Monday, September 10, 2012

Mesquite Sap and other good things....

I read a post recently about never eating mesquite sap because it’s “like glue.”  Well, yes that’s correct; it’s very much like glue.  But there have probably been a couple million kids, and adults as well, who have chewed mesquite sap (The Indian word is Chauite, Chow-wee-teh) over the past few thousand years.  Parents warned their children about eating mesquite sap because it might, “plug them up.”  But little good that probably did.

I never cared for the taste of mesquite sap but I have relatives and friends who loved it.  Connoisseurs, like my sister, used to say the tiny droplets formed after mesquite girdlers ply their trade taste better than the corpulent balls formed after a weighted branch cracks the bark.  But I found neither particularly palatable.

Like most tree sap, Chauite, looks jewel-like.  The color ranges from light to dark amber and it hangs from a branch like a growing stalactite.  And just like a stalactite it drips slowly to the ground creating a dark puddle of gummy goo that quickly mixes with the soil.

In my part of the world the mesquite is Prosopis glandulosa and is a member, like all mesquites, of the legume family.  The family name, Leguminosae has grown unpopular and now the name Fabaceae has found favor among those who argue such points.  Leguminosae derives from the word, legume.  Fabaceae derives from the Latin word faba for bean.

There is perhaps more misleading information about mesquite in Texas than any other plant.  Like political partisans, people either hate it or love it.  I talked to a “range scientist” once who loathed mesquite.  But his point of view seemed less scientific than economic.  He wanted grass to feed cattle.  His world revolved around that one thought and he seemed unable to consider mesquite eclectically.  Another fellow I met swore that mesquite was “not from Texas!”  No sir, he said.  It’s a “foreign invader.”  I guess this sort of thinking is pervasive in some places.  But here are the facts: Mesquite is a native of all parts of Texas.  It’s been here since before the first colonizers wandered into the area over ten thousand years ago, end of story.  The name mesquite, by the way, is believed derived from the Aztecs and was Castilianized into the word we know now.  But there are other hypotheses as to its derivation.  Let it suffice to say that, like many other words in North America, its roots are Native and ancient.

Whole cultures, particularly in deep South Texas, revolved around the consumption of mesquite beans and prickly pear pads.  In ethnobotanical terms, the mesquite was for many Indian people in South Texas what the buffalo was to Indians living on the plains.  The beans were used to make bread and a sort of porridge.  They were pounded by using wooden pestles in either dirt holes or more frequently in concavities carved into fallen mesquite trunks.  An alcoholic drink atole was made from mixing mesquite beans and water.  I’ve slept in dozens of mesquite-made shelters called a jacal, (ha-kahl).  Mesquite branches or saplings form the jacal’s frame both for the walls and roof and then mud mixed with grass is packed nearly a foot thick to form the walls.  The roof is usually woven grass or carrizo.  These structures, by the way, are very energy efficient and from an engineering perspective are better suited to the heat of South Texas and northern Mexico than your conventional brick veneer dwelling.  They are nearly infinitely cheaper to build too.

Indians used mesquite charcoal and water as toothpaste.  The leaves, mashed into something reminiscent of papier-mâché, were used to treat headaches as it was pressed along the forehead.  And yes, guess what: Mesquite sap was used to treat diarrhea.  I guess it does plug you up afterall.

An acquaintance called me up a few days ago and asked what local Indians used to haft arrow points to shafts.  There are documented reports of the local Indians using mesquite sap.  They used the sap not only to secure the arrow points but to attach feathers as well.  There are reports that mesquite sap was used as a water-proofing material to line the inside of clay pots.  But I question that report and consider it inaccurate.  Mesquite sap dissolves quickly in water and thus it’s unlikely it was used in that regard.

My grandmother, Rafaela Guerra de Valverde would take mesquite sap and drop it in a jar full of water.  It would quickly dissolve and then the kids would take that to school and use it as glue.

One more thing: Mesquite honey is nectar of the gods.  It is light, nearly clear, in color.  It’s like no honey you’ve ever tasted.  You will only find one other plant that approaches mesquite in the  production of heavenly honey and that is the huisache, Acacia farnesiana, equally hated by the “lets knock everything down and plant grass to raise cows” crowd.