recent wet weather is only a short respite from that drought, which weather scientists predict will continue to stress the Southwest. I looked all over Taos County for the little brown nut, but came up empty-handed. Forest fires killed some tree stands, and a bark beetle invaded many more. In some New Mexico forests, more than 80 percent of the already-weakened trees were lost to the beetle, one land manager said. The Carson National Forest near Ojo Caliente’s hot springs was hit especially hard.

That meant piñon parties weren’t happening along the local highways. Families often picnic near ripe forests and make an event out of the harvest. They put blankets under the trees and whack the branches until the seeds fall off.

Instead, I found a rural underground economy, where pickers sold their loads to merchants in the big city. With a bad year, that meant big prices.

ALBUQUERQUE

Jim Franco has a special stash of piñon to use in the coffee and candy he makes, which he sells through his store, New Mexico Piñon Coffee Company.

“It’s been pretty devastating,” Franco said. “We basically had no crop last year.”

Franco mixes piñon into big vats of fresh coffee beans at his Albuquerque store. He needs several thousand pounds a year to survive. Usually, he has his choice of venders, but last autumn, when only one picker from northern New Mexico arrived, Franco was forced to pay a premium. The same economics played out in the north, where families usually camp in the mountains for a few weeks in the autumn, gather bushel sacks of nuts, and then hit the road. Pickers sell nuts from dilapidated trucks along tourist routes or directly to produce sellers.

There weren’t many pickers this year, said Arlo Martinez, a produce seller in Española.

Martinez entices travelers with red chile ristras and orange pumpkins on the highway south of town. He travels the Southwest selling New Mexico’s famous food, but he didn’t have any piñon.

“If you find anybody with some piñon,” he told me, as I started to leave, “send them over here.”

And beware of impostors, Martinez warned. Chinese and Mexican pine nuts are easily — and deliberately — confused with New Mexico’s piñons. “You see trucks up and down the road,” Martinez told me. “But it’s not piñon. It’s pine nuts.” Mexican pine nuts are hard, he said, while Chinese nuts are full of sap and difficult to roast.

Desperate, I twice drove to a hippie homestead down a dusty mesa road in Taos County, where a man was said to have a stash. No one answered at his lonely place but a cold wind.

SANTA FE

I’d eaten most of the elk steaks from my freezer before a source finally came through. Go figure. Piñon had been spotted on Santa Fe’s plaza, where anything is possible with enough cash.

I found my seller tightly wrapped against a gray, chilly afternoon on a plaza corner. She agreed to talk to me about the piñon business, as long as I used only her first name — Felice.

Felice said she began gathering piñon on the Laguna Reservation as a girl in the 1940s. “It’s a sacred nut for the Native Americans,” she said. “It’s not just another peanut.

“We used them in everything,” she said. “Cooking, baking.” They mixed the nuts into a piñon-seasoned venison stew that was shared with neighbors during deer-hunting season. They also traded the nuts with merchants for basic goods such as coffee, flour and lard.

That afternoon on the plaza, Felice was driving a hard bargain. For a tiny bag of piñon, she was asking $3 — roughly equivalent to $35 to $40 a pound. Typical prices, in a good year, run about $5 a pound.

“You don’t just get it off the tree and put it in the bag,” she explained. New Mexico families identify ripe piñon groves between September and March, when many animals are hibernating and less likely to eat everything. Because piñon trees produce nuts once every four years, the families have to constantly rotate which grove they harvest.

Finding the nuts is just the beginning. It takes a large family to gather a 100-pound sack of nuts in two days, she said, and then there’s the roasting, and the selling.

I bought one bag, filled with little brown nuts, about as big as raisins. A chomp past the dark shell revealed a yellow-white fruit. The taste was rich and smoky.

And at $40 a pound, I threw the nuts in my coffee, and bought some butter.

Andy Lenderman, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico, is a reporter for the Albuquerque Journal. He hasn’t been this skinny since he was an HCN intern in the fall of 1997.

This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation, based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

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