Sunday, June 25, 2017

Natural Foods Project in Silver City Embraces Mesquite Beans

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The Native Foods Project at The Volunteer Center (TVC) of Grant County in Silver City is studying the benefits of mesquite beans and mesquite honey. The small desert tree has surprisingly nutritious properties. (Surprisingly, for those of us who who only thought of mesquite as a good source of wood). Did you know there are 40 species of mesquite trees in an area spanning from Texas to California (and all across northern Mexico)?

According to New Mexico State University,  a variety of mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa Torr) is found in bottomland areas of the high plains and central plateau of our state, growing at elevations of 3,000 to 8,500 feet ."The plant is aggressive, adapted to a wide range of habitats, and extremely hardy.The leaves are grazed only when there is no other forage, but the beans are sought out and eaten avidly, presumably because of their high sugar and protein content," said NMSU

The trees produce beans that can be eaten in various forms. “When our provisions and coffee ran out, the men ate [mesquite beans] in immense quantities, and roasted or boiled them!” George W. Kendall wrote in his journal, describing how the men in the 1841 Texas Santa Fe Expedition kept themselves alive. Kendall is quoted by Ken E. Rogers in The Magnificent Mesquite).  Read more in DesertUSA

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Part of the Native Diet in the Southwest
While the reliance of mesquite for those 1841 explorers might have come as an "accident," the  Papago, Pima, Chemehuvi,Yuman, Cocopa, Mohave and Cahuilla peoples of Arizona and California used the mesquite beans and many other parts of the tree (bark, leaves, thorns, sap) in their daily lives.

"But it was the mesquite pod, with its nutritious, bittersweet pulp, that provided the greatest benefit to indigenous desert peoples. They collected pods each fall, often eating many of them green from the trees. The rest they dried in the sun and stored in large baskets for future use," said DesertUSA in an article entitled Cooking with Mesquite.

The 1900s picture on the left shows two Chemehuvi grils making a drink from mesquite beans.

  "Usually, the beans (pods and seeds) were ground into a coarse meal, then by adding water, were transformed into a gruel or a cake without cooking. Some cultures are said to have taken the seeds from the pods and ground them into a flour called pinole, from which a bread was actually baked," added the article.

 A Milling Event in Silver City this Fall
The process of transforming beans into mesquite flour is a topic that has attracted the interest of the Native Foods Project at TVC. The project recently received a donation of a hammermill from Steven Zerbach to process mesquite beans. This spring, organizers of the project sent seven members to Tucson to attend the  Desert Harvesters Mesquite 101 and Hammermill Trainings. Desert Havesters has published a cookbook that contains only  mesquite recipes.
"We learned everything we need to know for best harvesting practices and how to use our amazing hammermill to grind mesquite beans into a sweet, nutritious, and delicious flour," said Kristin Lundgren," garden coordinator at the TVC.  "Now that the trainees have all shared our own insights and dynamic ideas, we're excited to start planning a fall milling event here at The Commons for community members like you to start utilizing this nourishing regional food crop. And, you know what? Everyone from Tucson was very excited about how sweet and delicious our Honey Mesquite is here!"

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