Local Food Focus: Mesquite

I have a favorite pair of shoes, a favorite pillow, a favorite coffee mug and a favorite ethnobotanist. And he says that mesquite was the most wildly consumed food amongst native desert people prior to WWII. Since then however, consumerism and commercialization have radically altered diets creating some of the most diabetic populations in the world.

We have a few mesquite trees in our yard. Each year between the heat of the summer and early autumn, their bean pods appear, then ripen and drop to the ground. Occasionally, I’ve missed this window and have been seen strolling the neighborhood streets in the early hours of the morning searching for beans.

There are several varieties of mesquite which I can’t name but I’m told that if you’re just planting, go with the native mesquites. Inspired by Gary Nabhan’s Coming Home to Eat, I first began experimenting with the pods over a decade ago. In his book, Gary writes of taking them to a local tortilleria when he first began his trek to eat locally.

When I collected my first batch, I turned to my local Slow Food organization for assistance. Fortunately, they conduct an annual milling through a group called Desert Harvesters. They have restrictions about the beans in that they must be dry and debris free and they want them harvested from the tree rather than the ground.

Mesquite is a fascinating product. If you haven’t tasted it before, it has an earthy sweetness to it. It creates a gluten free flour with a high protein content. Somewhere, on my weekend project, overstuffed cookbook shelf, I have a small pamphlet of recipes. I’ll admit to not having tried them.  The simplest way for me to use it is as an additive to cake batters or pancakes.

Sometimes when I’m storing my pods before the milling, small holes appear.

These are created by bruchid beetles that are emerging from the pod. The beetles actually lay their eggs in the mesquite flowers – so they are a part of the tree growth cycle. As you know from my previous posts, the thought of eating insects doesn’t concern me. I doubt very much that it concerned the Native people whose diet consisted largely of mesquite.

Some medical research has indicated that eating traditional foods such as mesquite has a beneficial effect for people with diabetes. The benefits include regulating blood sugar levels and reducing the onset and effects of diabetes. It has also been shown that a return to traditional Native American foods together with an exercise program can bring dramatic results in regards to diabetes in Native Americans.

Don’t have access to mesquite? Many beans have benefits. Do have access to mesquite but haven’t tried it? Do it. It would make a huge contribution to our local food security.

Mesquite Superfood Shake
adapted from Navitas

Ingredients:
1/3 cup whole cashew nuts
1/2 Tbs mesquite flour
1/4 dates
1 cup of water
ice
pinch of cinnamon

Directions:
In a strong blender, whip the cashews, water and dates into a cream, as smooth as possible. Add the flour and cinnamon and blend again. Add a couple handfuls of ice and blend into a frosty mixture.

What ancient food source might you be overlooking today that you can bring back on to your table?

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60 Comments

  1. Kevin

     /  July 21, 2012

    And all these years I’ve just thought of mesquite as adding a rich smoke flavoring to my BBQ. That is pretty fascinating, though. I’ll definitely have to show this to Vickie.

    Reply
    • I forgot to mention what good barbeque they make and you can use just the beans on the grill too.

      Reply
  2. I think I know where one of these trees is located. Do you just dry them and grind the beans, or do you grind the pods too?

    Reply
  3. Oh! I doubt we have this in India but we have something very similar and green. It’s very expensive and usually is used in “Sabzi” which is vegetables. You know what? eating insects doesnt bother me either. By far I have only eaten ants though… Dont think of me as a freak.

    Reply
    • Rukmini there is so much research around the fact that they are rich in protein and easy to find. I wonder if mesquite does grow in India?

      Reply
  4. My friends in the Permaculture Alliance do the milling every year also! They gave me some Carob floor last year to put in pancake batter and it was delicious! The carob beans have a chocolatey taste to them.

    Reply
    • I got some carob also. I really liked it but I don’t know how to identify the trees yet.

      Reply
  5. I never tried it before but thank you for the wonderful explanation! 🙂 I must try this smoothy! 🙂 Yum

    Reply
    • This smoothie is absolutely delicious. You can use the cashews and dates as a base for many things.

      Reply
  6. mesquite trees are something I’ve never seen and I’d love to try the beans, they sound so versatile

    Reply
  7. This is something very new for me. Thanks for introducing me to a new product. I’ll have to look out for this and give it a try xx

    Reply
  8. More coincidence: Ben asked at dinner just yesterday what mesquite was/looked like/etc. I admit I had nothing much to tell him and we agreed to do some research. And then your post showed up. How fascinating! Thanks once again for your information and insights.

    Reply
  9. Wow! I have learned something new, thanks to your post. I only associated mesquite with the dried wood and its distinctive smoky taste on the grill. I didn’t know about the beans, and how important they are to Native American diets (yes, now a population horribly wrought with diabetes.) Nabhan’s website looks phenomenal.

    Reply
    • Gary’s site and writing is fantastic. I hope you get a chance to do some reading of his. He is a key contributor to the ark of taste each year.

      Reply
  10. I love that you have a favorite ethnobotanist! If I decide to go to grad school, ethnobotany would be one of the programs I apply to.

    We were at the Living Desert Museum (here in California) not too long ago, checking out their nursery. My partner wanted to buy a mesquite tree. They were out of stock, so we made away with some succulents, instead.

