Monday, May 2, 2011

Sonoran Mouthfuls

I just flew back from Arizona and boy are my arms tired: from shoveling delicious, place-based foods into my mouth, that is.

Thanks to great friends in the area and a couple of exciting writing assignments, I was able to scratch beneath the surface of the local cuisine, going deeper than lollipops with scorpions in them, or prickly pear candies in which actual prickly pear content is vastly outnumbered by corn syrup and colors followed by numbers.

I ate many delicious things in Arizona, like sweet potato enchiladas with tomatillo salsa (really, blogger? you don't recognize the word tomatillo?) at the heavenly, jasmine-perfumed outdoor patio of La Cocina in Tucson. I also loved LC's cocoa diablo, essentially a Mexican hot chocolate spiked with tequila, a pairing that had somehow eluded me until this late in life. So many years, wasted.

I hope to never forget the sweet and starchy plantain tamales at Cup Cafe, but true to my love of minimalist cuisine and foraging, the ultimate mouthful from my week in the Sonoran Desert was picked up off of the ground.

Mesquite, my desert communion. I crunched on a dried pod at Tumacácori after having read much about this exotic staple. It tasted like marshmallows.

I could not believe that this flavorful food was made by a plant with nothing more than sand, sun and a few drops of rain each year. Mesquite really puts the "manna" in "galactomannan."

Sadly, the taste of this tree is better known by its charcoal, which can only be obtained from a dead mesquite. Imagine if every time you saw the word "mesquite" (as in "ROCKIN' TEQULIA-LIME-MESQUITE CRAZY WINGS!!!") it referred to the aromatic flour produced from mesquite pods, a drought-resistant, mineral-rich, low-glycemic index, at-risk food.

Mesquite trees grow throughout the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico and are a source of food, shade, fuel and nitrogen-fixation for the indigenous peoples that long have lived without air conditioning or golf courses where cities like Phoenix now sprawl. Due to the massive needs of these misplaced urban centers, water tables drop, making life more difficult for wild plants like mesquite. Which is why precious mesquite flour is listed on Slow Food's Ark of Taste.

On my way out of town, I picked up a pound of it at the Native Seeds shop in Tucson. This is the fine powder you get from grinding and sifting the pods. It tastes like chocolate, it tastes like caramel, it tastes like cinnamon. Dave said it tasted like mole, then I grabbed the bag from him like Frodo snatching the ring back from Samwise. Back in Northampton, the sealed plastic bag still manages to fill the kitchen with those sweet, complex, desert smells.

I'm told it's great on pancakes, but I plan to go through the whole pound by continuing to dip my moistened pinky into the bag and having my taste buds blown one pinch at a time.

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Rob said...

Hey, Aaron--Tucson is home to me. So glad you got to savor some of its countless delights, including the downright holy mesquite. If you haven't read Gary Paul Nabhan, you absolutely must. His range is global, but I enjoy him most when I'm homesick for my beloved desert.

Aaron Kagan said...

Hi Rob,

Yes, it was GPN who first drew me to it. Thanks for the recommendation.


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