Archive for August, 2007

In The Shade Of The Ghost Pine

An Original Granite CountertopClassic pesto is an emulsion of basil, pignoli, or pine nuts, olive oil, and Pecorino cheese. Opinions differ as to whether the olive oil can be augmented (or adulterated) with butter for added creaminess, whether the sharpness of the sheep-milk cheese ought to be moderated (or cut) with a mellower cow- milk cheese, like Parmesan, and whether there ought to be parsley and garlic in the blend. Nobody worth listening to disputes the necessity of the pine nuts for the best pesto.

Pesto is called “pesto,” not “blendo,” because it was traditionally made by hand in a mortar and pestle. Like most people these days, my wife, Julia, makes pesto in a food processor, and I eat it without complaint. I’ve been known to gripe about cleaning all the various paddles, blades and rubber rings that fall out of the food processor, but Julia doesn’t take me seriously. She knows my objections to electric blenders are irrational.

We don’t use my favorite kitchen utensils. Those would be the Indian grinding stones I’ve unearthed over the years while working on different farms. I also have a modern, machine-ground stone mortar and pestle that was a gift from some Mexican farm workers I lived and worked with twenty five years ago on a ranch in Marin county, and I do use that occasionally.

These men weren’t legal to drive, and the farm was an hour from the city, so I bought them bulk tortillas, dry beans, and chiles when I delivered the farm’s produce to San Francisco. They cooked over an open fire, and we all gathered around the coals to share dinner. For lack of a comal, which is a flat griddle for cooking tortillas, they toasted their tortillas in an old hubcap laid on top of the coals.

When the guys finally made it to la pulga, or flea market, in Santa Rosa, they bought a proper comal, they bought me a mortar and pestle, or molcajete y mano. “Here’s a new one,” they said, laughing. They found my fascination with the old, dirty grinding bowls and pestles we dug up in the field amusing.

The meals we shared weren’t much more than tortillas, beans, and barbecued chicken backs, with home-made salsa in the molcajete to spice things up. The food was always simple, but sharing dinner with them was never a grind.

Recently, I had an opportunity to take a trip to an area called The Indians, tucked away on the eastern side of the Santa Lucia Mountains in southern Monterey County. The region is characterized by massive sandstone formations that jut from the earth. I found numerous bedrock mortar holes left in the sandstone by the Salinan Indians.

This area is called The Indians because it was a last redoubt of the Salinan tribe. Following Mexico’s declaration of independence from Spain, the mission system collapsed. The Indian acolytes who’d been at Mission San Antonio, near Jolon, fled back into mountains around 1835, and took refuge in the sandstone rocks. The oak trees nearby gave the Salinans acorns for meal, and pine trees were a source of rich pine nuts. Pine nuts contain up to 31% protein- more than any other nut- and unless they’ve been shelled, they keep well without going rancid.

The Italian Stone pine, Pinus pinea, is the standard commercial source for pignoli, and it’s been cultivated for its nuts for more than 6000 years. The pine the Salinan Indians depended on is Pinus sabiniana, also called Gray pine, Ghost pine, or Digger pine. These pines are sparsely cloaked in gray-green needles, and they cast scant shade. They can survive on only 10 inches of rain a year. Gray pines are usually multi-branched, and they lean at crazy, drunken angles out of the brushy stony slopes that support them.

The American settlers didn’t value Pinus sabiniana because its wood is coarse, twisted, and prone to splitting, and they didn’t value the Native Californians. Salinan Indians survived by foraging for wild foods. They dug in the earth for edible roots, and they dug into rotten logs for edible grubs. To the forty-niners, who dug into earth for gold and cut down the straight, tall Ponderosa pines for lumber to reinforce their mine shafts, the Indians were “diggers,” and the “useless” pines that supported them were “Digger pines.”

Since “Digger pine” is a pejorative- think nigger with a “d”- scientists discourage the use of this derogatory common name in favor of the colorless “Gray pine.” I prefer the equally unscientific name Ghost pine, because it evokes a spirit of times past.

On my trip I took some photos of the bedrock mortars, and I gathered a handful of pine nuts to take home I’ll make my kids crack the tough shells to help build their character, and they’ll think I’m nuts. But to make a perfectly balanced pesto, there’s nothing like the resinous sweetness of pine nuts to serve as such a perfect foil for the unctuous richness of the olive oil and the spicy fragrance of the basil. Besides, pine nuts have always had a significance that went beyond flavor.

The pineal gland is buried at the geographical center of the cranium. It was named by the ancients from the Latin pinea, meaning pine nut, which it presumably resembles. The pineal gland is a tiny organ of mysterious function, identified by various authorities as the “third eye,” or the “sixth chakra.” Pine nuts are shaped like human eyes, so their identification with a gland that promises “inner vision” makes “magical sense.” I don’t know if it’s magic, but when I eat pine nuts, they help me taste the past.

