Once, standing in the checkout line after a dismal shopping experience at Safeway, I had a minor meltdown. Waving my arms, I exclaimed to my companion, “I’m telling you, it’s all wrong!” He glanced around at the many pairs of eyes suddenly fixed on us. “Don’t worry, she’ll calm down in a minute,” he said.
My patience with grocery stores had been disintegrating for years. More and more food hidden in airbrushed packages. Bags so tightly inflated you couldn’t feel for quantity. Hard-to-recycle plastic replacing compostable waxed paper in dairy and other products. Ingredients written in small, hard-to-read caps, with the scarier ones—pesticides, hormones—not even listed. Promisingly tart CRANBERRY-POMEGRANATE 100% JUICE? Mostly sugary apple. Cherry “cordials” with no liqueur whatsoever. (Must be the other meaning of “cordial”: these chocolates are warm and sincere.)
Choices abound, but studies show too many choices make us cranky and tired. I feel tricked. Manipulated. How much of this settles into my soul, coloring the rest of my day?
I escape into the true abundance of my back yard, a profusion (especially during the monsoons) of native and cultivated edibles. Once I dreamed my pathways were strewn with pizzas, and I was walking on them. Because I really had been walking on food: fallen mesquite pods, wild mustard in yellow bloom, shoots of now-wild arugula descended from the great-grandfather seed I’d planted, little two-lobed sprouts of mesquite and palo verde trees, seedlings of purslane and amaranth, even a few new-green pads emerging from fallen prickly pear rerooting itself in harm’s way.
Though not pizza, all of these were edible. How could I just trample them? Yet they were everywhere, so how could I not? Once a friend stopped by and pointed at a tough plant I knew as cheeseweed (named for the seed pod, which looks like handmade rounds of cheese).
“You know, you can eat that,” she said.
“No!” I said. “Don’t say that.”
“Huh?” She looked at me funny. I just muttered, Never mind. With cheeseweed on the list of edibles now, I wondered if I’d be able to navigate my yard at all.
My overgrown pathways weren’t a serious problem, of course. Mostly I felt blessed, like Eve in Eden before the Fall. The Universe was smiling. So why not just switch food sources entirely? Abandon the grocery store?
Well, if I wanted pizza, I’d have to grind mesquite pods into flour for the crust. For a spinach-like topping I’d have to pick and destem the amaranth or purslane. Roasted nopales could be a topping, too. Meatier bits would require trapping a bird or mouse. Cheeseweed pods wouldn’t work for the cheese, though, despite the name. I’d have to milk a lactating squirrel, then …
Obviously you don’t want to take a recipe from elsewhere and try to replicate it with local ingredients. You get acquainted with those ingredients, learn their flavors and seasons, and let them say what they want to be. You learn from native people; traditions still remembered by the elders are priceless. And you can start with substitutions. Try some of those little sprouting trees on your pizza for a surprising peanut-y taste.
I grow the familiar crops in my yard, too. But I’m a mediocre gardener, so I rely on farmers’ markets for many fruits and vegetables. Everyone’s friendly and charges fair prices, given their produce comes from the sweat of the brow—from dusty farms outside Paradise. Both wild and farmed food sources require more preparation time than processed store-bought food. Ironically, though, plucking and chopping can also create time—by stretching lifetimes and cutting downtimes through better health.
We know these foods are better for us. Their superior taste is a given. But I also like them because I don’t have to fund any brand names. I don’t like being fooled, or forced to make garbage. And I hate wondering what else I’m funding, behind the scenes. Because if I research those brand names—even those associated with smiley, honest faces like the oats-peddling Quaker—I find they’re owned by giant corporations committing global horrors. I enjoy stiffing them. The fresh, living food I eat instead is the beginning of love. ✜
Kay Sather is a graphic designer, illustrator, and freeform-adobe builder who is working on a memoir about building a mud casita. She learned to harvest saguaro fruit when she moved to Tucson in 1979 and is still discovering desert edibles 37 years later.