Mesquite–Ancient Food for the Future

Yes, we gotta admit it—Tucson and ALL OF BAJA ARIZONA is a FOOD-COLONY!  To feed ourselves here, we currently import over 96% of our foods from out of state or out of country. If there were to be a transportation stoppage or disaster (perish the thought), we have less than 4 days’ food supply in local groceries. (info from Fry’s managers and Pima Co Emergency Mgmt.) This is a scary and sobering reality, and we need to remedy it for the good of all.
When it comes to food security in the Desert Southwest, if we are smart we’d best turn to those whose ancestors not only survived but thrived here, before European food fads invaded, and long before bio-technology pretended to save us–Let us listen to Native People!  If we look to traditional O’odham cuisine, and to that of all low-desert Traditional People in the Southwest, we learn that one of their most important and consistent staple foods was MESQUITE. Meal ground from the whole, ripe, dry pods was prepared in diverse ways by every tribal group, and stored safely against lean times, providing them amazingly tasty nutrition.

Now….its up to “newer arrivals” to the desert to expand our cultural tastes–and enjoy lessons from local tradition….

Harvesting ripe velvet mesquite pods--an old Chuk-shon tradition (RodMondt photo)

Harvesting ripe velvet mesquite pods–an old Chuk-shon tradition (RodMondt photo)

Everyone enjoys mesquite’s shade, its smokey flavoring and fuelwood in BBQs. But what about mesquite as food and food-security? Sweet and yummy are first.  Culinary versatility is up there.  Nutrition is paramount.  Recent nutritional analyses show what Native People have ALWAYS known intuitively, that mesquite’s sweetness is healthy (complex) sugars, and that it gives sustained energy (from slow-release complex carbs.)

A major plus for arid-lands food-security is that mesquite trees grow plentifully in the desert WITHOUT ANY HELP from humans. Having evolved with large Pleistocene herbivores, mesquite’s survival strategy is to over-produce quantities of tasty pods to entice mammoths or (extinct) ungulates to eat them and spread their seeds, scarified and delivered in ready-made fertilizer packages. In more recent centuries, cattle have provided a similar service to spread mesquite.  Hungry bi-peds can benefit too from mesquite’s plentiful productivity. With global climate change and the promise of expanding deserts, mesquite offers us a healthy staple food and a fitting dry-lands crop for our stressed Planet.

Velvet mesquite pods (Prosopis velutina) in green phase (maburgess photo)

Velvet mesquite pods (Prosopis velutina) in green phase (maburgess photo)

[Mesquite pods are ripening as I write–so heads-up!]

A most timely gathering of mesquite experts—both traditional and innovative—is about to happen at  a MESQUITE CONFERENCE open to the public and not to be missed………Attention–Novice mesquite-harvesters, cooks and culinary artists, bakers and chefs, nutritionists and clinicians, ranchers, farmers, gardeners, athletes and fitness fans, survivalists, nature buffs, climate-change planners…. this conference is for you.

MESQUITE: NEW AGRICULTURAL TRADITIONS FOR AN ANCIENT FOOD  will be held in Benson, Arizona, all day Friday, June 13, 2014, at the Cochise College Campus, 8:30am-4pm.
There will be talks by leading Mesquiteros, including traditional Tohono O’odham harvester Clifford Pablo, new crops innovator Dr. Richard Felger, the one and only mesquite agronomist Mark Moody, wild-harvester Amy Valdes Schwemm, creative desert rancher Dennis Moroney, animal feed expert Dr. Howard Frederick, desert foods ethnobotanist Martha Ames Burgess, and Cooperative Extension outreach educator Mark Apel.

In addition, generously sharing their knowledge, techniques and recipes will be demonstrators, including desert foods writer Carolyn Niethammer, wild-food teacher Barbara Rose, solar cooking expert Valerie McCaffrey, mesquite millers from San Xavier Farm Coop and Tohono O’odham Community College, and children’s book author Laurie Melrood. This is the place to contact producers of mesquite meal for your home cooking, for nouvelle local-source eateries, and breweries. Get your tastebuds ready for samples of delectable new culinary mesquite delights!

Sponsored by Baja Arizona Sustainable Agriculture and University of Arizona Cooperative Extension, with extra support from USDA Western SARE, we have been able to keep the registration fees to a minimum– accessible to anyone. $30 covers the whole day conference including luncheon ($20 for students or members of BASA). Space is limited so register soon. Registration is online via the BASA website http://www.bajaaz.org. For further info call 520-331-9821.
Once registered, please group your travel plans in carpools. For carpooling ideas check out the Native Seeds/SEARCH or BASA facebook sites. Let’s not let anyone miss this conference who needs to be there!

