Every fall for hundreds of years, the local Indians made their annual trek to the hills in search of the pine nuts that were necessary for their sustenance. The various tribes, including the Washoe, Paiute and Shoshone, set up camps in the areas where the gathering was most productive. For several days each fall, they combed the short, single-leaf pinyon trees (Pinus monophylla) to gather the pitch-covered cones and extract the plump, nutritious nuts.
The traditional way the nuts were prepared by the Indians was to hull them with a flat stone, winnow away the shells and then grind the nuts into a paste, which they used to make a thick soup. They also ate them raw or roasted, which enhanced the delicious flavor. Following the discovery of silver in the Comstock mines and the increased demand for timber and wood products, the stands of native pinyon pine practically disappeared. The Indians were soon without one of the staples of their existence. No longer were they able to gather enough of the rich, nutritious nuts to survive the cold Nevada winters. They became more and more dependent on jobs they found working for the same white men who had destroyed the pinyon forests.
After the Comstock boom entered a decline, the pinyon forests began a gradual natural reforestation. Today, there are many thousands of acres of fine, thick pinyon and juniper forests in the lands where they once grew abundantly. Pinion trees don’t thrive north of the Humboldt River. There are many stands of the trees around Ely, Austin, Eureka, Como and Virginia City, among other places.
There are many traditional ways of gathering the nuts. Once promising trees are found, gatherers can pick the nuts off the ground if the cones have opened and the nuts are falling out. This can be made easier if long poles are used to knock the cones to shake the nuts loose. Some people spread tarps or blankets under the trees to facilitate picking up the nuts. If the cones haven’t opened yet, the task is more difficult. The cones must be taken from the tree and pulled apart to reveal the dark brown nuts in pairs beneath the scales of the cones. This method quickly results in pitch-covered hands, fingers and clothing. The pitch can be removed with Crisco, baby oil or turpentine. I carry a small plastic bottle of baby oil and a few rags so I can clean my hands every few minutes.
Sometimes the nuts are small, and other times they’re plump. Only the dark brown ones are good to eat. The light tan ones usually are dried out and hollow. They can be separated by floating off the hollow ones in water after you get home. We usually sprinkle salt over the wet nuts and bake them on a baking sheet for about 15 minutes. You can tell when they’re done by the intense pine smell or when they pop.
In modern times, the white residents of the area have joined the Indians in the annual hunt for the prized pinyon nuts. Not every area will be productive every year. Some years will be more productive than others. Usually, there will be at least one area around the state where pine nuts can be found in a given year. Years ago, I remember gathering the cones from the trees along Geiger Grade and putting them in burlap potato bags. We took them to the then-active steam vents at Steamboat Hot Springs and placed the bags of cones in the hot steam. The steam melted the pitch, roasted the nuts and opened the cones so the nuts could be removed easily. Archaeological evidence shows the Indians of old used similar methods.
The old Italian families had a favorite pesto recipe for using pine nuts. My wife still makes pesto with fresh basil, garlic, Parmesan cheese, salt, olive oil and, of course, pine nuts. This is blended into a paste and used as a pasta sauce or as a spread for pizza or on French bread. It just isn’t pesto without the zesty flavor of pine nuts.
Pine-nut gatherers have myriad excuses for unsuccessful trips pine nut hunting, such as the following:
The weather has been too hot or too cold.
It’s too early or too late in the season.
The birds, squirrels or chipmunks ate them all.
There has been too much or not enough rain.
The Indians beat us to the best areas.
Or, my favorite: Let’s buy them at a local market for more than $12 per pound, because it will be cheaper in the long run and we won’t get pitch all over everything.
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount to reduce inventory and Dennis will pay the postage. These will no longer be available from Amazon.