117 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Barrel Cactus to Wild Oregano
(Timber Press 2016)
By John Slattery
Review by Suzanne Wright
John Slattery is deeply embedded in Tucson’s food and education communities as a respected lecturer and the founder of Desert Tortoise Botanicals. He also leads frequent plant
walks, workshops, and immersive regional travel experiences, along with an apprenticeship program.
His new book, Southwest Foraging: 117 Wild and Flavorful Edibles from Barrel Cactus to Wild Oregano, is a beautiful tome: hefty, printed on glossy, high-quality paper, featuring beautiful photography. It’s clear this was a passion project—the quality and the comprehensiveness shows.
Many of us know that the Sonoran Desert is ripe with indigenous edibles that have supported ancient and modern people for thousands of years. Eating nature’s bounty is not new, but there’s a growing interest in these foodstuffs.
I’ve seen pods ripen, burst, and wither and wondered what to do with even a small harvest. I’ve noted seeds in the ruby-colored scat of coyotes on hiking trails. In my larder, I have chiltepins, cholla buds, mesquite jelly, mescal, sage. I’ve gathered and processed both prickly pears and saguaro fruit. (P.s., it’s hard work).
The book is helpfully arranged by habitat and by season, alphabetically by plant and by region, including Mexico, New Mexico, and Texas. Every entry features tips on where and when to gather, how to gather and how to use, along with brief commentary called “future harvests”—seed dispersion—and notes of caution related to possible sensitivities to certain species. There’s also a discussion of foraging tools and safety, preservation, and storage. Excellent color photographs accompany the copy, making for easy identification.
Slattery’s prose is straightforward, with a minimum of botanical jargon, yet vivid in description. To wit, “Unmistakable ocotillo is a woody shrub armed with stout spines along its sap-covered, leathery barked, upright branches. The emergence of the brilliant red flowers creates an image of the hills ablaze.”
But you may choose to dispense with the practicalities as I did, and linger over the listings themselves, which include plant identification and uses. Those of you who enjoy reading cookbooks (even if not actually cooking) will find much here to fascinate.
As someone who suffers from seasonal allergies, I appreciate knowing that Mormon tea, for example, may provide relief. Or that miner’s lettuce, in addition to having a pleasant flavor, was once used to treat scurvy. Or that roasted sotol seeds possess a peanut butter-like flavor. Or that the sugary globules called honeydews of the Mexican palo verde can be plucked and eaten raw. Or that sun-dried wolfberries make an excellent addition to trail mix. Or that desert willow makes a delicious, delicate sun tea.
Then there were things I’d never heard of: capita, horseweed, pigweed, saya. I’ll attempt familiarity with these plants in the future.
Back in the days when encyclopedias were sold door-to-door and every family bought a set (paying over time as it was an expensive investment), my father, a self-taught man who only completed his college education after I graduated, used to select a letter, settle into his well-worn La-Z-Boy, open the book at random and read until he was satisfied, then replacing it carefully on the shelf.
That’s how I’m reading Slattery’s book: at leisure, for enjoyment and for reference. I expect to return to it time and time again.
Calling foraging both a birthright and a responsibility, this book is an invitation to all of us to “discover the culinary riches that abound in the deserts, plains, forest and mountains of the Southwest,” a love letter and an encouragement to engage more deeply—to quite literally be nourished—by the landscape in which we live.
And while most of us will never aspire to Slattery’s level of knowledge (or even forage on our own) his volume deserves a place on any Arizonan’s bookshelf.
Suzanne Wright is a frequent contributor to Edible Baja Arizona and other publications including AAA Arizona Highroads, Go Escape, Hispanic Living, Modern Woman, and Phoenix Magazine.
The Reason for Flowers:
Their History, Culture, Biology, and How They Change Our Lives
By Stephen Buchmann
Review by Maya L. Kapoor
For hundreds of millions of years, a succession of green life forms has spread across the earth: first, low-growing mats of early plants; later, forests of monstrously tall mosses and horsetails, followed by a time when gymnosperms—ancestors of modern-day conifers and ginkgoes—dominated the landscape.
Then flowers happened. For the past 125-130 million years, angiosperms—flowering plants—have speciated and spread across the planet, carpeting the world, evolving at speeds bewildering to Darwin. When Homo sapiens appeared just 200,000 years ago, flowers were ubiquitous. As Stephen Buchmann writes in The Reason for Flowers, angiosperms “come in just about every life-form imaginable, from tiny floating duckweed to the tallest rain-forest emergent trees, from columnar cacti to prostrate shrubs.” What’s more, flowering plants provide the environments and materials that other organisms, including humans, need to survive. Humans exist—a world where we can exist, exists—because of flowering plants.
That’s just the start of Buchmann’s absorbing look into the evolution and cultural importance of flowers. Buchmann, a pollination ecologist who is based at the University of Arizona, wrote The Reason for Flowers after already writing several popular books about flower pollinators. The Reason for Flowers begins with the basics—what are flowers, anyway, and where did they come from?—and builds from there. From flowers, readers learn about nonhuman pollinators, then human pollinators, and then—as the intertwined world of plant and primate explodes—the fun really begins. Buchmann explores topics such as the history of ornamental gardens, the international trade in cut roses, and the evidence of the first use of flowers in burial practices by early humans. Throughout the book, Buchmann’s examples and digressions enrich botany for any reader, a true feat considering that for most people flowers are merely the decorations to important things in life.
