The ideal prehistoric plant food provided three essentials. First, the food needed to be available even during periods of drought. Second, humans needed a plant that was multifaceted having various edible parts. Third, it should exist in abundance so that humans facing other stresses would not fear the loss of that particular staple crop. The indigenous peoples of the Southwest and other desert or semi-desert regions southward relied on a plant that provided all three requirements. In fact, the nopal or prickly pear cactus (Opuntia sp.) was such an ideal plant food that overtime aspects of prehistoric cultures steered their myths and rituals towards ensuring abundant harvests. After all, it was the prickly pear cactus that could sate the belly and mollify the mind. The ripened fruit or tunas were edible as were the young pads called nopalitos. And the juices from the nopal were fermented to produce a potent alcoholic drink. (Note: The term nopalito is the diminutive form of the word nopal.)
South Texas prehistoric groups and bands relied heavily on the nopal because even when tuna and nopalitos were unavailable the thicker pads, though not as succulent, could be mashed, cooked and eaten thus averting starvation.
Read some of the anthropological literature related to South Texas and you might think the Indians that lived in this region ceased to exist long ago. Nothing could be further from the truth. As equally fallacious is the suggestion that their cultures were completely eliminated by the Spanish. In fact, the descendants of those Indian groups live in South Texas today. Erroneously referred to as “Hispanics” or “Latinos” these Native Americans have preserved many aspects of their former cultures. Though their original names and languages have long been forgotten (This is perhaps the true story of lost roots.) the Native Americans of South Texas are still closely tied to many of their prehistoric food sources and they hold to myths and other beliefs ensconced in ideations developed thousands of years ago.
Like many other aspects of Native American culture and foods, nopalitos transcend the people who discovered them. Like corn, potatoes, tobacco and chile piquin (Capsicum annuum) the nopal is now enjoyed throughout the country.
Deep South Texas has several nopal farms growing prickly pear sold at local grocery stores. For many, however, the experience with nopalitos is a bit more traditional. The first European settlers in the region, for example, learned from the indigenous people in the same manner that the Pilgrims learned from those living around them. Thus harvesting nopalitos goes back generations.
In former times people carried small pocket knives with the primary function of harvesting the small prickly pear pads. These knives are generally known as “pen pattern slipjoint” or folders. They average about three inches in length and have two opposing blades.
Two well used nopalito knives from the J.R. Guerra collection. Note that the bottom knife is the prized Kabar brand.
Most ardent nopalito harvesters swear by these little knives. They are perhaps the perfect size for removing the tiny spines and ephemeral leaves of nopalitos. The knives small size make them easy to carry and thus always available.
Schrade Old Timer pen pattern knife I purchased in the early 1970s. Carbon steel blades on this knife and the two knives pictured above produced razor sharp edges.
Another knife suitable for nopalitos is the muskrat pattern slipjoint. I’ve used these knives as well but they are not as popular as the pen pattern.