Tia Marta here to take you on a visual tour of our strikingly beautiful Sonoran Desert century plants and cholla which have, for centuries, fed Sonoran Desert people–and continue to do so in interesting new ways! This is a “photographic appetizer” for the grand gastronomic and libation experiences planned for April into May–an invitation for you to participate in Tucson’s amazing Agave Heritage Festival and Cholla Harvest Workshops. [For a full schedule of the many culinary, ethnobotanical, artistic and musical agave events, go to http://www.agaveheritagefestival.com. For info on cholla harvests go to http://www.tucsonsbirthplace.org or call 520-907-9471.]
Natives of the low Sonoran Desert region surrounding the Sea of Cortes, especially Yuman, Tohono O’odham (calling it a’ut) and Seri people (calling it ahmmo), traditionally used various varieties or subspecies of Agave deserti to cook as an important staple in their diet.
Agaves bloom only once– a magnificent flower show after a long lifetime–hence the name “Century Plant” as the 15-25 years before maturing seems like a century. Harvesters, mescaleros, watch year after year until they observe when the center of the leaf rosette begins to show the flower-stalk emerging, the signal the plant is changing its stored starches to sugars for blooming. (There is a giant agave in central Mexico, Agave salmiana, from which harvesters remove the young flower stalk to create a center “well.” Sweet sap, agua miel, wells up daily, for weeks. Cooked down and concentrated, that’s the so-called “nectar” being sold as a sweetener to gringos. Good sweetness–nice product–wrong name. Nectar is what pollinators drink from flowers; agave sweetener is made from internal sap.)
When the agave is about to bloom, to make roasted agave (for maguey or mescal), the whole mature plant is harvested, thick leaves chopped off (used for fiber), and the center or head, the cabeza that looks like a pineapple, is roasted in a rock-lined pit. Cooking often takes 2-3 days and nights. Once roasted, the fibrous pulp is a nutritious, sweet, chewy treat with complex healthy carbohydrates.
If you haven’t tasted mescal, the distilled spirit made from roasted and fermented agave, you have a treat coming. In a particular district of Jalisco, Mexico, it is made from Agave tequilana –the blue agave–known only from there by the more familiar name tequila! Select Sonoran Desert Agave species produce mescals that some connoisseurs consider even better than tequila. At the Agave Heritage Festival you can taste several such spirits, to make that determination for yourself!
At this year’s Agave Heritage Festival, at celebratory, culinary, artsy and educational events–from Mission Garden to Maynard’s Market, Desert Museum to Carriage House Tucson, Tohono Chul to Tumamoc Hill, UA to Pima College, with horticulturalists, scholars, artists, musicians–we will delve into the lore and many gifts of the Agave family. Learn hands-on–even tastebuds-on— from esteemed experts, ethnobotanist Jesus Garcia, Southwest foods authors Carolyn Niethammer and Gary Paul Nabhan, culinary artists Chef Janos Wilder, Barry Infuso, and Don Guerra, scholars Karen Adams and Maribel Alvarez, to name just a few! Sign up soon at http://www.agaveheritagefestival.com, giving yourself a gift while supporting such special organizations as NativeSeeds/SEARCH, Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, and Tohono Chul Park.
Alongside the Agave events, as the succulent season progresses, there are other desert foods to harvest and taste in new recipes, inspired by both traditional knowledge and ideas for sustainable desert living into the future. Cholla buds and nopalitos from several cactus species will be featured in upcoming workshops. To call up lots of neat info from past http://www.SavortheSouthwest.blog posts, insert the word “cholla” into the search-box above for a feast of ideas, then……
As cholla cacti begin to bloom, it’s time to harvest the buds! Join me Friday, April 20, 2018, at the Mission Garden Cholla Harvest Workshop — Sign ups at http://www.tucsonsbirthplace.org. Or, on Saturday, April 21, come to Flor de Mayo’s Cholla Harvest on Tucson’s west side–contact www.flordemayoarts.com and 520-907-9471. Cooking School classes are happening at Janos’ Carriage House, http://www.carriagehousetucson.com, and Gastronomy Tours downtown are being scheduled at the Presidio Museum, http://www.tucsonpresidio.com.
I hope you have enjoyed my Photo Gallery and that you may enjoy many a succulent Sonoran Desert dish and libation this season–more ways to honor Tucson as an International City of Gastronomy!
May we all toast the spirit of Agave Goddess Mayahuel!
3 thoughts on “Celebrating Succulent Food-Plants–Sonoran Centuries and Cholla”
When we were in school, we cooked the flower spikes of Yucca whipplei as huge asparagus! They were weird, but good. We cooked only one at a time, cut them up like patties, and peeled the outside off.
How cool is that! Thanks for sharing your experiences. Was that in Tucson?
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That was in San Luis Obispo. Yucca whipplei grew nicely in the wild, but became a bothersome weed if it happened to creep into a watered garden. Plants that were dying after bloom put out long stolons that could come up under a lawn. If someone decided to let them grow where they came up, they grew fast, bloomed and then died! Then there was a mess to clean up. Pups would be everywhere the following year! That is why we kept them at a distance. The plants were not too big, but the flower stalks were huge if allowed to bloom.