a cook's garden

From yum to numb with 'pine mouth'

A taste disturbance caused by pine nuts, which are often harvested in China, may be another argument for eating foods grown locally.
A taste disturbance caused by pine nuts, which are often harvested in China, may be another argument for eating foods grown locally.
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By Barbara Damrosch
Thursday, December 16, 2010

A funny thing happened on my way to writing a column about the current food-safety legislation and the conversation surrounding it. I sat down to eat a meal, and everything in it tasted bitter, metallic, horrible. The sensation continued for days, as did my research into the problem. It seems that I had a "taste disturbance," or dysgeusia, with the street name of pine mouth. You get it by eating pine nuts.

Actually, not everybody does (my husband suffered no such effects from his big helping of spaghetti with pine nuts and sage). But just a few quick scrolls and clicks turned up an endless stream of online postings - more than 400 on one site called Babyccino Kids.

All told similar stories: The initial "Yecch!" The scheduling of blood tests and brain scans. The liver cleanse. And then the great relief that it's just a little nut.

My call to the Food and Drug Administration got a prompt response. They don't consider this an illness but are studying the issue and welcome consumer input at www.fda.gov . As yet, no one has come up with a definitive reason that a delicious product should suddenly turn hostile, first in Europe and more recently here in the United States.

Most pine nuts we buy are packed and shipped from China, and many are smaller and more rounded than the long, slender Italian pignolis that first started the craze. Some investigators have proposed that adulteration with various Chinese species of ornamental pine might be involved.

"I always feel nervous when an item has to come from China," said the bulk buyer at the store where I bought my nuts, which were organic. "It's out of our control." But there's nowhere to point a finger, as yet, and no evidence of toxicity or chemical contamination.

With so much that's wrong with the food supply, when people are dying from E. coli and salmonella, it's hardly a top-priority concern if a bad taste ruins someone's favorite merlot. But it does make you look into buying from a source closer to home.

A number of native edible pine nut species are being grown, eaten and marketed in the American Southwest, even in the face of a disquieting loss of their natural habitat. Not many companies offer those nuts unshelled, but maybe that's just as well, since all pine nuts go rancid quickly after shelling. Certain large, soft-shelled ones are easier to extract, and that might be worth the time if the result were a superior, ultra-fresh pesto.

You can find shelled American pine nuts at www.wholesalepinenuts.com . The company advertises them as "pine mouth syndrome free." Native soft-shell jumbo pine nuts (unshelled) can be found at www.pinenut.com .

Legislation to better ensure the safety and wholesomeness of our food is a good thing. But it will remain hard to thread our way through a global smorgasbord of the good, the bad and the weird. So shop locally, try to eat foods produced locally and whenever possible, grow your own.

localliving@washpost.com Damrosch is a freelance writer and the author of "The Garden Primer."

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