Agave Roast and A Little Mesquite Makes for Cultural Conversation

After 30 to 40 hours of smoldering in hot coals, bundles of roasted agave was rolled out and sliced up for visitors to sample at the Malki Museum last weekend.

The museum, which is located on the Morongo reservation, is adjacent to a covered patio, where mesquite pancakes and tortillas were being served, and tribal members sang Cahilla bird songs.

On a nearby table, stacks of 16 blackened agave were being peeled by volunteers, to provide samples to the 100 or so visitors that passed through to celebrate the annual agave roast, which followed the agave harvest a week earlier.

“It tastes awesome!” according to 4-year-old Steven Cressler, who accompanied his mom, Sharye, and 1-year-old sister, Azalia, from Hemet. More specifically, he said, “It tasted kind of like apple juice.”

It’s important to harvest and roast agave at the perfect time, according to Gina Griffith, a U.S. Forest Service employee who attended the roast. Once the sap is drawn from the leaves to provide more nutrients to the flowering stalk, the agave’s leaves are much less sweet, and the time frame to capture that sweetness is relatively short, she explained.

The leaves tend to be fibrous, with a little more toughness than tearing into pineapple; but the agave heart is much softer, and has somewhat of a pineapple or yam sweetness, with leaves that peel off similar to an artichoke.

“It’s a delicacy,” said Kerry Berman, an instructor of Indian culture in Palm Desert, who came with his wife, Linda. “Due to the type of job I have, it’s important that we take advantage of as many opportunities like this as we can.” 

Paige Newcomb came up from San Diego County, representing the Sycuan Band of the Kumeyaay tribe, which will have its own agave roast in a couple of weeks.

“It’s a wonderful tradition that has fed people for thousands of years,” she said. “I want to help out our residents understand the value of native food. People look at the desert and don’t always realize there’s food and medicine here.”

Abe Sanchez, a volunteer cook, couldn’t say enough good things about agave and mesquite, the other plant being featured at the roast that day.

“Mesquite pancakes and tortillas are gluten-free,” he said. “Mesquite was an important staple of the Cahuilla, and it’s very nutritious, with lots of protein and fiber. It’s also a sustainable food and one that has fed natives for thousands of years,” and noted that the mesquite bean pod is ground into flour. “Mesquite grows wild here, and we’re not utilizing it,” he said.

Record Gazette
By: David James Heiss
April 22, 2013