The first time I picked a mesquite pod, I was with Brad Lancaster, who minutes earlier had handed me a messenger bag, strapped a ladder onto his Xtracycle bike, and led me to a velvet mesquite tree a few blocks from my house near downtown Tucson.
“Taste it, first,” he said.
I put the pod in my mouth and bit down.
“Is it sweet?” he said. It was.
“Good, let’s pick then.”
Tasting first is a lesson Lancaster learned from Clifford Pablo, a member of the Tohono O’odham Nation who’d learned it from his grandfather. It’s one Lancaster has since shared with hundreds of people through his work at Desert Harvesters, the grassroots organization dedicated to educating and inspiring people to harvest indigenous, food-bearing plants of the Sonoran Desert and also to plant them in rain-fed gardens.
A sweet mesquite pod means a sweet batch of mesquite flour, which you can eat in as many ways as your creative culinary mind can conjure.
To help you along in that imagining is a fat new Desert Harvesters cookbook. Eat Mesquite and More: A Cookbook for Sonoran Desert Foods and Living is an expansion of Desert Harvesters’ first publication, Eat Mesquite!: A Cookbook (2011), which included 50 recipes using mesquite flour, culled from community contributions.
The new cookbook features mesquite and 16 other wild, native foods, including saguaro fruit, ironwood, acorn, prickly pear fruit, devil’s claw, wolfberry, hackberry, chiltepin, barrel cactus, nopal (prickly pear pad), cholla, desert chia, palo verde, desert flowers, wild greens and desert herbs, and meats (yes, packrat) and insects.
The book’s 170 recipes were contributed by community members, celebrated chefs, and innovators, including Lori Adkison, Carolyn Niethammer, Barbara Rose, Amy Valdés Schwemm, Joanne Schneider, Patty West, and Janos Wilder. A team of volunteer reviewers sampled nearly every contribution and selected the most replicable and representative ones.
“The book is not a regurgitation of recipes and traditional dishes,” Lancaster says, “but a collection of new recipes, many of them representing hybrid creations of different culinary heritages.”
Organized by season, the book helps put readers in the frame of mind of a harvester. “It’s a way of celebrating each time of year and the foods that come then,” says Jill Lorenzini, one of the book’s primary authors.
The book includes innovative harvesting techniques not previously documented in the ethnobotanical record (at least as far as the Harvesters’ have found), such as the sprouting of bean tree legumes like ironwood and palo verde, contributed by Rose.
And while it celebrates innovation, the cookbook is rooted in centuries-old harvesting practices developed by the region’s longest residents. Included in the book are profiles of tradition bearers like Clifford Pablo, Terrol Dew Johnson of Tohono O’odham Community Action, and Stella Tucker, who runs an annual saguaro fruit harvesting camp. These stories reveal the depth of Desert Harvesters’ longtime collaborative practices with indigenous tribes, sharing information, equipment, and staff to educate the public about wild, native foods.
While rich in substance and story, this new cookbook is also a manual for how to create public corridors of water, food, wildlife, and shade, and make life healthier for humans and other species in the watershed.
And, did I mention the chiltepin flan?
Contributed by Carlos Nagel
Contributed by Aaron Wright
Contributed by Ian Fritz
Contributed by Gail Ryser
Kimi Eisele is a Tucson-based writer and multidisciplinary artist. A peripheral Desert Harvester, she helped edit and write Eat Mesquite and More.