It may not be resurrecting dinosaurs from ancient DNA locked in amber, but what the Yavapai-Apache Nation is doing with mesquite — specifically, those rattling, string bean-like pods that litter the ground under mesquite trees throughout late summer and early fall — is an impressive effort to bring a relic of the past into the present.
“The Yavapai-Apache people likely stopped using mesquite as a diet staple with reservations,” said Judie Piner, administrator of Preservation and Technology at Yavapai-Apache Nation. “Once deprived of their traditional gathering grounds, they were reduced to rations — the makings of fry bread, by the way.
“The elders today recall chewing the pods off trees when they were kids walking home from school.”
Three years ago, what was a quickly fading memory became a possibility for tomorrow. The nation received a grant for the purchase of a mesquite mill — a device that would allow, in Piner’s words, a reintroduction of “mesquite into the Yavapai-Apache diet, as it’s such a healthy food.”
The mill — which is, to be precise, a hammermill, which crushes material by the repeated blows of little hammers — produces flour that can be used to bake most unleavened breads, as well as muffins, nut breads, pancakes and waffles. The pods can also be diffused for tea, incorporated into ice cream and made into trail mix.
“It adds a sweet nutty flavor to foods, almost like caramel,” Piner explained.
There is more to mesquite, however, than its culinary variety and delicious flavor profile. It may be of assistance in combatting an illness that reached near-epidemic levels among American Indian peoples.
“Diabetes is a problem with all people these days, and particularly almost all native people,” Piner said. “It’s huge. And fry bread doesn’t help. Mesquite, besides having lots of protein and minerals, metabolizes slower in the system, which is a huge benefit for diabetes.
“It’s also naturally sweet and you can reduce or eliminate sugar in cooking.”
According to Piner, there are many efforts underway to incorporate traditional foods back into American Indian diets, and the Yavapai-Apache are no different. The difficulties sometimes nearly outweigh the benefits.
“We distribute the mesquite for free and we have cooking classes, but it’s difficult. People couldn’t live on foods they gather today — it’s too much work. They’re also working regular jobs. Also, the gathering places are mostly gone, under asphalt, on private property, even destroyed by wildfires.
“There is a project, with a coalition of other Apache tribes, to study native foods and document the recipes. They’ve also hired a nutritionist who has documented the values of each food, and they study ways to bring them back. There’s also a wonderful movement nationwide in which native chefs, trained professionally, are creating new dishes and serving up gourmet food made with healthy traditional foods.”
Among the traditional food items the Yavapai-Apache Nation Preservation and Technology department currently gathers, the most common are mesquite pods, sumac berries, agave, saguaro, piñon nuts and acorn.
The Yavapai-Apache Nation Cultural Resource Center is holding it’s fourth annual Mesquite Milling and Traditional Foods Expo.
- When: Friday, Dec. 4, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
- Where: The Yavapai-Apache Nation Cultural Resource Center, 290 Middle Verde Road, Camp Verde
The public is invited to bring mesquite pods and have them milled. Whole pods should be thoroughly cleaned of rocks, twigs and debris. Bring a closed container for milled flour. Five gallons of whole pods produce one pound of flour. The cost is $5 per each five-gallon bucket of whole pods.
If there is a hint of rain or humidity, the event will be postponed until the following week — Friday, Dec. 11, or even Friday, Dec. 18. Milling in damp weather will permanently damage the mill and the mesquite will harden.
Food available will include pancakes, brownie muffins, mesquite tea, corn cakes, red berry juice and more.