Paul Andersen: Fair Game
October 30, 2011
As the first winter storm sweeps into the valley, I picture the early Utes making good their escape. Provisioned with the accumulation of their summer gathering, their travois sagging under loads of dried meat, berries and nuts, they headed for lower ground and easier living.
This fall I’m particularly aware of the Utes because of the pine nut harvest going on right out my door. It began a month ago when I noticed a rich cone crop in the pinons, their limbs heavy with bright green cones dripping with resin and closed tight like a baby’s fist.
I was out of town when the cones burst open, seemingly all at once, but I’m certain that, had I been listening in the quiet of the night during that bloom, the forest would have crackled like the popcorn machine at Movieland.
One day, just for fun, I spent 10 minutes shaking pine boughs over the inverted lid of a trash can. I soon had a couple pounds of nuts. By trial and error, I learned how to roast and shell the nuts, a time-consuming effort to produce only a few tablespoons of the white, soft, delectably sweet kernels.
I began to realize the importance of a tribe. Working together, a tribe could harvest hundreds of pounds of pinon nuts, roast them over coals and crack open a harvest that would last them through the winter. Rather than drudgery, such a harvest would have been cause for celebration. There must have been talk, laughter and community spirit, producing a tribal glue stronger even than the stickum covering the green pinon cones.
The Old Ones – anyone over 40 – who knew where to look for coning trees under certain climatic conditions would have proved invaluable to the tribe. Food knowledge gave them purpose and authority steeped in their years. A picture comes together of a people unified in an age-old task that required knowledge of the environment, mobility to find coning trees and a communal work ethic to harvest them. Here was a hunter-gatherer economy based on protein, flavor and civic engagement.
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To make the pine nuts last, they were crushed into a paste, mixed with dried fruit or dried meat, and fashioned into the first semblance of the Power Bar. Nutritious and delicious, pemmican would have been preserved in rodent-proof containers buried in the cool ground.
Pine nuts weren’t just snack food for indigenous peoples. They were a staple, and they’re sought after today. I’ve seen families in New Mexico with tarps spread under coning pinons. Someone would climb the tree and shake the branches, sending a shower of nuts onto the tarps.
Pinon cones are incredibly sticky, a natural tar baby for the uninitiated. When I first tried to harvest them, I literally stuck to my work. I learned to wait until the cones opened naturally, spilling their fruit onto the forest floor.
Collecting the nuts is relatively easy. Producing the kernels is another thing, requiring proper roasting and patience. I used my broiler to roast the first batch, then grilled others on top of my wood-burning stove. At first, I cracked the shells one at a time with pliers. At this rate, producing a winter store of food would have taken months.
Early natives didn’t have pliers, so what would they use? My experiments led me to setting a handful of nuts on a large, flat stone and gently crushing them using a rounded river rock. Presto! I was able to shell a dozen nuts in a few minutes.
“Who is the real nut around here?” asked my wife, the psychotherapist, wanting to know why I was practicing squirrel behavior. “If it was good enough for the Utes …” I said, muttering something about wanting to capitalize on a local resource and taste the diet of our valley’s forebears. She shook her head.
If only I had a tribe. Then we’d fill our larder with this year’s bumper crop and enjoy them all winter. But my son is off at college, and my wife seems unwilling to fill the role of squaw. My friends and neighbors couldn’t care less about pinon nuts. I’m the lone hunter-gatherer at Seven Castles.
Watching from my window, I feel the warming crackle of the wood stove as the first winter storm drifts up the valley with its light veils of trailing snow. I heft my mano, crack a shell and savor a succulent taste of ancient autumns.
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