Saguaro flowers and unripe fruit. Photo by Rael B.
Our fire has burned and the sun has gone down;
Our fire has burned and the sun has gone down.
Come together, following our ancient custom.
Sing for the liquor,
This was the song that called the people of the Tohono O’odham villages together for the saguaro wine ceremony that followed the harvest. During the ceremony, they people invoked the intercession of a deity far away in a “rainhouse” full of wind, water and seeds in the hopes of hastening the storms.
This and many other songs were collected and translated by Ruth Murray Underhill, an early anthropologist who lived among what were then called the Papago in 1938. They appear in her book Singing for Power.
When I go saguaro gathering, I get up around 4:30 a.m. and aim to be out among the saguaros just at dawn. I am always joined by doves and other birds looking for their breakfast. Alone on the desert, I occasionally find myself talking to the saguaros. “So what have you got for me?” I ask. I might worry about my sanity, but I know others have felt the same way. The late desert chronicler Edward Abbey agreed, calling saguaros “planted people.”
Dove getting breakfast
The orginal desert dwellers used a dead saguaro rib to push the fruits off the cactus. If you can’t find one, any long pole or a fruit picker will do. You can separate the fruit from the rind in the field or bring it home to clean. Each fruit comes with its own sharp-edged knife, like a natural can opener.
Opening a fruit with the calyx on the blossom end.
Sharp edge of the calyx can be used as a knife.
Once you have extracted the fruit, you can either dry it whole or separate it into the seeds and juice. This is a simple process. To your pan or bucket, add as much water as you have fruit. Let it sit, covered loosely for six to eight hours. Then plunge your hands in and break up the fruit. Strain off the juice. Boil to concentrate. If you want to make syrup from the concentrated juice, add half as much sugar as you have juice and boil until clear. Store in a clean glass jar in the refrigerator. It will usually keep for months.
So what are the options for the seeds. You can put them in any baked good, make pilaf or porridge or cookie filling. But an easy use is homemade crackers. Spread the wet seeds on a cookie sheet in the sun. There will be some white material left from the juice, but either blow it off or ignore it. I made these crackers in around a half hour. We are accustomed to eating commercial crackers that are very sweet and salty. So if you want a familiar flavor, use the higher amounts of salt and sugar.
Black Beauty Wafers
1/4 cup saguaro seeds
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 to 3/4 teaspoon salt
1-2 teasp0ons sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tablespooncider vinegar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
8 teaspoons whole saguaro seeds
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Grind the 1/4 cup saguaro seeds in a blender or coffee grinder. In a large bowl, combine seeds, flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Add water, vinegar and oil and mix, stirring and kneading until a stiff dough forms.
Shape dough into two rolls, 6 inches long and 1 inch in diameter. Then slice each roll into eight wafers. Sprinkle some seeds on a flat surface, place one disk of dough on it, sprinkle some more seeds on top and roll with a rolling pin as thinly as you can. The thinner the cracker, the crisper they will be. The shapes will be irregular.
Form dough into log and divide into eight portions.
Roll out each portion of dough.
Transfer the crackers to an ungreased nonstick cookie sheet. If you have a regular metal pan, use a sheet of parchment paper. Bake in the preheated oven for just 5 to 7 minutes. Watch closely to ensure they do not burn.
You can serve with soup or salad. Or spread with a soft cheese.
Serve your Black Beauty Wafers with a crisp salad.
And when you eat your saguaro syrup or enjoy your Black Beauty Wafers, remember the words an elderly Tohono O’odham woman said to Ruth Underhill back in 1938:
“To you Whites, Elder brother gave wheat and peaches and grapes. To us, he gave the wild seeds and the cactus. Those are the good foods.”
For more recipes using both saguaro fruit and seeds, consult Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants. You can find a copy at Native Seeds SEARCH or order online here.