The bounty of the desert; Red, yellow, green and burgundy indigenous foods

Jean Johnson
1/25/06

TUCSON, Ariz. -- "The pleasures of gathering their foods," wrote historian
Donna R. Bagaccia, referring to indigenous peoples, have long upstaged "the
monotony of raising it by work in the fields.' Clearly the indigenous
people native to the land in what is today known as Arizona understood
this." So do their descendants.

As young Tohono O'odham tribal member Jessica Estrada knows, gathering is
imminently more interesting than hoeing yet another long row. Back in 1995,
Jessica's grandmother, Sally Estrada, first coached her progeny in the
how-tos of getting the deep red fruits growing atop saguaros as tall as 30
feet into the young one's gathering basket.

Saguaros, multi-armed stalwarts of the desert, don't flower until they are
50 to 60 years old, when they have reached seven or eight feet. Their
blossoms last for only 24 hours, during which time people listen for "who
cooks for you," the coo of the white-winged dove, primary propagator of the
plant. Once heard, there's a good chance the dove has pollinated the flower
and fruit will come.

Once the fruits of the saguaro ripen in late June and early July,
indigenous people like Jessica and Sally Estrada are on-hand with their
gathering rights to both pick up the ultra-ripe fruits that have already
fallen to the ground and, via a long, pronged pole, pluck the luscious red
fruits still perched atop the cacti.

"I tried a saguaro fruit one time," said Rachel Tsosie of the Navajo
Nation. "You cut it open and there in the pod is this deep, deep red pulpy
fruit. I loved it. It was like eating a red fig, except a little messier.
All these tiny little seeds. So sweet and jammy."

While traditional ceremonies include making a wine from the fermented
saguaro fruit, the Estradas think Tsosie is more on target. They plan to
separate the juice from the pulp and boil it down to make a syrup for a
delectable dark red jam that gives raspberry preserves a run for their
money. Some take a different direction and get out the food dehydrator to
make a sumptuous treat for winter -- saguaro fruit leather. Nor are the
seeds from the plant to be underestimated. Traditionally, women ground them
into a meal that was rich in protein and made various breadstuffs from it
as one might cornmeal.

The lands in Tohono O'odham country offer up more than just fruit. The
scrubby mesquite bush produces soft yellow beans in July. The beans can be
boiled fresh and pounded into a pulp that is then strained for an "ancient
and refreshing drink," according to Zora Getmansky Hesse, author of
"Southwestern Indian Recipe Book, Vol. 1." Hess also includes a recipe for
Mesquite Bean Dessert, a concoction in which the bean juice is thickened
with whole wheat flour and boiled down into a thick pudding. Probably the
most common way the original residents of the Southwest used mesquite
beans, however, was to grind them into a meal on a metate. The meal, of
course, could then be made into mealcakes and whatever else a creative cook
came up with.

The ubiquitous prickly pear is not to be outdone when it comes to food for
the taking in the desert. Its spines, which cover not only the young, green
edible pads of the cactus but also the deep burgundy-colored fruits,
require extreme caution. By using tongs and knives to carefully slice the
spines and glochidia off the pads, harvesters are rewarded with a fresh,
local vegetable in season. Hesse noted that prickly pear pads can be diced
and then boiled or fried. They enhance anything from beans to corn to
squash.

Prolific prickly pear fruits will mound up the gathering basket in no time
flat and are ready for harvest when they turn a dark wine color. The fruit
can either be peeled and consumed fresh, or boiled with the pulp and spines
strained off. Prickly pear juice boils down into a syrup perfect for jelly.

The desert is an exacting task mistress, and she makes people work a little
harder than the supermarket does. But provide she does -- red and burgundy
fruit, yellow beans and a green vegetable.

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