Andy’s Photo essay

Party Animals

Lena's drawing of Sweet PeaParty Animals

Growing vegetables is my business, but raising farm animals is my hobby. I’ve got sheep and goats, but my special pets are my two donkeys, Primavera, a six year old jennet, and her nine-month old foal, Sweetpea. In the evenings, when the scandals and stresses of running a small business can be put to rest for the day, I enjoy taking my donkeys for a walk around our home ranch. Sometimes my daughter, Lena, helps me brush them until their coats are glossy.

You can tell when donkeys are relaxed and happy because they hang their heads in contentment and close their eyes. When Prima is being groomed, her lower lip hangs down as if she’s beginning to melt. Sweetpea likes to be brushed too, but as she’s young and energetic, she’s often impatient to go on her walk. When she and I do go walking, I have to pay attention, because she’s only half-trained. At nine-months, Sweetpea already weighs 400 pounds, and she is strong in both body and spirit.

The other evening, Lena was helping me with Sweetpea, and she took a turn at leading her around the barnyard. I explained to Lena that managing a donkey is a question of will - donkeys are stronger than we are, and their big ears serve as radars to pick up even the slightest tremor in our self-confidence - then I handed Lena the lead rope.

A covey of quail flew up from the grass at the edge of the corral with a flurry of wings, and Sweetpea took advantage of the surprise to lunge in terror. Lena lost hold of the halter rope instantly, and Sweetpea proceeded to race around the pen, bucking and snorting, with the lead-rope dragging behind her like a purple snake. When Sweetpea calmed down, I picked up the rope.

I was a surprised at how easily Sweetpea had been able to break free - my daughter doesn’t scare easily - but then I remembered a traumatic incident involving a donkey in Lena’s early childhood.

When Lena was three, she had her first experience of a Mexican style birthday. It was a picnic at Palm Beach in Watsonville for her friend Saiya. Saiya isn’t Mexicana - her mother, Senai, is Japanese and her father, Mark, is German - but they’d met in Paraguay when they both worked for the United Nations. Spanish and English are their common languages. Watsonville is overwhelmingly Hispanic, so it was natural that little Saiya would adapt to local birthday customs.

Mark went to Happy Burro Market out on the edge of town, and selected a bright piñata from the display that hung from the ceiling above the brooms and mops. He could have chosen a chartreuse and orange Teenaged Mutant Ninja Turtle piñata, or a blue and red Spiderman piñata. But Saiya was more interested in animals than action heroes, so he picked out a classic donkey piñata, and bought enough candy to fill its round belly.

Mark and his brother hung the donkey from the overhanging branch of a eucalyptus tree in the middle of the picnic grounds that lie behind the beach. The piñata swayed gently in the breeze. The gray crepe paper strips that made up the donkey’s coat were nicely set off by the animal’s cream colored nose and belly. Black crepe paper made for a pretty mane and tail. The piñata donkey was dressed with a colorful paper saddle of red, yellow, green, and blue, and it even wore a little straw sombrero. Saiya, who was turning four, loved the piñata, and so did her five young guests, Lena, Lydia, Maija, Anwen, and Iliana. There were no brothers present.

When the time came to hit the donkey with a stick, it was difficult, because it was so beautiful. But the violence had to be done. The piñata always comes before the presents, and most importantly, before the cake. These little girls had never beaten a piñata before. When her papa handed Saiya a stout, dry stick he’d picked up from underneath the eucalyptus tree, she looked confused. He showed her how to swing it. Because the girls were so young, the parents present decided to forgo the typical custom of blind-folding the children when they struck at the piñata.

Saiya was the birthday princess, but she was a gracious hostess, so she let Lena go first. Lena missed the piñata on her first swing, and only grazed it with the stick on her second. On her third attempt, she struck a solid blow across the ribs of the donkey, and she turned to me with big eyes for a sign of approval. Lena had hit the piñata hard enough for it to swing in an arc on the end of its rope, but not so hard as to crack it. The donkey made a half turn in the air and came back at Lena like a pendulum, kicking her in the back of the head, and knocking her face-flat in the sand.

The other little girls didn’t have much luck either. It was the first party I’d ever been to where it looked like the piñata was going to win. The little gray donkey with the straw sombrero raged at the end of its tether like a rodeo bronco, and one girl after another bit the dust. Finally, Saiya begged her Uncle to do the deed. While the girls covered their eyes, he took up the stick and delivered a mighty whack to the paper donkey. The piñata’s belly finally tore open, spraying a rooster tail of brightly wrapped candies across the white beach.

The girls swarmed the sand like baboons, and minutes later, when they trooped off to the picnic table for the ceremonial unwrapping of the birthday presents, there was nothing left for the seagulls but a couple of pieces of red and silver foil that smelled like chocolate kisses. I guess the moral of the story is that no matter how sweet and lovely a donkey may appear, you always want to be careful when you’re around the business end of an ass.

copyright 2007 Andy Griffin




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