In late July and early August, the mesquites drop their crop of bean pods. I like to bite the end off a pod and suck sweet juice evocative of my childhood. Mesquites grew wild in Morenci mostly on las laderas, the hillsides where there were no houses. The pods were like candy to my cousins and me. We relished sucking the sweet juice surrounding the seeds. I liked to break off an end and pull each seed out of a segment of the pod. I spit out the seed after I scraped the fleshy part with my teeth and swallowed the juice. Some of my male cousins, preferred chewing up the pod and spitting out seeds and fibrous mess that remained. It looked like they were chewing tobacco and maybe that’s why they did it. We took a welcome break from playing to collect pods to suck on as we sat near a tree and held spitting contests.
Afterward we gathered pods and stretched out our T-shirts to carry them back to Mama Teresita, our grandmother. She rewarded us with the ledger book recording her cuenta at Madero’s store. We never abused her trust, only buying each of us a Popsicle. They didn’t equal the taste of mesquites, but Popsicles had one thing over mesquites; they were frozen. We often remarked mesquite juice popsicles would be ideal. The only problem was we couldn’t figure out how to get enough juice to freeze.
Mama Teresita dried the mesquite pods on a lámina she kept in Tata’s garden for that explicit purpose. When they were dry, she’d store them in an empty flour bag. Every other day she’d take out bean pods and boil them for Tata’s altole. He alternated between it and a ponche Mama Teresita made with coffee and an egg. He drank these before lighting up his first cigarette of the day and eating breakfast. He told us it gave him strength. Whenever we had a sore throat we also drank a tea made with the beans. Mama Carmela, my aunt, took it every day as medicine for diabetes.
My present home in Tucson is surrounded by dozens of mesquite trees. Most of them have yellow pods, but a few produce yellow pods with streaks of red. These are the mesquite pods I remember as a child so I pluck them from the trees when I’m working outdoors for a quick sugar rush.
Verdolagas, or purslane, considered a weed by some people, was a staple in our kitchens. Mama Teresita and my mother and aunts, each nurtured a patch of verdolagas in their gardens. If they didn’t have enough leaves, they could always find some growing en la ladera. This was often one of our only fresh vegetables, much tastier than canned peas or corn. The mucilaginous leaves had a slightly sour and salty taste. To me, they tasted like lemon juice. Our mothers steamed and served verdolagas with frijoles de olla. I didn’t learn about the health benefits of purslane until I was an adult. Verdolagas are an excellent source of Vitamin A, C, and B-complex. As a child, all I cared about was they tasted good and made beans taste even better. Now I know how healthy they were for us. I had a volunteer verdolaga patch growing in a wine barrel planter several years ago and my father told me they were probably verdolagas de marrano (for pigs) so I didn’t harvest them. Recently, I researched verdolagas and found there wasn’t such a thing.
Quelites were another wild fresh vegetable we savored. Some people may recognize this plant as “pigweed.” Maybe my father confused “verdolagas de marrano” with the common English name for quelites. Quelites weren’t planted in gardens; they were free for the picking on the hillsides especially in sites where a house had burned ages before. They were comparable to spinach or kale. Mama Teresita washed the leaves and tossed them into her large iron skillet to sauté. She added onions and jalapenos from Tata’s garden. The part I enjoyed most was the final squeeze of lemon juice before serving with frijoles. My dad always told everyone I would eat a rock if it had lemon on it. I wouldn’t go so far, but I love anything with lemon juice.
I never saw quelites growing in any of the places I lived until a week ago I recognized a couple of volunteer plants growing in a forgotten pot in my garden. I thought the leaves resembled quelites so I let them grow. They grew amazingly fast and soon developed a tall stem with tiny green buds reminding me of amaranth. I looked up the plant online and sure enough; quelites are in the amaranth family. The plants in Morenci never developed the showy flowers seen in cultivated gardens, but their leaves were appetizing. Little did we know the nutritional qualities of quelites. They provide protein, vitamin A, B, and essential minerals like calcium, iron, and potassium. Mama Teresita and the other grandmothers from Mexico may not have known this, but they knew quelites were good for you.
