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Earth Notes: Roasted Agave

Hualapai elder Malinda Powskey with a harvested agave plant.
Carrie Cannon
Hualapai elder Malinda Powskey with a harvested agave plant.

This is Earth Notes….

The Utah agave is also known as the century plant. But it doesn’t really take a century for this blue-green succulent to send up a long stalk and bloom—more like forty years. Just before it blooms, it’s full of sugars. That’s the perfect time to harvest its heart, a culinary tradition among the Hualapai people going back thousands of years.

First, harvesters pry the base part of the plant (known as the basal rosette) from the ground. The long, spiny leaves are cut off until only the heart remains. Then, a roasting pit is dug, with rocks placed to honor each of the four directions, and one rock in the center for Mother Earth.

The pit is lined with juniper wood and set alight. When it’s full of hot coals, it’s covered in slices of barrel cactus. The agave heart is placed on top of this protective layer.

It takes a full day to roast the heart to perfection. It tastes sweet and rich, like molasses, and traditionally is one of the first nutrient-rich foods available in the spring after a long winter.

The Hualapai Ethnobotany Youth Project carries on this tradition with an annual agave roast. The project is led by tribal elders like the late Malinda Powskey who taught youth about the traditional foods growing in the Grand Canyon, such as agave, prickly pear, mesquite bean pods, and yucca fruit. She shared her knowledge of these plants in the Hualapai language. Preserving those words, Powskey said, preserves history and heritage as well.

This Earth Note was written by Melissa Sevigny produced by KNAU and the Sustainable Communities Program at Northern Arizona University.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.
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