Harvesting The Sonoran Harvest, The Tree of Life

Harvesting Mesquite Beans, with Chef Brett Vibber

Chef Brett Vibber
To be a desert forager, a true desert harvester, one must leave behind the chaos of daily life and step back in time, walking side by side with the native tribes, pioneers, mountain men and all who came before us. It is a way to honor nature in its fullest form, to harvest all the earth has to offer. Today, we just so happen to be harvesting the “Tree of Life.”

The late July sun begins to dry the mesquite tree pods on their branches. Known to the Tohono O’odham people as the “Tree of Life,” the mesquite was, at one time, the most widespread wild food plant in North America. The natives depended on it for food, shelter, weapons, fuel — even medicine.

Armed with buckets, gloves and my trusty fan rake, I head off into the desert just as the summer sun is starting to rise. The desert harvest is in full swing this time of year. For generations, it has been customary to forage in the cooler hours of the morning and then fabricate inside, or at least in the shade, during the hottest times under the sweltering sun.

While the mesquite tree provides an excellent source of wood for grilling and flowers for honey, today I am after the dried pods that will be turned into flour for use in a variety of breads, pastas and pastries. When the pods fall to the ground, it is Mother Nature’s way of saying, “Pick me up!” With the sun starting to hit my back, I find a stand of three trees and quickly get to work. Within 10 minutes, I have 10 five-gallon buckets full, and the truck is loaded up and ready to head back to the kitchen.

Each item we forage for comes with its own unique challenges — prickly pear with its furry little glochids, saguaro fruit that is nearly unattainable 30 feet above your head. Clearly, the challenging part of my process had not yet begun.

Upon my return, I sort all of the pods. This allows me to discard broken or disfigured pieces, as well as any other foreign objects. The pods are then washed thoroughly and set to dry in the sun for three days. At that point, I roast them in a 250-degree oven for 20 minutes, or until golden brown. After the pods have cooled completely, I place them in a food processor for four minutes. The roughly chopped mixture is then transferred to a coarse food mill to separate any hard fibrous pieces that remain. The final step is to transfer to my flour mill, allowing the mixture to be pulverized into a satin-like working flour.

Now comes the most rewarding part of being a desert forager and chef: preparing the food and presenting the results to our wonderful guests. It gives me the chance to help connect generations through food.

We want to create a memory. I want people to be able to taste the passion in their food, knowing that we were up at 4 a.m. to start thinking about what we will be serving you for dinner at 7 p.m. The mesquite flour finds its way into a number of our menu items, such as our house made raviolis featured in the beef tenderloin dish, as well as seasonal nightly specials. From pizza to pasta to freshly made pastries and breads, the “Tree of Life” is evoking creativity and passion in the kitchen at Cartwright’s Sonoran Ranch House.

Click below to watch Chef Vibber’s mesquite harvesting process in action.
“The Tree of Life Video”

Enjoy! Stay tuned for more harvesting stories from the Sonoran Desert.

Chef Brett Vibber