The Slowest Food: Saguaro Syrup
By Ann Gates Weaver
of Tucson, Arizona
Sure sure, there's that saying "slow as molasses," but what about "slow as saguaro." I'm sure a phrase like that exists in the Papago language, but it simply never caught on. But saguaro syrup is certainly SLOWER than molasses
I mean the syrup itself doesn't have that kind of thick gooey viscosity, but since the cactus doesn't even produce fruit until it is about forty years old and then harvesting it takes forever, it is the slowest food I know. For the Papago, saguaro fruit and syrup was an important source of calories at a time when the desert wouldn't produce much else until lat August. Hower, after all of the hours I spent harvesting in the hot sun not to mention scooping and boiling and straining, to end up with only two pints of syrup- well this syrup is VERY labor intensive so I can see why it's going extinct. It tastes very sweet, but has a very subtle medicinal aftertaste reminiscent of cough syrup which makes it less tasty than other fruit syrups, but we still like it on pancakes!
Saguaro blooms in the spring like most of the other cactus of the sonoran desert, but the fruit doesn't begin to ripen until June. As a fruit gets completely ripe, the outer skin splits open like the petals of a flower to let the pulp and seeds drop to the ground. Seeing this, the first conquistadors wrote that saguaros had red flowers that bloomed in June. This saguaro is just beginning to ripen.
The Tohono O'Odam people would gather the fruits with a tool made from a saguaro rib with a short piece of greasewood tied at an angle to it. This tool was used to push or pull the ripe fruit from the cactus, although they would also gather dried pulp from the ground when possible.
After trying the traditional tool, I decided that my telescopic pool pole with a metal bolt coming out of the side where the net is usually attached was a much better way to harvest the fruit, although I didn't need to telescope it to harvest from the saguaro in my backyard. Even with my new and improved tool, it takes hours and hours just to fill a 5 gallon bucket halfway, and unfortunately this is at the hottest time of the year here- right before the monsoons come to cool things down a bit. Therefore you can only harvest for a few hours early in the morning.
These fruits have started to split open.
The pulp has to be removed from the shell which luckily doesn't have spines. The shell or husk is discarded. This process is quick, but at the end you realize how much of your fruit was actually husk as two and a half gallons turns into about one and a quarter.
The pulp is boiled until it turns slightly orange. Then the fibrous pulp and seeds are separated from the juice by straining it with cheesecloth. There are thousands of seeds in each fruit, all connected by pulp. Therefore, the amount of product you have left at this point is once again diminished quite a bit. The juice is then returned to the pot where it boils until it starts to thicken up and stick to the spoon, although it doesn't ever get thick like maple syrup.
At the end of all the harvesting, scooping, straining, and boiling, I have only two pints of syrup. It tastes very sweet with a very subtle medicinal aftertaste reminiscent of cough syrup. The Papago used this syrup to sweeten everything through the summer while food variety was slim, but we like it on pancakes!