Treat beyond compare
Tiny nuts from branches fall
Resting in my hair
Autumn was traditionally a busy time in Santa Fe when the piñón nuts were dropping from their cones and ready for picking. Elvis’ mom and dad supplemented their modest income by selling the tasty nuts during the holidays. Elvis and his little brother Angelo accompanied them on weekends into the piñón-dotted hills around Santa Fe. The boys didn’t see these excursions as work but rather as great fun.
The piñón 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 the dry climate. Elvis’ mom had picked piñón 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 piñón nuts in the afternoons as the bright blue piñón jays squawked, complaining to them for intruding into their territory. Elvis’ mom grew nostalgic and teary-eyed when she told him about the old, red blanket, and Grandma Lupita. She often recounted her story to Elvis and his brother before they ventured into the hills.
Her grandma would announce that it was time to get to work by saying:
“Evelyn, Mi hita, get the red blanket and a couple of pillow cases from the top drawer of the dresser. We’re going picking.”
Evelyn would spread the blanket on the ground beneath a piñón tree. 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. Lupita was very particular about the nuts they selected to put into the pillowcases.
“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 Evelyn and her grandmother had gathered all the piñón nuts they wanted, they carefully folded the blanket and hauled their harvest back to the kitchen to begin roasting. Evelyn collected 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 the piñones 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, thus liberating the precious fruit inside.
Elvis’ great-grandma salted the nuts and separated them into two piles, one for eating and the other for baking her indescribably delicious breads and cookies.
She always sent Evelyn home after her visits with bags full of piñón 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 Elvis’ mom when she led her sons up into the hills. She wanted to pass this sacred art on to them.
“Boys, even a small bag of piñón nuts takes a lot of work, and you should never take them for granted. It is a privilege to grab a handful and place them in your boca.”
She emphasized that, apart from the hard work it required, 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 piñón tree full of ripe nuts was a great gift to come upon. She also advised Elvis and Angelo as her grandmother had cautioned her:
“Don’t eat too many at once! I’ve seen my share of skinny, healthy piñón lovers change almost overnight into fat, blubbery pansones after they became addicted.”
Elvis and Angelo trailed their mom and dad up into the hills on brisk Saturday mornings and they howled with laughter as they stood underneath the branches of a ripe tree as their dad shook the limbs, making piñón nuts shower upon their heads.
They’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 piñón nuts in his ears!”
Mom held her sides and laughed so hard that she couldn’t talk except to call her boys crazy sonsos.
The Romero family spent the rest of the morning gathering the scattered nuts off the ground and scooping them from the same red blanket that Elvis’ mom and great-grandma Lupita had used. The blanket was the only keepsake that his mom had asked for after Lupita passed away.
Elvis’ dad always brought along a small transistor radio and they listened to rock n’ roll oldies and northern New Mexico Spanish rancheras as they worked. At noon, they spread out their lunch, which usually consisted of red chile tamales kept warm in aluminum foil and tortillas smothered in butter and honey. Food always tasted a hundred times better sitting under a piñón tree in the mountains. Occasionally, other families were out piñón -picking and they stopped to talk.
“Cómo estás, ustedes? You got a nice bounty of piñones, amigos.”
“Que bonita día!”
Part six of an intermittent series.
Through his writings, native Santa Fean Andrew Lovato, Ph.D., walks readers through an exploration of Hispanic and New Mexico cultures of yesterday and today. An associate professor at Santa Fe Community College, Lovato is the author of Santa Fe Hispanic Culture: Preserving Identity in a Tourist Town; The Year Zozobra Escaped: Featuring Zozobra’s Great Escape; and a contributing author of four other books. Andrew.email@example.com