In Chapter 8, Buchmann introduces modern cooking with flowers. (Those pretty nasturtium-flower salads aren’t as unique as you might think. A surprising variety of “vegetables” people consume, including cauliflower, artichoke, and capers, are flowers.) This section is worth the wait. The entire book builds, chapter by chapter, balancing what could be dense scientific information with accessible writing and a charming voice. (What do you call the scents that male orchid bees gather from flowers and later use to attract female bees? Aphrobesiacs!) In later chapters, as The Reason for Flowers delves into flowers in food, art, scientific research, and medicine, the reader has a solid foundation from which to draw on the biological and cultural relationships between flowers and people.
The Color of Food:
Stories of Race, Resilience, and Farming
(New Society Publishers 2015)
By Natasha Bowens
Review by Maya L. Kapoor
Natasha Bowens didn’t set out to uncover a long history of racial inequity when she first dug into soil on a community farm in West Virginia. “All I wanted to do when this all started … was grow food, know exactly where my food was coming from, and live more in tune with the Earth,” Bowens writes in the prologue to The Color of Food. But for Bowens—a biracial author and community activist whose mother’s European-American ancestors owned her father’s African-American ancestors—race and agriculture in America are complicated and interconnected topics. When she noticed a distinct lack of human diversity among the veggies at the community farm she joined outside of Washington, D.C., Bowens realized the topic wasn’t easy for other Americans of color, either. And so began the multimedia project that developed into The Color of Food.
Over the course of five months, Bowens traveled the continental United States in her truck, named Lucille, on a crowd-funded road trip to record the stories of farmers and food activists of color from North Carolina to Washington state, Louisiana to California. As Bowens explains in the prologue, The Color of Food’s main purpose is to celebrate the untold stories of America’s farmers of color. Along the way, Bowens reveals the dispiriting history and reality faced by farmers of color in the United States—and the inspiring resilience her subjects harbor.
Family farms of all kinds across the United States are disappearing at an alarming rate. But vulnerability to loss of land is not evenly spread; farmers of color lose their land in America at three times the rate of white farmers. This problem has existed throughout our country’s history. Bowens reports that the routine denial of farm loans to black farmers by the USDA resulted in a 98 percent decline in the number of black farmers in America by the early 1990s. Other farmers of color too have histories of being systematically removed from their land, such as Native Americans and Japanese Americans, stories that Bowens touches upon in her exploration of farmer diversity in the United States.
The Color of Food is at its best when researching how farmers and people Bowens loosely describes as “food activists” of color have persisted despite the particular challenges they face. The lack of diversity at the ownership level of farms, at the administrative level of community food resource centers, in farming associations, or at farmers’ markets is evidence of deeper systemic problems that keep marginalized communities away from agriculture at every step, from production to consumption. And some challenges are internalized into personal or cultural aversions to work associated with disempowerment and vulnerability. For all these external and internal pressures, Bowens finds farmers and food activists across the country who are breaking conventional expectations and doing good work.
One example comes from members of the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network, who help each other achieve organic certification for their crops. This stamp of approval is important, because at farmers’ markets shoppers struggle to trust black farmers who say that their produce is organic without the added certification to prove it.
In other places, Bowens describes how for some people of color in the United States, working in agriculture can feel like a step in the wrong direction. For many Americans of color, farming historically connects with disempowerment and marginalization. Bowens finds farmers and food activists who are moving beyond that association to find empowerment through food sovereignty. In northwest Washington, a former migrant farmworker showed Bowens Viva Farms, an incubator farm—a space where farmers can rent out plots and use equipment for a fee to grow their own commercial crops. At Viva Farms, one woman began growing her own chemical-free crops after her son developed leukemia. Since then, she’s developed a successful business selling crops, tortillas, and fresh quesadillas at farmers’ markets.
Edible Baja Arizona readers may be disappointed by the lack of representation from our region—after all, ours is the longest continuously farmed region of the United States, with a unique history that’s apparent in our food culture; the Tohono O’odham Nation is renowned for its work in preserving and promoting native food resilience at the San Xavier Co-op Farm, for example. There are many other examples of diverse community members in the Baja Arizona region overcoming the odds to cultivate change—and amazing food. The Color of Food’s website does have a feature where farmers and food activists of color can make themselves known in our region and beyond.
The Color of Food does what it sets out to: offer an introduction to farmers doing good, and often uncelebrated, work. Where to go next with these stories—in terms of supporting farmers of color through systemic and cultural change—is up to the reader to investigate. Still, for readers interested in complicating any preconceptions they might hold about who owns farms in America, whose work the history of agriculture in this country includes, and whose vision can contribute to healthy change in American food systems, The Color of Food offers a refreshing perspective. ✜
Maya L. Kapoor writes about nature in the urbanizing West. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from the University of Arizona and a master’s degree in biology from Arizona State University. She is an associate editor with High Country News.