Okay so first off I have a confession about my new found pine nut obsession, which I decided to find a worthy subject for the blog despite the fact—and here comes the confession—that I did not forage them myself. No, rather, my parents purchased them for me from the grocery store.
It says “New Crop Nevada Pine Nuts” on the small label, along with a cute pine tree and a PO address. This is all I know for certain of the purveyor of this fine pine product, who send me manna from heaven in this my time of greatest need. They cost $10 a bag at City Market in Breckenridge and already mom’s bought five for me, despite what seems an exorbitant price. I love them love them love them love them.
Wild-foraged pine nuts I go back four years to California’s Eastern Sierra and evoke several memories. In my quit-smoking days I would purchase them at Mahogany Smoked Meats in Bishop (which makes the best teriyaki jerky in the world, IMHOP) to consume in lieu of cigarettes on the endless trip from Mammoth to LA and back again. Once in those days I went with my roommate to wild-forage some ourselves, only to be beaten to the crop by legions of tiny insects.
Also the tall pines over our porch on Main Street in Mammoth Lakes dropped long orange needles in abundance and I liked to root the tiny winged pine nuts out from among them, mining their miniscule morsels of meat whilst my roommates smoked despite the fact that I was unsure of their edibility at the time.
These pine nuts from City Market, though—they are of the same variety I used to buy in Bishop, the pine nuts of fine cookery, used in Italian basil pesto or plastered into dulce de leche candies. As they are purchased in their shells, however, I find they lend themselves less to recipe-making than to cracking between one’s teeth individually to pass the time.
The nutseeds are soft and sweet—both characteristics Gregg found to be unsavory in what he expected to be a crunchy, nut-like nut. But as for me, I can’t get enough of them. They are rich and buttery and, on the occasion that I get an older, drier one, somewhat piney as well. Frankly, I’m happy he doesn’t want any for as I said I am in the midst of obsession—and it is between me and the pine nuts alone.
Foraging as a Means for Preservation
“Know your vendors!” Pinyon Penny Frazier advises at www.pinenut.com, where she sells jumbo Nevada soft shelled pinyon pine nuts (Pinus monophylla), which are native to the Great Basin, as well as hard shelled New Mexico pinyon pine nuts (Pinus edulis), which also grow here in Colorado.
While many pine nuts sold commercially in the United States are imported (major pine nut exporters include China, Italy, Pakistan and Portugal), Frazier explains that pinyon pine nuts are “uniquely American” and preferable to imported varieties for reasons ranging from freshness to sustainability.
“Buying our pine nuts, you support American forests,” Frazier writes of her wild-foraged product. “For over 15 years now, we have been using the proceeds of pine nut sales to preserve millions of acres of pine nut groves which are under constant threat of destruction.”
Pinyon trees take 75 to 150 years to become seed producers, and yet, “between the mid 1950s and 1973 more than 3 million acres of pinyon forests were converted to grasslands, generally under the auspices of ‘invading pinyon’ myth— a theory developed to support the creation of grasslands for the cattle industry at tax payer expense,” Frazier explains. Current threats include continued conversion of pinyon forests into pasture in the name of fire protection (which she argues to be based on poor science) and use of pinyon wood as biomass for fuel production, among other threats.
While she is in the business of selling pine nuts and other wild crops, Frazier is also quick to invite others on board, because she sees the collection and sale of wild products within sustainable management guidelines as working hand-in-hand with conservation efforts. To that end, she helped to write a management protocol for pinyon-juniper ecosystems posted at www.pinonnuts.org, which encourage consideration of cultural factors (such as traditional land use practices by Native people) via multi-stakeholder discussions in addition to habitat biology in formulating pine nut collection polices.
Ultimately, Frazier explains, “We need to encourage people to harvest so the forests are protected. Our work is about the forests, the nuts are just a vehicle for that work.”
Currently, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management regulate pine nut collection based on a three-tiered system including “incidental use” (permit not required for same-day personal use), “personal use,” for which permits are generally not required, and “commercial use” for forage intended for sale or exceeding the personal use limit. “Personal use limits vary from 25 pounds per year on most BLM and Forest Service lands in Nevada and western Utah to 75 pounds per year on most BLM and Forest Service lands in Colorado and northern New Mexico,” explains pinonnuts.org.
“The more humans value a species, the more it will be protected,” Frazier asserts. “If we do not connect with the wild foods, we run the risk of both losing the knowledge of the plant and the food source.”
Pine Nut Foraging Resources
Though I haven’t done much of my own pine nut foraging/processing here locally, I did find a couple instructional posts online that I’ll link here for when the time is right.
