THE BLOG

The New Yorker, Pine Nuts & China

11/27/2011 12:03 pm ET | Updated Jan 27, 2012

On Thanksgiving I arose before six, pushed a button on our automatic coffee maker, put a slice of Dudley's Julian Nut Bread in the toaster, and went out to our driveway to collect The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and San Diego's local daily, the U-T.

Alas, there were no newspapers on our driveway. A quick call to subscriber services at The New York Times told me there were production problems and The Times wouldn't be delivered until nine o'clock. And, since the same carrier delivers all three, the other two wouldn't be delivered until nine, either.

This was not a good way to begin my favorite holiday, as I start each day by reading the papers and then go online to browse the Boston Globe and Washington Post. But endeavoring to make the best of it, and not ready to go online, I picked up the November 21 issue of the New Yorker and read two articles.

The first, under the heading, "London Postcard", written by Lauren Collins, concerns the 50th anniversary of Private Eye, the British satirical magazine. The second, "Secret Ingredients", by Judith Thurman, celebrates the glories of "Pine Nuts."

Ms. Thurman's essay is an interesting read. It's also disingenuous.

Here's why:

Ms. Thurman writes rapturously about pine nuts, of the ways in which pine nuts can "improve most dishes."

Once I would have agreed with Ms. Thurman, as I have always loved pine nuts and would buy them at Costco to save a few dollars, because pine nuts are expensive (something the New Yorker writer failed to mention). But one afternoon, needing them for a pasta recipe, I found we were out and dashed to the local super market and bought a small package of pine nuts -- small in everything but price.

Beginning the following day and for two weeks thereafter, everything I ate had a bitter and metallic taste -- everything. I had never experienced anything like this before, and it was upsetting. Would food ever again taste normal? Was the pleasure of dining over? Would eating equal survival and nothing more?

Alarmed, I consulted my primary care physician. He had no clue. I even called Dr. John Abramson, the Harvard grad and author of Overdosed America, but as brilliant as he is, he also had no clue.

Fortunately, during this mini-drama, I discovered the origin of the terrible taste in my mouth. It was pine nuts.

Pine nuts? Really? Yes, really.

But the discovery wasn't mine. It belonged to Betsy Brown, one of the managers at the Adams Avenue Book (a world class used book store, by the way).

I happened to tell Betsy of the dreadful experience I was going through and she asked, "Have you eaten pine nuts?" "Yes", I told her, in a pasta dish I prepared.

She then related a similar experience of hers, where everything tasted awful. But, being smarter than me, and apparently smarter than Judith Thurman, she went to Google to see if she could discover the cause of her difficulty. She quickly did, finding many examples of serious taste problems with pine nuts.

I too went online and read a story by Courtney Hutchinson, who reports for ABC News Medical Unit. She told a story not unlike what had happened to Betsy and me.

It concerned a San Francisco-based chef and food critic Jenna VanGrowski, who shared her story of suffering from a "bizarre taste disturbance...known as 'pine mouth.' Though she didn't know it at the time", Ms. Hutchinson reports, Ms. VanGrowksi's bitter aftertaste came two days after "snacking on pine nuts. And "various 'palate cleansing' foods failed to get rid of the metallic aftertaste, known medically as metallogeusia."

According to the ABC News story, Ms. VanGrowski "threw away the offending pine nuts in a fit of anger and frustration, she says that she had checked first to see where they came from. Among three possible sources listed, China was among them."

Ms. Hutchinson then spoke to Dr. Beverly Cowart, clinical director of the Monell-Jefferson Chemosensory Clinical Research Center in Philadelphia.

Dr. Cowart told her a "fungus that grows on the pine nuts could also be behind the taste effects, though it is unknown as of yet whether the nuts in question had anything on them."

Another hypothesis, Ms. Hutchinson wrote, one increasingly accepted, "is that certain non-edible varieties of pine nuts are being passed off in the marketplace as the edible variety... Some researchers have implicated China in exporting these non-edible pine nuts."

So there you have it. The inscrutable Chinese have become so clever and duplicitous they now aim to undermine America's love affair with food by selling us "non-edible pine nuts." Or, you may consider it, war by other means.

Talk about leaving a "bitter aftertaste."

If only Judith Thurman knew.


George Mitrovich is a San Diego civic leader.

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