 

Select sweet velvet mesquite pods dry and ready to grind (maburgess photo)

Select sweet velvet mesquite pods dry and ready to grind (maburgess photo)

 

Delicious honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) with ripening pods.

Delicious honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa) with ripening pods.

ADDITIONAL MESQUITE HAPPENINGS–Plan to Harvest, Plant, and Celebrate Native Bean-Tree Abundance Before the Rains…

DESERT HARVESTERS is organizing events to help people dramatically enhance the quality of their mesquite pod harvests, what to make with them, and how to better sync with the Sonoran Desert’s seasonal cycles in a way that enhances our shared biome.
We are teaming up with local culinary businesses to increase offerings of native foods in their cuisine, and to encourage landscaping with native food plants in water-harvest earthworks beside their buildings.

Mark your calendar for Thursday June 19, 2014!

Guided Mesquite Harvests and Plantings
Hosted at the Santa Cruz River Farmers’ Market
100 S. Avenida del Convento, Tucson, AZ

5pm harvest on foot, 6pm harvest by bicycle
Led by Desert Harvesters including Amy Valdés Schwemm and Brad Lancaster
$5 to $10 per person (sliding scale)

These hands-on harvest tours show you how to:
• Identify and sample the best-tasting mesquite trees
Every tree is different, but some varieties are consistently much better than others. Taste the differences. (We will also likely harvest from desert ironwood and palo verde.)
• How to harvest safely, ethically, and responsibly
Harvesting pre-rains is best practice to avoid invisible toxic mold. Harvesting from the tree avoids fecal or fungal ground contamination. Check out http://www.ediblebajaarizona.com/calling-all-mesquiteros/ for more on why pre-rain harvests are the traditional practice, and so important.
• Use cool tricks such as the harvest cane.
• How and when to plant the best bean trees
Participants are encouraged to bring sun protection, reusable water bottle, and carry-bags for harvested pods.

Iskashitaa, an organization that helps resettled refugees integrate into the Tucson community, will be offering their beautiful hand-made harvest bags and fresh-squeezed juice from fruit they’ve gleaned. Also there will be AravaipaHeirlooms’ prickly pear pops and chiltepine-infused cold brews from Exo Roast Co.

Bean-Tree Processing Demonstrations
Before and/or after the Guided Harvests and Plantings
4pm to 7pm–FREE
Taught by Barbara Rose, desert foods farmer/fermenter/cook extraordinaire of Bean Tree Farm (see their website for more awesome workshops), will show you how to turn milled or whole desert ironwood seeds, palo verde seeds, and mesquite pods into tasty dishes. Native foods such as mesquite flour, cactus fruit pops, drinks, syrup, and cholla buds will be available for sale, along with seeds and seedlings of the best-tasting native bean-trees and chiltepines.

AND THEN DON’T MISS Sunday, June 22, 2014!

Pre-Monsoon Mesquite Milling
Sunday, June 22, (alert–in the event of rain, it will be moved to Sunday, June 29)
6am to 10am
Bring Your Own Pods!
Pods for milling must be clean, dry, and free of mold/fungus, stones, leaves, bugs and other debris. Cost: $3/gallon of whole pods, with a minimum of $10.

Also at the milling event:
• A native wild foods demonstration – highlighting what’s in the wild-harvest season now
• Exo’s mesquite-, mole-, and chiltepin-infused coffees
• Mesquite baked goods and cactus fruit popsicles
• Seeds and seedlings of select native bean trees and chiltepines — so you can plant yours in time for the rains.

Our thanks to hosts Exo Roast Co. and Tap & Bottle,
403 N. 6th Ave.,Tucson, AZ
Harvesters’ Happy Hour at Tap & Bottle
Come join fellow harvesters in fermented merriment. Tap & Bottle will have local brews on-hand, some infused with local native ingredients. And they will donate a percentage of all the sales to Desert Harvesters. Learn more online at: http://www.DesertHarvesters.org

 

Mesquite can help us into a food-secure future– fittingly, sustainably, healthily, and sweetly– as we face heating and drying of our desert home.  What a gift mesquite is, as we begin to declare our independence from being a FOOD-COLONY!

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