I need to be clear: I’m not talking about free alcohol. I know. Sorry. You can always try fermenting this drink (and other wild foods) if you’re into home brewing, but I don’t yet have that expertise. I’m talking about free replacements for those sugar-packed, store-bought drinks, like sodas, iced teas, juices, or whatever you like to stock up on. I’m talking about drinks made from free, wild-harvested ingredients—specifically, in this post, prickly pear juice. (Notes on making mesquite atole are forthcoming, closer to the start of bean-picking season.) Prickly pear cactus grows in abundance in my Tucson neighborhood and throughout the Sonoran Desert. I also have it in my yard, producing now for the first time since I planted it five years ago—having selected for big, wine-dark fruits. It took two or three years to get in the habit of harvesting and processing enough fruits (and beans) to provide the flavorful drinks I like to indulge in, especially during the hot season but really, all year. New habits often take time and perseverance to succeed. These days, I almost never buy sweetened drinks at the store. I’ve all but forgotten about them. Crossed them off my budget.
I’ve already confessed to a morning coffee habit. I drink one cup but dilute it so I have two or three cups in order to savor it longer, and because I can’t handle any more caffeine than that. Sometimes I add vanilla. I’m very spoiled, in that my partner Terry buys the coffee and makes it every morning. I’m aware that coffee is grown elsewhere and shipped a good distance, and that crops are affected by climate changes. I know there are issues surrounding the way workers are treated. (We take it on faith that coffee marked “Fair Trade” actually is. In truth, it’s best to investigate.) So I see it as a privilege to have coffee in my life—one that could disappear someday, possibly soon. Until then—mmm, yes to the taste and the mood boost.
Water, I understand, is the healthiest way to keep hydrated—but boring, right? At least that’s what I used to think. Something changed, mysteriously, sometime during the last few years. Is it because I don’t drink tap water anymore? It’s not that I don’t appreciate it; you can’t get drinkable, safe water from faucets everywhere in the world. It’s just that I’m a super-taster (see my Pick of the Week), and can taste the chlorine when the level is strong—especially in tea, for some reason—so I my get drinking water from a vending machine I’ve chosen to trust. Of course, I bring my own containers. My bike trailer can accommodate two 5-gallon glass bottles, though it’s a bit tricky. Luckily, the water dispensing machine just half a block away. (I think about carrying a container on top of my head, like a practiced African woman, but I don’t think even they could carry a 5-gallon container. I’d be looking at two trips for each bottle, at least.)
In any case, I’m in love with cold water nowadays. Preferably with ice. I’m still a picky American that way.
Why do I get such keen pleasure nowadays from these simple things—coffee and cold water? You tell me. (I mean, really tell me. Write a comment, if you know what I’m talking about.) I’ve noticed this kind of increased gourmet satisfaction as I’ve gotten older. Maybe that’s it: as time gets shorter, the moment gets more precious. Or maybe it’s that I read and listen to the news more. I find out about other places where life is a lot harder. Or maybe it’s the path I’ve chosen: the path of trying to live with less, instead of trying to have more and more. Of whatever—clothes, house, fame, infamy, money.
More and more. I think a lot about something that I’m guessing could be a common principle of happiness. It involves the Joneses, that mythical family who always seems ahead of the game: they’re cool, perfectly dressed, friends with the stars, about to add on to their house, with a lawn you’d call a “show-stopper . . . jaw dropper” (Sparks, “Lawnmower,” 2021). There’s a car for each family member—Junior, age 14, already has his picked out. The beautiful people we see in ads are usually the Joneses, and we’re supposed to keep up with them. But it feels like running on a treadmill. Our clothes and bodies embarrass us and the walls close in on us—the house suddenly feels so small.
But if we look the other direction, things look different. Let’s say we start seeing the homeless, or start visualizing the stripped-down lives of refugees fleeing wars or genocide or climazasters. Or watching the long lines move slowly into the food bank and the unemployment office. There are always shabby houses to pass by, and clattering cars traveling the streets which later park somewhere in an out-of-the way place to become bedrooms. When we look in this direction, it’s impossible not to feel rich. Fortunate and grateful for small things. Needs become simpler. Maybe simple gourmet experiences are intensified, and water tastes really good.
I wanted to need less starting many years ago, I guess. I started picking berries and fishing at a young age in Minnesota. Wild foods were free. I’d need less money to live. When I moved to Tucson, one of the first things I did was look for books on local edible plants. One of the books I purchased was Carolyn Niethammer’s American Indian Food and Lore. It introduced me to mesquite beans, prickly pears, saguaro fruit, and other desert foods.
Prickly pear fruit is one of the easiest to harvest so that part’s pretty much always the same: you use tongs, watching out for spines on both the cactus and the fruit. Here, they ripen August through September, with the intensely dark red ones being the ripest. I pluck those. I put them in boxes for maximum protection.
Processing these fruits (also called tunas) is the harder part. Everyone has their own way to do it. My methods have evolved over the years. Currently, I start by putting the fruit in the freezer for at least 24 hours, but more importantly until I have a block of time for juicing them. Freezing preserves the fruit, but also breaks down their cellular structure, making ‘em mushy. As the fruits thaw, they drip juice. So before the white frost has melted off the red skins, they should be sitting in a strainer above the bowl you want to collect the juice in.
You’re done if you want to be! Wasn’t much effort, was it? Drink up!
But it might feel wasteful if you stop here, because there’s still quite a bit of juice in the fruits. I usually mash up the mass of pulp to get that out. Sometimes the skins are strong; they need to be punctured or sliced with a knife so they give up the juice that’s held by the seedy center. I could just harvest more fruit and skip this wringing-out process, as there’s an overabundance of fruit along a bike path near my house, and I always return the bulky remains to the animals, or to the soil via my compost bins. So nothing’s actually wasted either way.
You’ll probably end up with more juice than you can drink right away. Because it spoils in just a couple days—and I mean in the refrigerator—you’ll probably want to freeze it. (This is one of those times when re-freezing is just fine.) Just pour it into jars, leaving some air at the top and the lids loose, to allow for expansion (as you would with any liquid).
I always get little spines in my hands juicing the tunas. But they go away or soften up after a few hours. Sometimes I can vigorously scratch them off. I consider it part of the process—though my neighbor claims she doesn’t have this problem. (Is it just me?)
If you haven’t already . . . taste your free drink now. Notice its delightfully garish fuchsia color. Prickly pear has a distinctive, mildly sweet flavor that probably needs enhancing for the typical American palate. Its best complement is lemon juice, or really just about any citrus. That’s all I use, usually. You can add any amount of sweetener you want—here, you control your sugar!—or just add ice. It numbs the taste buds, subduing the exotic newness just a bit, in case you need time to develop your taste for it. Or start with a regular lemonade base, which has both the sugar and lemon, and mix in any amount of prickly pear juice.
You’ll love it. Serve it to your favorite COVID-free guests, and pass along your unique processing methods, with your favorite recipes—instead of buying sugar-loaded beverages, with their everlasting packaging and gift of profit for some wicked corporation.
Our wild places may never nutritionally support the huge populations of our modern cities as they did the original tribal peoples. Perhaps viruses and climazasters will eventually reduce human numbers to earlier levels, and no one will be worrying about that.
No matter what that future is like, the natural world will be vastly changed. In the meantime, I just like to enjoy a bit of independence from our sickly food system—sticking it to the man. I love being outdoors, walking or biking, visiting stands of cactus with my tongs, picking out the ruby-black fruit, twisting it free, and later watching it drip into my bowl. I get to quench my thirst as though the universe had my needs in mind.
Maybe you’ll have a similar experience.