By Judyth Willis
Got Pods? Yes, all Arizona’s chillun’ got pods! We drive over pods, we walk over pods, and we rake pods. The local landscaping company hauls away tons — tons — of pods during the season. And this year from June to September, we are being given the opportunity to enjoy another glorious harvest of mesquite tree pods.
So what’s to celebrate about the fact that the Southwest has a bumper crop of mesquite pods? For one thing, it brings food to many. Beginning with doves, quail (cute ones, called Gambel quail, with the little top-knot on their heads), and shiny black ravens — they all feast on the seedpods.
The bighorn sheep known to roam the arid regions of the Southwest eat mesquite seedpods. Rabbits, coyote, ground squirrel, antelope, skunk, wolf and domesticated dogs eat the mesquite pods. As much as 75% of the coyote’s diet is mesquite beans during the late summer, in fact, while the yellow flowers of the spring season attract many species of native bees (think mesquite honey), wasps and butterflies. Javelina, too, eat seedpods.
It is even becoming fashionable for humans to eat delectable things made with mesquite flour. Yes, in Tucson there is a volunteer crew who will roll up pulling a hammermill grinder and they will mill your pods at your door.
So let’s talk about what can be prepared with mesquite flour. Absolutely everything you can make with wheat flour. It is usually cut to one part mesquite flour for two to three parts wheat flour. It bakes and mixes just like wheat flour, but without the wheat allergens. So think pancakes, muffins, breads, cakes, and pies that are rich in protein and with less gluten, and since the mesquite flour is slightly sweet, with less sugar!
Historically, indigenous peoples of the Southwest first used the mesquite as a food source. Besides giving food and ample shade from the desert sun, the tree provided wood for plows, bows, and, according to the authors of People of the Desert and Sea: Ethnobotany of the Seri Indians, the slender stems were used to make cradleboard frames. The authors further explain that “the mesquite wood could be used for construction, harpoon shafts, fine woodwork, fire drills, fish hooks, violin bows, and pestles.” And don’t forget the roots: often bigger than the trunk and sometimes as deep into the earth as 190 feet, the root fiber was used for cordage. Good use was made of this resource.
The Gila Pima, a native peoples living right here in our Arizona desert, had, for centuries, used the pods as a major ingredient in their diet. They made flour, porridge, drinks and cakes. Did those Native Americans know something about the importance of the mesquite tree? Perhaps they didn’t know that as a food important to the health of their tribe it had a low glycemic index, that it was a source of calcium, magnesium, potassium, iron, and zinc, and that it added vegetable protein including lysine to their diet. But after hundreds and hundreds of years of consuming mesquite edibles, it would seem they had proof of the power to be found in the plant.
According to Mike Adams, of naturalnews.com, mesquite flour is a “superfood”. His theory is that it has only been since the indigenous people of the Southwest were introduced to processed food, mainly white flour, that they have suffered the scourge of diabetes. Could it be that it is time for ethnicities that are especially prone to suffer from this debilitating disease to rediscover the power-packed food found growing in the desert Southwest?
How hard is it to harvest and grind a little of your own mesquite flour? First there is the raking up of pods. A full grocery sack will make about two cups of flour. Rinse the pods off and spread them out in the sun to dry. Using a blender rather than a food processor is advised. Take the appliance outside and grind the pods. (That way a fine layer of flour will not cover your kitchen.) Once the pods are turned into flour, dump it into a sieve and sift out the seeds. The pods are the source of the flour, not the seeds. It is best to store the flour in the refrigerator.
If you live in an area where mesquite pods are not available, there are many websites that sell the flour. Here is a simple but delicious recipe:
MESQUITE CORNBREAD from Native Peoples Magazine
3/4 C. each of cornmeal and flour
3/8 C. mesquite meal
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. each baking soda and salt
1 C. yogurt
3 Tbs. Honey
3 Tbs. Oil
Combine dry ingredients in medium sized bowl. Combine the wet ingredients and stir into the dry ingredients just until combined. Spread into greased 8 inch by 8 inch pan. Bake 20 – 25 minutes at 350 degrees. For a unique Southwestern kick, add 1 tablespoon chipotle (dried, smoked jalapeno) flakes and 3/4 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels.
This year you might consider being adventurous and trying out the resource nature so amply provides us. Make use of those pods!