    Thanks for all the fascinating information, as well as name-dropping Gary’s book.

    Reply
    • Check out Gary’s work. I think you’ll like it. And, I am in CA right now. Yesterday at the market I found a typewriter poet and got a poem which I will post. It made me think of you!

      Reply
      • Oh hooray! Are you in Northern or Southern CA? Enjoy your stay 🙂 Can’t wait to see the poem; curious, was it a free gift or a market exchange? Other poets using typewriters I talk to often charge for their work.

        Reply
        • I’m in Northern. It was an unsolicited donation but I think he would’ve traded if I had something to trade.

          Reply
  11. Very interesting post! I wonder if i can find these pods here in Manzanillo, Mexico? I’d like to try this!

    Reply
    • I bet you can. Google a few images so that you know what the trees look like.

      Reply
      • I will! I will also ask some of my local friends.. this place is FULL of edible plants, its just knowing which ones are the right ones! 😛

        Reply
  12. Sally Mom

     /  July 22, 2012

    Ohhh, I remember eating the flour produced from your beans, raw. So yummy and I wish it were something we could buy off the shelf here in Washington. Must research my botanical on line sources. Thanks for a pleasant read, AGAIN!

    Reply
  13. So interesting. I have to see if I can find this!! Thank you for sharing and thank you for stopping by:)

    Reply
  14. flour not floor…

    Reply
  15. This is super informative. I’ll have to pass this along to my mom who owns 10 acres of mostly mesquite trees. I don’t think she has ever considered the pods as edible. Usually just think about drying the wood for BBQ fires. THANKS for this post.

    Reply
  16. This is very new to me and very informative 🙂 Thanks for introducing me to this amazing ingredient 🙂

    Reply
  17. This is also new to me. I have seen and admired those beautiful mesquite trees in Texas and never imagined their long pods would be edible. Isn’t Nature very generous wherever you look ? Thanks Tammy.

    Reply
  18. I’ve not had the pleasure of trying this bean, Tammy. Now that you’ve made me aware of it, I’ll have to see if it crosses my path. I like the sounds of the “earthy sweet” flavour.

    Reply
  19. Doreen

     /  July 24, 2012

    Tammy, Thanks for an important post. I will try the shake soon. I still have several pounds of flour left from last years milling in Phoenix. Perhaps with all of this monsoon rain we will get a second harvesting of beans in September? Would it be Ok for me to share the Phoenix area milling info with your readers here?

    Reply
    • Yes, of course. Let’s let them know when it is. I also have quite a bit left from last year.

      Reply
  20. What an informative post! Mesquite trees are not a part of my landscape here in northern Michigan, but I also try to eat locally whenever possible and applaud your efforts to inform. Thank you!

    Reply
    • I’m sure you have some other indigenous material that isn’t common but is abundant.

      Reply
  21. Honestly, before I read this, I thought mesquite was used only for barbecue. I have so much to learn.

    Reply
    • Oh, we all do! The beans work equally well on the grill for flavor and by the way, my kids reminded me that it isn’t the Spin Doctors that I loved but the Irish band, the Saw Doctors.

      Reply
  22. I had also only thought of mesquite for smoking. My daughter will be spending her last (senior) year in Arizona next year–perhaps she can forage more than grapefruit and visit home with some additional local treasures!

    Reply
  23. I read recently that insects are the next big untapped source of protein for the growing global food demand. At first I was, of course, like, “Ugh”, and then read further to understand that insects have been a source of protein for civilizations throughout the millenium, and our Westernized disgust is really a minority attitude.

    Thanks for your instructive post, Tammy. I always learn something interesting.

    Reply
  24. Wow. I had no idea that mesquite produced edible beans. LIke others, I simply thought of mesquite as wood or wood chips to add flavor while grilling.

    The beauty of blogs is that I get to learn something new regularly.

    Reply
  25. Great stuff! As well as the pods, native mesquite trees have thorns – making them great trees for local birds. If you run low, a local spot for mesquite flour is the little shop at Singh Farms.

    Reply
  26. The milling events are typically held in conjunction with local farmers’ markets or mesquite pancake feasts to enhance the diversity of available foods and to expose folks to the wonderful flavors and potential abundance of locally grown foods. The events are organized in October and November at community gardens, the community food bank, and community centers, to correspond with the late summer garden harvest and the end of the mesquite pod harvest. Mesquite pancakes served with prickly pear and saguaro syrups or backyard honey “plant the seeds” of the native foods’ delicious tastes and potential within the minds and palates of the hungry public (fig. 35). (Click here for a video of one of the community fiestas.) The sale of, and feasting on, local garden produce like corn, squash, tomatoes, and tepary beans, and cultural foods like tamales, sweet potato pie, and pickled cholla buds are encouraged. Local musicians play as folks eat and the hammermill is fired up to grind the mesquite pods brought by community members who harvested over the summer. Flour goes home with the harvesters, and mesquite breads, cookies, and sauces are cooked up in their kitchens.

    Reply
  27. Didn’t know there were mesquite beans. Learn something new every day. When I first saw the pic, I thought of dried black eye pea pods. Thanks for the stopping by.

    Reply
  28. Wow! This is so interesting! I am motivated to hunt these down and try this. Plus, the whole “historical food” topic is fascinating. Many thanks for an inspiring article!

    Reply

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