July 23, 2012 at 7:38 PM
A serialized novel and podcast by Andrew Leo Lovato
Andrew Lovato, Ph.D., is a communication professor, author and eavesdropper.
The following is Chapter Six of a serialized novel. Start at Chapter One.
Autumn was always a busy time because this was when the piñon nuts were dropping from their cones and ready for picking. My mom and dad supplemented our income by selling the nuts during the holidays. Angelo and I accompanied them on weekends into the piñon-dotted hills around Santa Fe. We didn’t see these excursions as work, but rather as great fun.
The piñon tree has been an important source of food and fuel for centuries in New Mexico. The Pueblo Indians and Spanish natives have a long, beneficial association with the scraggly little tree that survives in this dry climate. My mom picked piñon nuts since she was a little girl. She learned most of what she knew about picking and roasting the hard, brown nuts from her abuelita, Lupita.
She had fond memories of walking up into the hills with her grandmother and picking piñon nuts in the afternoons as the bright blue piñon jays squawked, complaining at them for intruding into their territory. Mom grew nostalgic and teary-eyed when she told us about the old, red blanket and Grandma Lupita. She often recounted her story to us before we took off for the hills. My grandma would inform my mom that it was time to get to work by saying:
“Mi hita, get the red blanket and a couple of pillow cases from the top drawer of the dresser we’re going picking.”
Mom would spread the blanket on the ground beneath a piñon tree that they had decided to gather nuts from. Then she climbed as high as she could and shook the branches back and forth until the ripe nuts rained down on the blanket like a heavenly offering. My great-grandmother was very particular about the nuts that they selected to put into the pillow cases.
“The nuts can’t be too green or they taste bitter and are almost impossible to crack open. They have to be smaller than a pinky fingernail or leave them for the birds.” Experience had taught her that the small nuts had the best flavor.
After they gathered all the piñon nuts they wanted, they carefully folded the blanket and hauled their harvest back to the kitchen to begin roasting. Mom gathered kindling and set it in the cast iron stove and when they had a blazing fire going, they poured the nuts into a large metal pan and placed it on top of the stove stirring the nuts as they roasted.
Lupita warned, “Don’t let them get too hot nieta, or it ruins the flavor.”
After they were done roasting, they spread the warm nuts between two damp towels on the kitchen table and turned a rolling pin over them to crack the shells and liberate the precious fruit inside.
My great-grandma salted the nuts and separated them into two piles, one for eating and the other for baking her indescribable, delicious breads and cookies.
She always sent my mom home after her visits with bags full of piñon goodies. “Come back soon hita and be sure and share with your family. Don’t eat all that by yourself or next time I see you you’ll be una gordita.”
These memories washed over my mom when she led us up into the hills. She wanted to pass this sacred art on to us.
“Boys, even a small bag of piñon nuts takes a lot of work and you should never take them for granted. It is a privilege to grab a handful and placed them in your boca.”
She emphasized that apart from the hard work it took, they were scarce and there was a limited supply because the trees only produced nuts every few years and then, only in certain locations. A piñon tree full of ripe nuts was a great gift to come upon. She also warned us as her grandmother had cautioned her,
“Don’t eat too many at once! I’ve seen my share of skinny, healthy piñon lovers change almost overnight into fat, blubbery pansones after they became addicted.”
Angelo and I followed my mom and dad up into the hills on brisk Saturday mornings and we howled with laughter as we stood underneath the branches of a ripe tree and my dad shook the limbs making piñon nuts shower upon our heads.
We’d yell, “Dad, Dad! Make it rain over here! How come you always shake it more on Angelo’s side? Yipes, they’re going down into my shirt! Mom, Mom! Look Elvis has piñon nuts in his ears!”
Mom held her sides and laughed so hard that she couldn’t talk except to call us crazy pendejos.
We spent the rest of the morning gathering the scattered nuts off the ground and scooping them from the same red blanket that my mom and great-grandma Lupita had used. The blanket was the only keepsake that my mom had asked for after Lupita passed away.
Dad always brought along a small transistor radio and we listened to rock n’ roll oldies or northern New Mexico Spanish rancheras as we worked. At noon, we spread out our lunch which usually consisted of red chili tamales kept warm in aluminum foil and tortillas smothered in butter and honey. Food always tasted a hundred times better sitting under a piñon tree in the mountains. Occasionally, other families were out piñon picking and they stopped to talk.
“Como estas, ustedes? You got a nice bounty of piñons amigos.”
“Que bonita dia!”