It's like déjà vu, all over again— the time of year for harvesting the succulent fruit of the saguaro cactus, something the indigenous peoples in Southern Arizona and Northern Sonora have been doing for centuries.
Trying to survive off what the desert provides in the way of edibles can be a feast or famine situation, so it's important to take advantage of seasonal good times.
"It's possible to live off of nature's bounty," wrote Carolyn Niethammer, author of American Indian Cooking, "But it's not an easy way to make a living."
Despite what internationally-known forager Euell Gibbons notes in his book "Stalking the Wild Asparagus" that "the outdoors is a restaurant," Mother Nature can be a stingy grocer, offering up a limited menu.
Not so this year as Tohono O'odham tribal elder Stella Tucker returned to pick the cactus offerings, as she has since her early childhood.
"I love it and look forward to it every year. It's in my heart," she said. "We're desert people and live off the land."
With a Tohono belief that the saguaro was created when an O'odham child sank into the ground and re-appeared as the first of the cactus species, a kinship between tribal members and the giant cactus was formed.
"There's meaning and tradition in saguaros. They've been part of my people forever," said Tucker.
There's a reverence in the harvest. At one time, an O'odham, after picking a saguaro fruit, would bow to the cactus in gratitude. Today, tradition and respect continue. When the first fruit is opened, a blessing is said to thank the fruit for its existence.
"When we pick the first fruit, we bless ourselves with it and use some of the red color on our face before dropping the empty fruit -pod peel-side up," Tucker said. "That's what brings our rains for the following year's harvest."
Tucker recounted many years of watching the saguaros' white blossoms appear in late spring, then morph into fruit buds in the heat of June, making ready to offer their sinfully-sweet nectar shortly thereafter.
"My grandmother would send me out at day break armed with a picking pole and a ringing admonition not to come back to camp until my bucket was full," he said.
Another elder, Lois Liston, celebrates the yearly process as an annual connection between her people and their relationship to the earth.
"You may slow down as the years add up," she said, "But you never really retire from the harvest because it's always fun."
Elder Edward Encinas once noted: "The desert returns to life with the arrival of the rain. And before it comes, we gather the fruit to make jams, jellies and process some of it into a fermented wine for the Vikita ceremony" where its consumption brings rain to a parched landscape. O'odham men are instructed to drink the wine "as the earth drinks rain," a process said to bring on raindrops assuring the tribe of another harvest.
So here we are in Saguaro National Park West, early on the morning of July 4, as coyotes begin to bed down after a night of hunting that ends as dawn quietly breaks—and another 105 degree day threatens.
Armed with what natives call a kuibit, a pole fashioned from two saguaro ribs joined together with bailing wire and a creosote cross branch at the tip, we look for ripe fruit to knock into retrieval buckets. While saguaros have been known to grow as tall as a five-story building, many are in the 20 to 30-foot range.
"You can make pickers as tall as you want," Tucker said, "But the longer they are, the harder they are to handle—especially when the wind blows."
Instead of taller poles, start looking for shorter cacti.
Ideally, one harvester knocks the fruit free while the other tries to position a catch bucket underneath so the fast-falling redness drops into the bucket instead of splattering on the ground where birds, javelinas, coyotes and other desert critters will find a bit of sweetness to add to their diet.
Done in authentic fashion, the hard stems of the pod are used to slide open the skin of the blood-red fruit, although a sharp knife also works.
The yield from the field is brought to a central location with a large cooking kettle. Everything gets cleaned and picked over back at camp where, as the sun hits its zenith, harvesters mix their fruit bounty with water and place it over a fire to cook. As the seeds, grass, stones and other unwanted items are skimmed off, the liquid and fiber are separated. The pectin-packed fiber is dried into a tasty fig-like byproduct used to make meal cakes while the syrup is boiled a second time and strained into a thick syrup mixed with fiber strands to make jam juice.
This is a process that takes real work. Not discounting the sweat equity involved to gather the fruit, on average, two five-gallon buckets of fruit mixed with one bucket of water will produce only a quart of syrup.
For the first-time or one-time adventurer wanting to try their hand, first, make sure you are not on private property or in a restricted area. For many, retrieving several handfuls of fruit to be eaten immediately will probably complete the experience. A word of advice for prospective pickers—each saguaro pod yields a mere tablespoon of fruit, so don't plan on feeding the neighborhood after one short outing.
For the hardcore, make a T or L-shaped picking pole, light enough to handle and tall enough to do the job. Bring a bucket as well as a hat, long-sleeved shirt, sunscreen and plenty of water. Watch out for things that bite and scratch. And while you're looking up for saguaro fruit, don't forget there are a lot of slithering and crawling critters that live in these same harvest areas. When you open a saguaro pod and taste its rich contents, be sure to offer thanks to the cactus for sharing its nutrient-rich fruit. ■