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Science and Innovations

Earth Notes: Roasting Agaves

It’s tough to miss a century plant in full bloom. The plant’s base of wide, pointed leaves sends up an enormously tall stalk that blooms brilliantly in spring. Also called agave or mescal, it’s a plant that’s common throughout the desert Southwest.

Native people once made use of agaves for fenceposts, needles and thread, soap, durable fibers and probably even paper. And that’s not all. Wherever the plants grow, remains of pits used to cook them are sure to be found. Botanists think that at least six different kinds of agaves were cultivated in ancient Arizona.

Agave was one of the first foods available after long, hungry winters. Traditional people would dig elaborate pits near where the agave grew, and cook the hearts for days at a time in a bed of hot coals and herbaceous greens.

The last few traditional agave roasts are believed to have occurred on the Tohono O’odham and Yavapai Apache reservations around World War Two.

Members of the Mescalero Apache Tribe resurrected the tradition in southern New Mexico about 25 years ago. They’ve begun conducting a mescal roast at Texas’ Guadalupe Mountains National Park in recent years.

In Arizona, agave roasts are sometimes hosted by Arizona’s national forests and state parks, in partnership with tribes and botany groups.

Over the years the technique has improved. Peter Pilles, a Coconino National Forest archaeologist and agave aficionado, says fully cooked agaves taste like unsweetened pineapple or yams—a bit bland to some tastes, but rich with southwestern history.

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