The Mesquite: Super-Food Treasured by The Ancients. It is Delicious & Easy to Prepare. Here's How...
By Dave Rodgers
If you are Diabetic and looking for a Sugar Substitute, or a Health Enthusiast who likes ancient grains, you might want to read this. Mesquite is perhaps one of the greatest species of flora that any survivalist or indigenous health food connoisseur should have on their property. (Recipe Included)
Dave Rodgers is Chief Editor of the Frontier American Illustrated News. He is a tribal member and westerner descended directly from Squire and Edward Boone (father & brother of Daniel Boone). With an old-west family lineage of farmers, ranchers, lawmen and desperadoes, he takes pride in the rich story of the land his family came from. As a resident of rural Arizona, he continues the traditions of the American West and promotes the western culture as it continues on today.
I enjoy being an outdoorsman and I strongly support the conservation of our natural world; and even though I would not call myself a “tree-hugger”, for the Mesquite tree, I’ll make an exception.
The mesquite beans and their seed pods are loaded with calcium, iron, lysine, magnesium, potassium, and zinc. They are low on carbs and low in the glycemic index. They are high in fiber, with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties. This means it contributes to cardio-vascular health in addition to working against the effects of diabetes and aging. The perfect panacea may not exist but mesquite really stands out for doing a lot.
Here in the southwest, it is one of the most common trees we have. It is often a shrub standing from 3 to 8 feet (about 1 to 2.5m.) tall, but in deep soil with a constant water source such as a stream bed or flood plain, Mesquite can become a full-sized tree standing over 40 feet (12m.) high. With compound leaves spreading their green leaflets out like a fan, it is one of the most scenic trees of the American Southwest. It isn’t the most majestic of trees and it isn’t necessarily the prettiest, but it is one of the most useful and a grove or 'bosque' of them is a welcome feature to any rancho. Actually, every primitive outdoorsman, survival enthusiast or connoisseur of ancient natural foods should envy their neighbor for having such a treasure growing in their yard.
The mesquite flower - While it may not be as flavorful as the the seed-pod flour, the mesquite flower or catkin is edible and nutritious as well but most people I know who eat mesquite, make tea out of it.
According to them, I've been missing out.
Mesquite-mistletoe - My favorite desert food plant does have a nemesis. There is a species of mistletoe that can infest mesquite. While you may choose to hang it up for a Southwestern Christmas and spend the evening explaining what it is to your friends, be sure to not eat any part of it. While there is so much that is edible about mesquite, the opposite can be said about the mistletoe. Every bit of it is poisonous to humans. If it infests your tree, remove the branch that it is affixed to.
How to Gather Mesquite
The Pods Start to Form in March - The seeds have usually reached maturity and are ready to pick in June and can continue to be harvested through August. However, once the monsoons begin, it is a good idea to bake these seeds at a very low oven temperature, (about 175° F or 80° C.) to kill molds and pathogens that might have an affect on your digestive tract. It is best to pick the beans that are in a state of drying and ready to fall from the tree. Ripe pods should come right off the branch into your grasp.
Watch Out For Wasps and Bees When You Pick - Every flying insect in the desert that likes the sweet-stuff comes to the Mesquite. The seed pods ripen and the flowers bloom at the same time so watch out for bees and wasps who like clinging to the back-side of the pods.
They are superb with camouflage, so grabbing a handful of wasp is easy and the results will be memorable. Some people wear gloves when picking mesquite. I recommend waving the bugs away from a portion of the branch that you want to pick from and then giving that branch a good but soft flick with the back of my hand to get any remaining bees and wasps to take off. They don't seem to catch on that I'm the one hitting their branch and have never reaped any nasty payback.
Use a Basket or Forage Sack to Gather - It is best to gather at least 2 pounds of beans at a time. I find a 5 or 10 pound flour sack to be the best tool for the job. It does not matter if you break the pods at this point. I prefer to gather the seeds when they take on a honey tone or with the well-watered trees, there are often red speckles in the pods as seen in the picture.
