The Summer Solstice ushered in not only the longest day of the year, but for inhabitants of the Sonoran Desert’s typically harsh environment, an abundance of food.
“Although the land may be dry for much of the year, it is still productive,” says Carolyn Neithammer in American Indian Cooking. “Scientists estimate that the Sonoran Desert alone provided indigenous peoples with 375 non-cultivated plants.”
Research botanist Wendy Hodgson names 500 edible plants used by people of more than 50 traditional cultures. “Although to all appearances, the land is bereft of useful plants, fully one-fifth of the desert’s flora are edible,” she writes in Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert.
Southern Arizona is considered historical record book of how to adapt to climate uncertainty. “With the oldest continuous record of farming in North America [reaching back 4,000+ years], the Tucson Basin has become an international learning lab for agricultural adaptation,” says ethnobotanist and native seed activist Gary Paul Nabhan, author of Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land.
Sure, summer temperatures frequently top 100 degrees, but many of the desert’s foodstuffs have long been used to hot and dry weather, and they still bloom and flower on schedule, much to the delight of a hungry populace. Armed with centuries of accumulated knowledge, Pima Indians used to look forward to this time of year with a prayer—The Great Father provided us the sun to give life to our earth, so our people may not go hungry.
Daily survival in the desert was not easy, but there were seasonal grocery store items like spring cholla cactus buds and fall prickly pear edibles that bookended the late June/early July Bahidaj saguaro cactus harvest, a desert rite called Ha:san Bak, that turns the fruits into jams, syrups, and a strong adult beverage called Teswin, consumed during the rain-bringing ceremony. The succulent ruby red fruits have a short shelf life however. “The fruit is afraid of the pending monsoon storms and will spoil if it gets wet,” says long-time Tohono O’odham gatherer Stella Tucker.
Natives use a long picking pole (a kuibit made of old saguaro ribs and creosote branches) to knock the crimson quarry into a bucket to be eaten immediately or boiled down later in camp. “This is a connection between my people and their relationship with earth,” says Tohono harvester Lois Liston. “When you open a succulent saguaro fruit and taste its rich contents, be sure to offer thanks to the cactus for sharing its bounty.”
The pre-rainy period is also used to plant crops such as Tohono O’odham 60-day corn or the life-saving tepary bean, both of which depend on seasonal downpours with water coming down the side of a hill and spreading out into a planted alluvial plain. Those who planted as well as foraged and hunted could take advantage of additional nutrition later from cowpeas, tomatillos, and pumpkins.
Take the tepary bean as a healthy example. “Ancestors could go all day on one serving,” writes foodie author Neithammer. “When combined half and half with corn, the resulting mixture gives a protein level just slightly less than eggs—the standard by which all proteins are measured.”
Beans represent one third of the infamous Three Sisters basic staples (along with squash and corn). Early inhabitants were fond of teosinte, a wild grass that grew throughout sub-tropical Mexico as the ancestor of modern corn with more edible kernels. Green corn roasted in ashes was popular and when the corn was dry, it was pounded into meal or hominy or sometimes parched as a portable food (Nokick) that could be eaten without stopping to cook it.
With the advent of the rains came quelites,the first flush of leafy vegetables, in the form of sun-loving amaranth or “Meat for the Poor People,” said to taste like both spinach and asparagus. Similar to other raw greens like purslane, amaranth is exceptionally rich in calcium, iron and vitamins.
The summer solstice is not only a time to reap the spring’s bounty but to sow seeds for the lean times ahead. To quote Isidro Saraficio, an old time Tohono O’odham farmer: “To me, the most beautiful thing is the coming of the first summer thunderstorms. I know it is time for things to grow again.”