Desert Nutrition

Forager and educator John Slattery’s first book tells us how to go outside and appreciate the bounty of our desert

Farm-to-fork or forage-to-fork? How wild you want to get?

Today we're looking past the local-food movement and into a world of acorn-flour muffins and salads made from weeds. You might eat a barrel cactus, too.

A new book, Southwest Foraging, will be our companion on this journey. Author John Slattery took a break from eating out of his front yard to tell us how we can do the same.

"This is something you have access to," Slattery said. "People can find these plants in their yards, but they may not be eating them because they are no longer in the cultural playbook, so to speak, they're not something people see as relevant."

Slattery hosts workshops on identifying and using desert plants through his business and teaching platform Desert Tortoise Botanicals (, but Southwest Foraging is his first book on the subject.

Southwest Foraging implores us to eat what's growing around us. It is an opportunity to experience the intensity of the Sonoran Desert with mind and mouth.

Which includes eating acorns, either dried like pistachios or ground into flour and baked into bread. Slattery gathers acorns from an area ranging from Reid Park to Mexico and turns them into sourdough pancakes and sweet baked goods.

"I crack them and put them in a bit of water and put them out in the sun for a half hour, it changes their color from yellow to brown, they become very aromatic," says Slattery. "I don't know if I could do it justice to make a comparison. It is certainly unique unto itself. It does not taste like a spice, but it begs to be put in a baked good."

Oak trees producing tons of food-grade acorns—Southern Live Oak—are found in parks, medians and public spaces across Tucson. Slattery says there are 90 of them in Reid Park alone, with more along Mountain Avenue and other streets.

There's wild amaranth, crazy wild greens and plump tree peas to eat, too.

"Purslane and amaranth are two exceptionally nutritious grains that surpass anything you will find in the supermarket," says Slattery. "They're not only abundant, they are easy to identify and there are a lot of applications."

Purslane's succulent leaves pop up even in summer sidewalk cracks. Slattery recently harvested two pounds from his front yard and had plans for a dinner—acorn-infused burgers, wild salads and brownies—that was swoon-worthy.

As for those peas, the Palo Verde tree is a member of the pea family and the seed pods contain edible peas that meet well with a curry broth of garlic, potatoes and onion.

Slattery also wants you to eat prickly pears.

"We are in an epicenter of prickly pear. There are just stands of them out there," says Slattery. "We've found fields of three or four varieties and we picked out 10 fruit and each had a unique sets of qualities: Size, color, external and internal and flavors."

To Slattery, savoring these qualities is on par with charcuterie and wine. His search into the desert has provided access to vibrant flavors and history that sustained people for thousands of years before being recently rediscovered.

It should be mentioned that foraging is more than eating weeds out of abandoned lots. Pickaxe-harvested plants from the coast of Denmark are a big part of why Copenhagen's Noma is considered the best restaurant on earth. Noma chef René Redzepi, swears by the flavors these plants provide, and diners swarm in.

On a quieter level, Slattery is doing the same thing, showcasing the power and flavors of where we live in a way we understand deeply, through our stomachs.

We forgot about barrel cactus. Slattery says everything but the thorns are edible. He makes candy from the flesh and grinds the seeds into a flour that, nutritionally, surpasses anything you will find on the grocery aisle.

Wild greens and Palo Verde peas come easily. Milling seeds and making flour require a little more work.

It all starts with realizing the plants at your feet have food in them.

"We're hungry and we're looking for something to eat, but quickly that experience increases in complexity," says Slattery. "I can go out and talk in front of a plant for an hour, but that is secondary to what an individual can experience."

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