Leave the Seed Pods that have Fallen to the Ground - These make more suitable forage for animals. Although period accounts only speak of how beneficial mesquite is to fattening up livestock, I have also heard a few ranchers warn about allowing livestock to graze too much on it because of adverse effects it may have upon the animal's gastrointestinal tract. These problems include bloating up and intestinal blockages that may lead to potentially lethal cholic. That said, the wild horses readily feed upon it and remnants of seed pods in their droppings are normally a trademark sign that it came from a mustang rather than someone's ranch horse. Horses have a very sensitive feed conversion, and there are many other plants along the deserts and prairies that I have a greater fear about them getting a hold of. Wild horses continue to range over our deserts and plains as they have for centuries now and from the looks of it, the addition of mesquite into their diet has had more benefits than problems. The same can be said about free-grazing cattle roaming through the desert. Still, I'd keep an eye on it for your ranch feed and talk to a good horse-vet whom you trust.
How to Prepare Mesquite Flour
Once washed, mesquite bean pods may be eaten straight of the bush. If they are ripened, they will be considerably sweet. The seeds are too hard to chew so when snacking on the pod, you'll likely spit seeds like you do with watermelon. Just chew soft and steady to save your grinders from any injury. Although this is a good snack, it is not efficient to feed a homestead. For that, you'll want to make a good flour. All you have to remember is to rinse & heat-dry it, grind it, and sift it. The flour goes into a bowl and the chaff is roasted for coffee. Here is how to do it.
Bake it at a Low Temperature:
The Traditional Way - Bean-pods can be set in an upright pan or aligned on an upright board or stone and be reflector-baked before a slow fire. It should not be hot enough to brown the pods, just to heat them to the point of drying out. More primitive means would be to hang on a line over a slow fire in the same means as jerked meat or it can even be placed in a bowl or tin to be baked in a traditional bank oven or camp oven.
The Modern Way - I recommend either putting your oven at its lowest setting (around 175° F or 80° C. - yes, I know I'm repeating this.) and leaving the beans in there on a cooking sheet for several hours. *Note: be careful if you use a soldered pan for this since solder may melt at around 190° F. Another way is if you live in a hot desert, you can fill up a milking pail with these seed pods and put them, in a clean - lidded metal trashcan just like you get from the feed store, and leave that out in the sun to bake for a couple of days. Animals won't be able to get into it and the average summertime inside the clean-metal can will be over 140° F. *Note: Please don't use a dirty metal can that was used previously for trash, that's just disgusting.
The Traditional Way - I have done this before and it takes a lot of work. Either you can pound it on a mortar and pestle (stone bowl with a hammer-stone as shown above). Or you can use a Metate, which is much more efficient. A metate is a flat stone grinding surface with an elongated hand-stone operated in a 'push-out & draw-back' grinding motion. This is more efficient for grinding meal, beans and coffee. An example of a metate is shown below.
The Modern Way - Nowadays, get a blender such as a NutraBullet and use the bean blade. Drop in the seed pods whole. No need to pack them in; I do 1-2 handfuls at a time. It takes about- 40 to 60 seconds worth of blending and the deed is done.
Sifting Ground Mesquite:
The Traditional Way & Modern Way are one in the same. Use a sieve or wire strainer over a bowl. this will separate the chaff while allowing the flour to fall down into the bowl or even a frypan in a matter of seconds. The early native ancestors likely used a strainer made of woven bark or vegetable cordage to form a mesh which would have accomplished the same effect.
Once the flour is gathered, the chaff will remain trapped in the strainer. Simply pour it out into an empty fry pan. In this case, I used a 19th century-style omelet pan. This dry chaff is then put upon an ungreased sheet steel pan of your choosing and placed over the coals. Stir regularly with a wooden spoon.
Roasting the Chaff to Make Mesquite Coffee
Brown the chaff until it reaches the same color as fresh-roasted coffee beans. This takes a few minutes of continuously stirring over the flame or coals. It is preferable to use a wooden spoon or spatula.
Once browned as shown, this can be brewed directly into the coffee pot, or you can set your coffee grinder to make a fine grain and run the browned chaff through to make it a bit finer.
Roasted mesquite chaff has a distinct, nutty flavor that reminds me of chicory. It can be combined with coffee grounds to either stretch your coffee supply or enhance its flavor. The jury is out on caffeine quantity but it is a great way to give yourself a hot drink when your supplies are exhausted.
Mesquite-flour: The end result is a sweet, hearty meal that can be made into breads, flapjacks, biscuits, soups, or porridge. The image to the right is a half-cup's worth of mesquite flour I made from a heaping fistful of bean-pods.
I carry a dry sack of it mixed with cornmeal and cinnamon. Just as our ancestors did, you can either eat the stuff from the bag, one grainy pinch at a time or you can mix it with water and make an energy drink. This is a very common food source for hunters and travelers for centuries. I encourage you to read up on the various nutritional reports to decide if mesquite flour is for you and to add it to your morning protein shake.
To Make "Pinole" or "Cold-Flour"
This goes by many names (‘pinole’ by Spanish speakers, "cold-flour" by Gringos, or "Tso-Ci" by my mother’s tribe) and by many variations. A very common version uses mesquite bean flour and fine corn meal. Here in the Southwest, sagamite (as the voyageur calls it) is often made with equal parts - corn flour & mesquite flour with cinnamon, to taste. This could be carried by the hunter or borderer in a pouch either in the pocket, bullet pouch, or possibles pack. A pinch here and there will relieve the pangs of hunger or it can be mixed with water and made into a nourishing energy drink. In other cases, the solution can be boiled to make a hearty porridge.
Original Recipe and Commentary on "Cold-Flour"
by Randolph Marcy, Capt. U.S. Army (1859)
"The most portable and simple preparation of subsistence that I know of, and which is used extensively by the Mexicans and Indians, is called ''cold flour.'' It is made by parching corn, and pounding it in a mortar to the consistency of coarse meal ; a
little sugar and cinnamon added makes it quite palatable. When the traveler becomes hungry or thirsty, a little of the flour is mixed with water and drunk. It is an excellent article for a traveler who desires to go the greatest length of time upon the
smallest amount of transportation. It is said that half a bushel is sufficient to subsist a man thirty days."
*Although Marcy does not speak of using mesquite flour for the sweetener, it is what I have seen tribal members do to sweeten their meal. Remember that Europeans introduced sugar to the continent so before that, the southwest had mesquite. Here is what Marcy mentions about consuming mesquite specifically.
"On the west bank another waiting coach was soon rolling us forward among mesquite groves. The long narrow leaves of this shrub are indeed ' tree-hair.' The slender hanging pods contain beans which both raw and cooked are palatable and nutritious to man. Horses also thrive and fatten upon them. Indians convert them, pods and all, into bread. Mexicans extract sugar and beer from them. Short fine mesquite grass also abounds. Like the buffalo grass it is eagerly devoured by stock, and does not lose its nutriment in winter.
After dark, finding the Colorado* impassable, we slept in the coach waiting for its waters to subside. The vehicle's roof was like a sieve, and cold pitiless rain deluged us all night. September 30.—Awoke cold and rheumatic ; but holding with Sancho Panza that a fat sorrow is better than a lean, breakfasted heartily upon pork and mesquite beans ; and dried our clothes before the fire of the adobe hut-station."
-The Prairie Traveler (1859) Capt. Randolph Marcy
Another 19th Century Source Commenting on Mesquite
In his Narrative on the TEXAN SANTA FE EXPEDITION, in 1844, GEORGE WILKINS KENDALL commented both on the mesquite-grass and the bean-pod shrub, both of which are a good food source for free-graze cattle. According to his observations:
" * Whether this is a Mexican or Indian name for a particular kind of grass, found in great abundance on the great prairies of the West, I am unable to say. Cattle and horses are extremely fond of it, and it is very nourishing. There is a small, brambly bush of the same name, and also a tree about the size of a cherry or peach tree. The latter bears a pod containing beans, which are greedily devoured by horses and cattle, and are said to fatten them as well as grain. The Camanches make a species of meal from the beans, very palatable and nutritious, and the Mexicans also use them in making beer as well as sugar. When our provisions and coffee fell short, the men ate them raw in immense quantities, and also either roasted or boiled them. The wood makes the best of charcoal, throws out a great heat, and lasts a long time. The tree, as well as the small bush, has a long, sharp thorn. I have spelled the word mesquit, believing that to be the Spanish mode it is pronounced meskeet. West of San Antonio there are immense groves of mesquit-trees, and the grass is also found there in several varieties."
-GEO. WILKINS KENDALL, 1844
Every part of the mesquite tree is a gift to mankind. Here are a few uses that make this plant a valuable friend.
Building material - It’s trunk isn’t as ideally tall and straight as a Douglas Fir so Mesquite is not a good fit for framing and general construction, but it's wood is makes an exceptional hardwood that is very stable. This makes it very favorable for furniture and high-quality woodwork. The smaller pieces can be shaped into useful cooking implements and other home goods such as spoons, spatulas, trenchers, cups, bowls, and plates.
Fire - heating & cooking fuel - The scrap wood and branches are among the best heating and cooking woods that nature provides. This wood is superior for cooking food either with an open flame or on a coal bed. Unlike resinous pine woods which will ruin food with its acrid soot, mesquite greatly enhances the flavor of meats, vegetables, beans, tortillas, and even coffee. It burns uniformly with a great heat index, and it makes a superb coal bed for either cooking or heating.
Charcoal – The most common fuel for frontier stoves to cook meals an provide heat, is not wood or whale oil, it is charcoal. Charcoal is easy to make and is a far more efficient fuel for heating and cooking. It burns clean, and far is lighter than wood so it is easier to transport in bulk. Unlike wood, charcoal has no water content and is 100% combustible. It burns with greater heat output and almost no smoke. Not every wood makes a good charcoal but mesquite is exceptional. It was burned in the braziers of early Mexican haciendas, to the stoves of American homesteads well into the 20th century. *Important Note: mesquite wood smoke is very corrosive on cast iron stoves so it is preferable to convert the wood into charcoal before using it in such a manner.
Medicinal qualities – The leaves can be made into a tea that will treat headaches, sore throats and stomach discomfort. The roots have pain alleviating capabilities when chewed. The dark sap extracted from the bark can be boiled down into a water-soluble ‘tar’ that can be used to treat wounds, cuts, and abrasions. I have even heard it reputed to be an eyewash.
Food – The bean pods are delicious. When gathered and dried, they are ground into a flour that can be eaten by itself or it can be made into cakes or porridge that are both nourishing and tasty. Many tribal members carried a sack of mesquite flour mixed with fine corn meal. Later the Spanish would introduce cinnamon which would become a common feature of this mixture. If this powder is mixed with water, it becomes a refreshing and revitalizing drink. The clear sap can be eaten like candy to boost energy while along the trail. Even the flowers can be compacted into cakes and eaten or brewed into tea.
Livestock fodder – When the bean falls to the earth, it is more suitable for feeding livestock. Historic accounts speak of their nutritional value to horses and cattle but there is a caveat to overfeeding your animals on mesquite that I have mentioned earlier.
Other uses – The internet is full of recipes and advice for this magnificent plant from making pancakes to weaving the bark into baskets or using the thorns for awls. I have been so focused on eating the stuff over the years, I feel like I failed to give this plant its full due. The previous uses I have noted are documented to the 19th century "Old-West" era, although archaeological evidence shows that the ancient civilizations of this land enjoyed mesquite as a staple before passing it on to the modern tribes who in turn, taught the method to Spanish and English speaking people when they arrived in the West.
One Person's Trash is Another One's Treasure
The mesquite bean has fed civilizations for thousands of years. What once graced the banquets of grand chieftains, and the builders of great civilizations now lost to history, today yields to the gardener's rake and bag. Still, great bosques of wild mesquite cast their shadows over endless acres of desert. There is a possibility that this ancient superfood may grace our tables once again but for now, the Southwest's greatest culinary secret is rare knowledge for you to share.