There are a few fun posts at Penniless Parenting; the first is freakin’ hilarious, and the second a more sober attempt to make pine nut forage work. I learned that some species have such hard shells they’ll crack your teeth, in contrast to the soft ones I’ve been eating. Apparently there can also be a messy black soot.
Cattail Bob includes an entry on Pinus edulis in his guidebook, Best-Tasting Wild Plants of Colorado and the Rockies (1998).
In “Gathering Your Own Pinyon Pine Nuts,” John Buckley gives gathering tips for the east slope of the Sierra Nevada while at the same time warning the non-foraging-savvy that gathering the “delectable nuts” … “may not be an effective way to supplement your fall diet” but at least “has the benefit of pleasing the taste buds, as well as making for lasting memories.”
In Search of Penis Edulis
Speaking of memories, when mom asked what we wanted to do on her last day in town, I answered that I wanted to pack a picnic lunch and head towards Buena Vista in search of “Penis edulis” trees. It was an honest albeit hilariously-botched attempt to pronounce “Pinus” in Spanish. After all, the word pinyon is but piñon en español. Gregg stared at me, dumbfounded. “What did you just say?” he asked.
“I love Penis edulis nuts and I want to find some myself,” I replied mischievously before descending into the full decrepitude of my unintended joke, which I share now for your benefit at the risk of attracting unwanted traffic to my internet weblog. The gag went on all evening and into the next day at the park outside BV—where mom, bless her heart, got down on her hands and knees under the sap-sticky conifers to find the dried shells of last autumn’s pine nuts in and among the needles.
“This is fun!” she exclaimed, venturing from picnic table to forest and back again, her hands full not only of pine nuts but also whole pine cones laden with now-defunct dry pine nuts, as the season for foraging them is long passed. I am amazed how many fit into one small cone, and all the more excited to forage some come fall—by which time I will be permitted, hopefully, to walk on uneven ground. If not, I suppose I could always call mom back out here, as I think I might have created a convert.
In the meantime, in case you haven’t yet had enough, here is a PG-13 pine nut advertisement with a monkey that might interest you.
Heavenly Nuts of the Great Basin
So where did my Nevada pine nuts come from? They weren’t Pinyon Penny’s, which are distinctively labeled—instead they bear just a small tag with a PO box address, as I explained. From whence came, then, these heavenly wild nuts that nursed me through the awful first pains of healing? Wherefrom these gifts of God and Nature and Man?
Mormons, I’m guessing.
I have a postcard en route to the PO address to find out more, but in the meantime find one of the most popular commercial purveyors of Nevada pine nuts to be the conglomerate businesses of LeBaron Pine Nuts and The Pine Nut Guys, “now joined fully as ‘WholeSale Pine Nuts” and represented by www.pine-nut.com and www.wholesalepinenuts.com. There are eons of positive reviews and testimonials published thereon. Plus, CEO Dayer LeBaron is widely cited—for example in this Seattle Times article, which discusses the climbing prices of pine nuts.
So I’m wondering if these pine nuts I love so are courtesy of they.
The LeBaron family represents a longstanding Pinus tradition that dates back six decades to the Mormon pioneers’ first arrival in Utah, where they traded for Utah and Nevada pine nuts with the Shoshone, Paiute, and Goshute people, according to the WholeSale Pine Nuts website.
Presumably pine nut collection continued even in the tempestuous 1970’s and 80’s, when a fundamentalist Mormon sect led by the notorious polygamist Ervil LeBaron left a trail of murder spanning the US and Mexico. Ervil himself is to be found munching on pine nuts and spitting out the shells out in Dorothy Allred Solomon’s 2003 book, Daughter of the Saints: Growing up in Polygamy. But that is neither here nor there, as polygamy and pine nuts need not have anything to do with one another.
I will say that www.wholesalepinenuts.com is a great resource for photographs, foraging tips, and weather-based pine nut crop predictions. I enjoyed reading about the glory days of American pine nut collection, back when it was a family affair, as well as the company’s “leave no trace” foraging ethic. Last, the author makes a plea, like Frazier, to cease controlled/experimental burning on public land.
A Pine Nut Production
Little did I know when I started obsessing over pine nuts a few weeks ago that it would lead me down so many meaningful and interesting paths. Not only am I a fan of the idea of foraging for sustainability, but I am equally drawn to learning more of the improbably diverse cultures that intersect over a small, piney nut.
Two thousand words later and I’ve barely scratched the surface, but my injured knee hurts now, sitting as I am upon the floor that has become my office so I can keep the leg straight out in front of me. I desperately need a break and you undoubtedly do too—so without further ado, let me bring this to an abrupt close with two last words recommended by a boyfriend who is admittedly tired of listening to draft after endless draft: