Classic 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
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
The tomatillo is related to the tomato. Its fruits look like immature green tomatoes wrapped in a papery husk, and they’re used throughout Latin America to make salsa verde, or else fried, baked, used in soups, or sliced thin for salads or
sandwiches. The cultivar of tomatillo I usually grow is called Toma Verde. Of the half-dozen or so garden varieties of tomatillo available, Toma Verde is perhaps the most widely cultivated here in the United States. The seed is easy to get, the plants are vigorous, the harvest is generous, and the plump fruits have a pleasant sweet / tart flavor. Yet in spite of- or because of- Toma Verde’s impressive list of domestic virtues, Ramiro Campos told me it was an insipid excuse for a tomatillo.
Ramiro worked for me as the foreman on my farm. We had a long history together. When I was a foreman at Frogland Farm in Watsonville I hired Ramiro as a harvester. When I got a job with Riverside Farms in Aromas as harvest manager, he went with me. When Riverside Farm grew and I became a co-owner, Ramiro became our head foreman, responsible to oversee production across hundreds of acres. Before I got married I shared my house with Ramiro, his wife Amparo, his baby daughter, and his sister. For me, living with the Campos family was better than a trip to Mexico. I got a chance to learn Spanish in a family setting, and I got to eat home-cooked Mexican food like I’ve never tasted in restaurants.
“Wait until you taste salsa verde made with the tomatillos de milpa that grow wild on our ranch in Jalisco,” Ramiro said. “You’ll never grow these Toma Verde again!”
There’s a flat one-acre field with decent soil below my house. Ramiro proposed that we grow a garden on it with the foods he missed from Mexico, like fresh garbanzo beans and tomatillos de milpa. If I donated the field to the project and the tractor to work the soil, he’d do the sowing and cultivating. Ramiro’s brother, Renato, could help with the harvesting, and if I loaned my pick-up to the cause, Renato’s wife, Chupina, would sell the crops in the town of Pajaro. We’d split the profits equally. “Pajaro is full Jaliscanos, right off the ranch,” he said. “They’ll line up for fresh garbanzos and tomatillos de milpa like they’re buying bus tickets.”
I considered Ramiro’s idea carefully. All we had for water was a spring on the hillside that had been dug out by great-grandfather and lined with bricks. A little domestic pump brought the water up to the house, and we barely had enough flow from the spring to wash the dishes, bathe five people, and flush the toilet. “It’s an interesting idea,” I said. “But we don’t have much water. If we raise a crop, but we can’t clean our clothes, and your baby’s dirty, then where’s the profit?”
“Someday you’ll visit us at our ranch in Jalisco, Andres, and you’ll see how much we do without water. We’re thrifty. We can grow garbanzos and tomatillos de milpa without irrigation.”
We walked to the fence and looked out across into the field that spread beneath us.
“See how the field is slightly dished?” Ramiro said, pointing. “This field catches the rain. A foot down the topsoil turns to adobe, and adobe holds the moisture for a long time. If we’re careful when we sow, then the crops will root into damp soil follow the moisture down as the water table recedes in the summer. We’ll keep the field clean, so we don’t lose any moisture to weeds. Without irrigation, a second crop of weeds won’t sprout, and we’ll get a harvest without much labor.”
I didn’t have much to lose.
Ramiro’s uncle came back from a Christmas visit to Jalisco, bringing tomatillo de milpa seeds from plants he found growing wild in the huerta and a sack of garbanzo beans. Ramiro plowed the field in the second week of February, and hilled it up in rows. Half the rows he sowed to garbanzos, and half the beds he left blank to soak up more rain. He planted trays with tomatillo seed in my greenhouse. As the weather permitted, he cultivated the field with the tractor, destroying the weeds that had sprouted between the rows of emerging garbanzos and loosening the soil.
The garbanzos grew green and lush and set the first flowers. Ramiro called on his brother, Renato, to come and help him weed the rows. Then the two of them transplanted out the young tomatillo de milpa plants By the middle of spring the garbanzos began to set seed, two beans per pod. Ramiro could hardly wait for the harvest.
“Nothing,” he said, “nothing tastes as much like spring as fresh garbanzos. Shell the beans while they’re still tender and plump, then fry them in a little butter- a moment, no more- until they’re bright green. Wrap them in a tortilla with a little salsita, and maybe some scrambled eggs, or eat them by the bowl.”
“I’m sure glad I didn’t sign on to do the labor in this project,” I said. “Because with only two garbanzo beans per pod, and only ten pods per plant, it’s going to take you and Renato all month to pick dinner.”
“We don’t pick the beans, Andres,” Ramiro said. ” We pick the whole plants, and make huge bunches tied with twine. Then we pile the back of the pick-up high with them. The amas de casa, the housewives- when they walk down the street and see the mountains of fresh garbanzos in the truck, they’ll crowd around, hungry for a taste of home- they buy the bunches. They pick the beans.”
I admired Ramiro’s campesino logic, but I needed to know more about the Mexicana ama de casa.
“What kind of a value is that? The women don’t have time to shell the beans. How many beans are there per bunch, anyway?”
“When you come to Jalisco, you’ll understand,” Ramiro said. “It’s hot during the spring at the ranch. And after they pick the garbanzo beans out of the bunch, the women take the leaves and put them in large clay jars. They fill the jar with spring water and set it outside in filtered shade. The garbanzo leaves exude a golden liquid, an acidic nectar, that infuses the water with a most delicious tang. When we come back to the house after a day in the sun- don’t talk about cerveza- there’s nothing healthier or more refreshing than cool garbanzo water!”
Ramiro harvested the first garbanzos, and Amparo prepared a meal. Part of me will always be disappointed when I eat in a Mexican restaurant because the meal, heavy as it is may be with meat and beans and corn, never floats through my memory the way Amparo’s fresh “guiso de garbanzo” does. I’ll put fresh garbanzos up against English peas in a grudge match any day. And the garbanzo water? On a hot afternoon in the fields, a thermos bottle full of cool garbazo water beats a six pack of cerveza any day, because you can drink long and deep, and you’re left satisfied, with a clear head.
But what about the tomatillos de milpa?
Ramiro’s tomatillos grew like weeds throughout the spring, even though our last rain fell on the first of April. By June, the field was a galaxy of yellow stars, as the tomatillos showed off their five petaled blossoms. The green papery husks appeared next, and slowly, through June and into July, tiny, nascent tomatillos gradually swelled within them into round green fruits.”
“Compared to los tomatillos de milpa, Toma Verde are insipid,” Ramiro promised.
“The proof is in the salsa,” I said.
Ramiro filled the crown of a cowboy hat with tomatillos de milpa. The fruits were smaller than Toma Verde, hardly larger than a marble, and firm. Each tiny tomatillo was wrapped in a sticky, papery husk. Some of the fruits were purple, others green or yellow.
“It looks like a lot of work to prepare them,” I said.
“You’ll see,” Ramiro said, holding out the hat for me to inspect. “The small size of the tomatillos de milpa doesn’t come at the cost of flavor. All that’s missing is the taste of muddy irrigation water, so the salsa verde will be rich, just like it is on the ranch.”
We built a fire in the yard and laid a comal on the coals. When the comal was hot, we peeled away their papery wrappers and spread the tiny tomatillos de milpa across it. We toasted them until the skins split with the heat. Amparo laid cebollas de rabo verde, or “green-tailed onions” around the edge of the fire to roast. She threw a handful of serrano peppers on the comal. When everything was ready she got out her mano y molcajete, or mortar and pestle. She mashed the roasted onions and tomatillos together with salt and a little flame blistered serrano chile, and served up an autentico salsita verde del rancho, to complement the beans and potatoes in a brace of perfect taquitos.
“Riquissimo!” I said. “The tastiest! And the profit?”
That was a sore point. After Ramiro and Renato had harvested the garbanzos, they’d gone to town with a pick-up load of huge, leafy-green bunches. The Jaliscana amas de casa crowded around the pick-up, arms outstretched, hungry for a taste of home. But they didn’t want to pay any more for the garbanzos in the U.S. than they did back in Jalisco. Price affects appetite. Ramiro ended up giving bunches of fresh garbanzo away for free to the workers on our farm. They paid him in praise.
When Ramiro and Renato harvested the tomatillos de milpa, they loaded the pick-up, and drove with Renato’s wife, Chupina, down to the corner of Porter Drive and San Juan Road in Pajaro. An excited crowd of amas de casa crowded around the pick-up truck and admired the baskets of tiny tomatillos- “Que lindo! Just like the tomatillos from mi tierra!” But the housewives didn’t want to pay any more for tomatillos de milpa than they’d pay for regular Toma Verde tomatillos down the street at the fruteria in Watsonville. “Un peso! Un peso,” they cried, thrusting single dollar bills in Chupina’s face.
It’s one thing to sell tomatillos for a dollar a basket if you can fill the basket with five plump, sweet/tart Toma Verde fruits, but it’s entirely different if it takes fifty tiny, sweeter/tarter tomatillos de milpa. The cost per hour for labor to harvest remains the same, no matter the size of the fruit. For tomatillo de milpa to be as profitable as Toma Verde, they’d have to cost ten dollars a basket. Ramiro paid Renato out of pocket to help pick the tomatillos de milpa, but his harvest costs weren’t covered costs by the sales. On top of that, he paid Chupina for the time she spent trying to sell the tomatillos de milpa on the street corner. He was cross, but I was happy. “We’ve profited equally,” I said. Ramiro shot me a questioning glance.
“Now I know how good food on the ranch can be. And now you understand why I calculate the cost of labor all the time. Not because I want to- but because I have to! Amas de casa are the center of our universe, and they’re thrifty.”
“Amparo isn’t thrifty enough,” he said.
That was true. One of the problems between Ramiro and Amparo was her credit account at Joyeria Don Roberto. (A local jewelry store) I changed the subject. “On the ranch in Jalisco, where money is scarce, picking wild tomatillos de milpa in the huerta is a necessity born of poverty, but up here, where there’s more money, eating like a campesino is a luxury!” I could afford to make light of the situation. Ramiro was eating crow, and I was enjoying home-cooked Mexican food.
Maybe Ramiro gets the last laugh. When their daughter reached school ge, Ramiro and Amparo returned to Jalisco so she could get a proper Mexican education. Ramiro bought a ranch with the money he earned in California, and now he raises goats and makes cheese. His offer to host me when I travel to Jalisco still stands, and one day I’ll make the trip. But no matter how novel Jalisco will seem to me, some things will be familiar- like the tomatillos. I’ve tried twice, and failed both times, to grow fresh garbanzos, but every spring in the field below my house Ramiro’s wild tomatillos de milpa sprout like weeds among my herb beds, whether we work the soil, or not. It’s my business if I choose to grow Toma Verde, but Ramiro might say it’s my own damn fault if I choose to eat them.
Copyright 2007 Andy Griffin