Nopalitos and their fruit, tunas, were a delicious delicacy. The prickly pear paddles are laborious to prepare for cooking, but well worth the effort. The cactus spines hurt when they pierce your skin, but the little hairy glochids are worse. At least with the spines you can remove them with tweezers, but tiny glochids have barbed shafts and they are hard to extract. They cover the nopal paddles like an army protecting its territory and one small patch can detach and embed hundreds of glochids in your skin. This I know from experience when I’ve transplanted nopales to another area of our desert property.
Luckily in Morenci we were blessed with spineless cactus. Mama Teresita called them nopales españoles. She said españoles who first came to Morenci to work in the mines brought the cactus with them. If true, then the first nopales taken by the Spanish to Spain came from Mexico and were brought back! Grateful not to have to work as hard scraping the nopales, Mama Teresita and my aunts cultivated these nopales in their gardens. My mother took paddles of spineless nopales to her new garden in York when our homes were destroyed to mine the copper under Morenci. I have spineless nopales growing in my garden, taken from my mother’s garden. They’re a living memento of Morenci I gladly share with other people who grew up in Morenci.
My grandmother picked only smaller, younger nopalitos because they were tenderer than the larger thicker paddles. The spineless cactus contain a few spines so she scraped the nopales with a large knife to make sure they were clean. She cut them into long narrow strips then diced them to her preferred size. At this point the nopales exuded babas, lots of slimy babas, similar to okra. Mama Teresita didn’t like the slime and neither did I. She cooked them for about 5 minutes in boiling water to reduce las babas then emptied all in a colander and repeated the process again. Draining the nopalitos in the colander left them ready to be used in various ways. One of her favorites was to fry nopalitos with eggs for breakfast. I preferred to eat them with beans. Need I say nopalitos have a lemony flavor to them?
As with mesquites and quelites, nopales contain Vitamins A, C, and B complex. They also have a generous amount of calcium and magnesium, potassium, iron, and plenty of fiber. Nopales are recommended for people suffering from diabetes and high cholesterol because they provide 17 amino acids— eight of which are essential for the human body. I’ve noticed that we rarely had diabetes, high cholesterol, or high blood pressure when we lived in Morenci. After moving from Morenci and we stopped eating “weeds,” most of us developed those illnesses. Nowadays, studies have shown that these vegetables are good to help prevent or reduce the effects of many of those ailments.
The nopales also sport attractive blooms in late spring to cheer the soul. I wouldn’t recommend picking those flowers to place in a vase. It’s best to enjoy them in their desert setting and leave them to develop into tunas or cactus fruits. Tunas on a cactus are even more colorful than the flowers. The fruit is sweet and juicy, reminiscent of watermelon combined with strawberries. Tunas contain many of the same benefits as nopales and are worth the effort to remove their sharp thorns. After those are removed the pulp is ready to eat, but like mesquites, the seeds are spit or cleaned out.
In Morenci, Mexicanos didn’t think of mesquites, quelites, and nopalitos containing all these wonderful nutrients. Our grandmothers and mothers knew these were good to eat and good for us. They were part of our daily diet. When the miners union called for a strike against the company lasting more than a few months and times were lean, we were grateful we had learned to eat and love these native plants because they were free.
Tuna del Nopal
Prickly plum cactus juice,
Kick-a-poo joy juice—
Healing elixir of the ancients
Good for all that ails you
Purple red fruit
Atop nopal paddles
Even desert animals
Know its benefits
Too tired to do?
Prickly plum juice
Diabetes plaguing you?
Nectar del nopal
Better than pills
High blood pressure?
A spoonful of tuna juice
In a glass of water
Brings it down
No need for statins
To your diet
Prickly pear nectar
Kills cancer cells
Find it in your local desert
Free for the picking!
Elena Díaz Bjorkquist ©2012