“You’re sure we can eat them just like this?” my father asked, as he squatted beside the prickly pear cactus and peered at the plant. Like a small, dusty-green octopus, it extended its spine-dotted pads across the coppery sand. Budding off each pad were numerous plump, ruby-colored fruits. They didn’t look soft and delicate like a strawberry or raspberry but robust, with tough, polished skin. In truth, they looked very appetizing.
Dave nodded as he pushed his kickstand down. “Sure you can―those fruits were a favorite for the Native Americans ‘round here. Here, Sue: try one.” Dave handed one to me, one to my father, then picked his own. “Go ahead, try it!” He encouraged. I glanced down at the fruit in my fingers. It was adorned with a pattern of tiny white nubbles. I looked back at my father, then at Dave: both were about to bite down. Shrugging, I brought my own to my lips.
“Yeow!” I yelped. I was followed shortly by a chorus of exclamations from Dave and my father. We three had dropped our fruits in the sand, and were now scrambling to remove our gloves.
“I haf th-pines in mah tongue!”
“I’ve got ‘em in my lips!”
Each of us desperately felt for the nasty, hair-like cactus spines in our mouth, spitting and cursing as we did so. Then for a moment we stood quietly, passing the water bottle around. At last my father declared,
“Raspberry and watermelon.”
“The flavor of the fruit?” Dave asked.
“Absolutely,” I agreed. “It tasted pretty good! Probably tastes better without the spines, though…”
At this time of year, when I begin to see the vivid red prickly pear fruit color the desert landscape, I feel myself compelled to warn anyone I can: do not eat them with their spines! This warning is probably unnecessary; most people would think for a second longer than I did, before eating anything cactus-related. Luckily, the fruit’s unique flavor does not have to go unappreciated simply because of its prickly nature. Dave was correct in saying that Native Americans of the Southwest used prickly pear fruit in their cooking ― and managed to do so without any immediate danger to their tongues.
Identifying the ripe fruits, or tunas, as they are called in Spanish, is easy enough. The deep-red color indicates that the fruits are ready to be picked. To collect them on your own, it’s best to use a pair of tongs (and gloves). As I learned, the large, visible spines on the cactus’s green pads are not the only danger. One must watch out for the tiny, hair-like barbs protruding from the small white nubbles on the fruit’s skin. Once the fruit is picked, the spines must be removed. Here, a few different methods have been tried. It is possible to cut the barbs away with a knife, or to peel the fruit’s skin off entirely. Alternatively, one can pass the fruit through a flame (or over a gas stove burner), to remove the spines. Members of the Tequesta tribe would even use a ‘sandpaper’ technique, rolling the fruit to grind off the prickers.
Once the fruit is spine-free, it can be prepared in a number of ways. It can be preserved as jelly or made into candies. In native Mexican tradition, the juice of the tunas is fermented to produce an alcoholic drink called colonche. Even though the plant is native to the Western hemisphere, the prickly pear cactus has flourished in arid climates around the world. In Mediterranean, North African and Australian regions, it is used in various culinary creations.
Clearly, people around the globe find the fruit of the prickly pear worth the effort it takes to prepare. All the careful gathering, cleaning and cooking may be time-consuming, yes ― but much easier to endure than a spine-spiked tongue. And although there are more accessible fruits ― produce than can be bought on a self in a grocery store ― the prickly pear fruit remains appealing. Perhaps it is the process of preparation: just like the desert itself, the fruit requires knowledge and patience to enjoy.