In May and June of 2014, I took a group of college students on a study trip along the U.S.-Mexico border. They had all taken a course with me about cultures of the borderlands, and they were an amazing group of young women. Today, they are scattered around the country, but they keep in touch with me and with each other. As we read about the border in the news over the years, we all recall what we learned together.
This week, I got a present from one of them. She lives in Tucson now, working with refugees. She sent me a bag of mesquite flour made from beans she collected by the Santa Cruz river, and a jar of olives, also collected around town and cured herself. In this time of relative deprivation due to COVID-19 – deprived of friendship and of easy access to food – her gift felt like a little miracle. Both products took effort and planning, making wild plants into precious food. In both, the gratification from collection to consumption is quite delayed, but is all the more delightful because of the wait.
On our trip in 2014, the students tasted and ground the flour themselves for the first time. We sought the shade of a mesquite to do the work, and touched the flour to our lips cautiously. I recall what a pleasure it was to see their astonishment at how very sweet the beans are.
We looked for mesquite trees for their shade often on that trip, relishing the cool they bring to the desert.
Almost on the same day, a friend bought me wheat flour and yeast at the grocery store because she knew I had been unable to find either for weeks. I brought her a bouquet of flowers from my yard and a bunch of cilantro that I could easily spare. We made the trade in her driveway, keeping our distance. First, she put her goods on her car and retreated; then I approached and took hers and left mine. We sat about 15 feet apart and talked for a few minutes in the sun. Seeing each other’s living face, unmediated by a machine. I’m so grateful for that moment and for my former student, now friend, who thought of me in this dark time.
The combined loveliness of these two acts of friendship seemed to cry out for a celebration. I turned, of course, to From I’itoi’s Garden, a cookbook I have written about before. I knew the Tohono O’odham would have some good ideas about how to use mesquite flour. The Tohono O’odham people ate mesquite beans as a snack off the tree, or ground them into flour. The flour could be made into a porridge or into balls by mixing with water and drying in the sun to save for later. Today, the flour is used for all kinds of goodies with recipes in this great cookbook. I’m sharing their unaltered recipe here for the cake, though I modified it by making a layer cake and using an orange buttercream frosting. That was all me.
Almond Mesquite Cake
2 1/4 cups flour
3/4 cup mesquite flour
2 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup softened unsalted butter
1 1/3 cups sugar
2 teaspoons almond extract
1 1/3 cups milk
Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix dry ingredients together in a small bowl. Cream sugar, butter and eggs, and almond extract in a mixer. Alternate adding dry mixture with milk to the butter mixture in three additions each. Pour batter into two buttered and floured (and I used parchment paper) 9″ cake pans. Bake for 30-35 minutes.
Orange Buttercream Frosting
1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
3 cups confectioners’ sugar
Zest of one orange
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 teaspoons orange extract
3-4 tablespoons fresh orange juice
Slivered almonds, toasted
Beat together butter and orange zest. Gradually beat in sugar until blended. Add liquids and beat. Taste for orange. I like it tangy.
Frost the cake and decorate with toasted slivered almonds. I put on a lemon blossom for prettiness.
Enjoy while thinking of your generous and glorious friends.