Home is Where the Prickly Pears Are

Barbara Kingsolver and Steven Hopp offer their remembrances of living and eating in the Sonoran desert.

June 23, 2013

FeaturesForageHomesteadIssue 1: Summer 2013

Novelist, essayist and poet Barbara Kingsolver made Tucson her home for more than 25 years, leaving the Sonoran Desert in 2004 with her husband Steven Hopp and two daughters to live on a family farm in southern Appalachia. As a family, Barbara, Steven and their daughter Camille wrote the best-selling Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, a wonderful account of a year spent eating only what was locally available and homegrown. Steven, a professor of environmental sciences, is also an avid farmer and the proprietor and founder of the Harvest Table, a restaurant that features locally sourced foods. Barbara has won countless awards and honors for her work, including the National Humanities Medal, and is the author of The Poisonwood Bible, The Lacuna, The Bean Trees, Animal Dreams, and Flight Behavior, among many other best-selling works of fiction and non-fiction.

Some of our best memories of our Arizona years involve foraging: in late summer, fanning out over the desert with a platoon of friends and our kids to pick grocery bags full of prickly pear fruits, and boiling them down over an outdoor fire to render the clear, deliciously smoky-tasting purple jelly.  In the fall, heading to Willcox for a day of picking and picnicking in peaceful old orchards, stockpiling enough apples for a winter’s worth of pies and applesauce. In summer, getting up at dawn to pick tomatoes and peppers from our garden before full daylight brought its scorched-earth policy to bear.

Never mind that the garden plot was ensnared in a spaghetti jumble of irrigation tubes, and fortified on every face with chicken wire so the javelinas wouldn’t beat us to the harvest. And be advised that the prickly-pear picking excursions involved protective clothing and 12-inch tongs. Bringing local food to the table, for those of us who had moved to the desert from greener, gentler climes, was no longer the standard domestic chore we’d known in childhood. Here it was more of a treasure hunt, edging regularly into the category of extreme sport. The challenges sometimes left us feeling ridiculous (an ornamental garden that’s fenced like Fort Knox, for example, is a dubious ornament), but the edible rewards were somehow all the sweeter for it.

In a detached, jet-hopping, smoothly globalized world, it’s no small thing to exercise belonging to one’s place. Especially when the place is a prickly one.

Most people who live in the desert, if they’re paying attention, have a gut understanding that their cities function essentially as space stations, with every ounce of sustenance shipped in from less hostile atmospheres. Biologically speaking, this landscape is equipped to support no more than the handful of humans who lived, hunted, and cultivated seasonal tepary bean patches here before Europeans ever knew the place existed. Maybe that’s why it feels so amazing to make a foray from time to time into that elite and ancient club: the ones who knew how to live on the fruits of the desert. In a detached, jet-hopping, smoothly globalized world, it’s no small thing to exercise belonging to one’s place. Especially when the place is a prickly one.

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In 2004, when our family moved away from Tucson, the whole country was starting to wake up from a long, acquiescent stupor where food sourcing was concerned. Best-selling books like Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma called our attention to the compound disasters of industrial food systems, and the importance of local foodsheds.  Farm-aid organizations rallied to the support of rural smallholders, CSAs became reborn, and farmers’ markets blossomed from coast to coast. Restaurants like Chez Panisse and Blue Hill elevated locally based cuisines to standards heretofore unknown in the land of the golden arches. And new publications, led by the
Edible Communities series, awakened consumers to the tempting epicurean possibilities in their own backyards.

As our family settled into the farm in Virginia where we now live, we added our voices to the choir, documenting a year of local eating in our book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. We had moved to southern Appalachia to be close to extended family, but did not mind the rich soil, reliable rain, fruits we could pick without body armor, and a vegetable garden that grew more or less by itself, without being tubed and wired like a patient in intensive care. We have come to greener pastures, there’s no doubt, in a landscape that offers an easy plenitude—at least in the currency of backyard gardens—to the folks who populate its lush hills and valleys. As former Tucsonans, we practically smack our foreheads at the marvel of self-timed irrigation from the sky, and try not to smirk when temperatures crawl to 90 and our neighbors complain of the terrible heat. We know a good deal when we see it.

Prickly-PearBut we also recall the thrill of the chase, and still carry a sweet spot in our memories for those shady Willcox orchard oases, the all-day prickly-pear syrup boils, the nutty tasting bread we made with mesquite flour and slathered with mesquite-blossom honey, and the fire-and-earth palette of pepper flavors we could grow courtesy of Native Seeds/SEARCH. We wax nostalgic for the buckets of olives we used to pick from the picturesque old trees in Himmel Park and other public places, while the dog walkers and Frisbee throwers peered up our ladders at us like we were crazy—or perhaps just foreign. We’ve adjusted now to Virginia’s snow-covered winters, but perversely keep trying (with frankly pathetic results) to replicate the Meyer lemons, pomegranates, artichokes and mission figs that fell into our hands from our Tucson backyard landscape. Probably, we will always pine for those figs.

Most of all, we miss our daredevil compatriots in desert foraging, including our friend Gary Nabhan, chile connoisseur and seed-saver extraordinaire, who raised one of the great early local-food manifestos in his book Coming Home to Eat. The movement has deep and authentic roots in southern Arizona, and so it strikes us as a rightful homecoming for the Edible magazine series to tap those roots with a Baja Arizona edition. From our farm on the other side of the continent, we’ll relish every issue as we raise a pitchfork in solidarity—or a pair of tongs—and look forward to our next visit to the fruits and flavors of a desert we’ll never cease to love.  ✜

 


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