Taming the Cholla: One Woman’s Battle to Confront the Cactus that Haunts Her

The Tohono O’odham people have the desert food game down.

I love the desert. I first fell in love with the Chihuahuan Desert in New Mexico, and later the Sonoran Desert worked it’s magic on me. I know that people love the cool mountains or the beach, and I do too, but sometimes a view in the desert can make my heart sing like no other landscape.

 

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View of part of the Tohono O’odham Nation     Photo: Brett Hill

I felt that way from the first time I visited. I couldn’t wait to get back to that sky, that earth, and those gorgeous rocks.

I admit, though, that the plants intimidated me. Let’s take the cholla cactus, shall we? The cholla grows throughout both the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts, and has at least 30 different species. Its flowers are often a brilliant fuchsia, sometimes a yellow, and it is often a bit spindly-looking. It has been known to hide, blending in when not blooming. And that sucker is mean.

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Don’t let those pretty flowers fool you.

It’s mean, I tell you! One summer when I was working on an archaeological survey project, I ever so gently brushed one with my hand. I was quickly alerted to my terrible error by the pain in my knuckle. I looked down, expecting to see a spine but it was the whole segment of the cactus. A chunk of cactus leapt out at me and grabbed my hand. Heaven forbid you try to use your other hand to get it off you. No! Gravity is not enough either because the spines are barbed. They want to stay in you. I did eventually get it off, but a tiny piece stayed under the skin in my knuckle for years. Years. I learned my lesson and gave that variety of cactus a wide berth.

Living in the southwestern U.S., one quickly becomes aware that people eat some kinds of cactus. For example, prickly pear jelly is pretty widely available, and if you haven’t tried nopales on your tacos yet, you’d better get on that. Made from the pads of the prickly pear, but without the skin or spines, nopales can be pickled or just grilled. So delicious!

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We brought this beauty all the way from Arizona to plant in the yard.

But the Tohono O’odham people have the desert food game down. The Tohono O’odham Nation actually crosses the U.S.-Mexico border. Obviously, their ancestors were living on that land long before that border existed.

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I promise you a cholla is in this picture.     Photo: Brett Hill

People in this region speak English, Spanish, and O’odham proudly. And, yes, you did just hear about a Border Patrol agent hitting a member of this community with his car.

I have been delighted to get to know this tribe and their food traditions better, thanks to my husband’s collaborations there for the last several years. They make use of agave (yay!), mesquite beans, saguaro, and, yes, even cholla buds.

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Look at all that food!     Photo: Brett Hill

One thing that is important to know about the Tohono O’odham use of these desert plants is that they respect traditional preparations but are happy to embrace new recipes. The recipe I will share today comes from a wonderful book, From I’itoi‘s Garden. You should definitely get this book!

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Those are Tohono O’odham baskets.

You can also order the cholla buds, called ciolim in O’odham, if you don’t happen to live in Arizona. I like Native Seeds/SEARCH as a source. Many people compare the taste of the buds to asparagus, and I would add that dried ones have a lovely smoky flavor as well.

Cholla Bud Antipasto Salad

Start with one cup of dried cholla buds.

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Now they look cute.

To prepare them, cover them with twice as much water and bring to a boil. Reduce the water until the buds are poking out. Then cover the pot, reduce heat, and simmer until they are tender, maybe an hour or so.

Drain them and set aside. Saute 1/2 cup of red onion in about a tablespoon of olive oil until soft. Add the buds and 1 tsp. oregano and continue to cook about 3-5 more minutes.

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Smelling so good.

Remove from  heat and let cool slightly. Chop 1/4 cup roasted red peppers and 1/4 cup kalamata olives. Add to a serving bowl with one clove of finely chopped garlic. Add the cholla bud-onion mix to the bowl, letting the heat work on that raw garlic. Toss with 3 tablespoons olive oil and 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar. Add freshly ground pepper to taste. You could add salt, but I didn’t.

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I let this delicious mixture marinate, covered, at room temperature.  You could refrigerate, but the buds will absorb the flavors better on the counter.

One tiny warning: you may find spines. I usually see them while sauteing. Be alert!

 

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Your 10-year-old will not want these.

Serve next to your favorite cactus! Actually, I serve this on toasted French bread like bruschetta, allowing the bread to soak up the marinade. We also like to spread a little goat cheese on the bread and put the salad on top sometimes. I think it could be great with a crumble of feta cheese as well. You decide!

 

 

Author: entertaininganthro

I have a Ph.D. in Anthropology and I'm happiest when learning about a new place and the people who live there.

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