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Memories of a Cactus Eater

Out of the desert landscape comes the thorny, ancient cactus, a surprisingly tender, sweet food.

May 28, 1997|JUANA VAZQUEZ GOMEZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I was born and raised in Mexico, the land of the cactus.

More than landscape, the cactus played a role in the founding of the grand city of Tenochtitlan, which became modern-day Mexico City. According to legend, the Aztecs were led to a place where, as their prophets predicted, an eagle sat atop a cactus devouring a snake. This is where they built their city.

Since then, though without such drama, the cactus has been an important part of everyday Mexican life. The eagle devouring the snake on the cactus is emblazoned today on Mexico's flag and all its coins and government buildings.

Ever since I was a little girl, I've been fond of the many varieties of cactus, or prickly pear, that shape Mexico's countryside. At home and in my grandmother's house, we ate nopales, as cactus paddles are called in Spanish, at least once a week. They were prepared in many ways.

There were delicious and colorful salads, tasty appetizers, refined soups. There were moles with nopales and even an occasional cactus dessert. In late summer, we would always have ice cold tunas, the luscious remains of the cactus flower.

But there were also times when cactus paddles created chaos at home. I remember vividly, for instance, the commotion produced one day when cactus was brought home from the market. It was as if a lethal weapon had been brought into the house because none of the children were allowed to come close to the big canastas that contained the paddles.

Of course, my brother, sister and I loved to peek into the market baskets each day to figure out what we would be eating later. My brother, especially, liked to be warned when vegetables would be prominent on the menu. My father never allowed any of us to leave the table until our plates were clean; a little notice gave my brother time to steel himself for the meal.

On the days we were told to stay away from the baskets, nobody bothered to explain why. We grew more and more curious. We tried to sneak glances at the inside of the basket but to no avail. My brother was so desperate to solve the mystery that he stuck his hand inside the basket and found out the hard way what was inside: cactus paddles, thorns and all.

A cactus' thorns are, of course, the plant's sharp defense mechanism. And the thorns are the reason the plant demands delicate handling in the kitchen.

Perhaps they are also at the heart of the Mexican saying, "A cactus will only be admired when it has fruit."

Luckily, from a cook's perspective, this saying isn't really true. Once the thorns are removed, cactus paddles make delicious eating in both humble and celebratory dishes.

I remember a country wedding in the central Mexican state of Michoacan that took place in a gorgeous 18th century church, in a town once famous for the richness of its gold mines. We walked from the church, along a beautiful dirt road lined with cactus and maguey on both sides, to the banquet site on top of a small hill that overlooked the placid valley.

There was one huge table, at least 90 feet long, adorned with spotless white linen and beautiful flowers. Placed on the table every few seats were small cazuelitas (saucepans) filled with green, red, purple and yellow salsas and chiquihuites (small baskets) to keep the tortillas warm. Toward one end of the property there were several enormous earthenware dishes on a wood fire. On top of one were dozens of tortillas that resembled sponged golden suns. Next to them was another dish in which thinly cut rounded cactus paddles were cooking. As soon as they were cooked, they were filled with fresh creamy cheese and cilantro, then rolled to make small taquitos to be eaten as appetizers.

Before the food was served, I made a bet with my husband. I told him I had a gut feeling that the main dish would be made with cactus. I was right. Instead of the traditional mole with chicken, our hosts served a variation, cactus mole. That day we got our portion of cactus both in the landscape and in the food of this pretty region, and we loved every second of it.

As I traveled outside Mexico, I found that cactus is not solely a Mexican delicacy. I discovered a cactus fruit vendor near the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967. Witnessing the horrors of war during the day in the countryside, I'd retreat as the sun set to the city, which would suddenly come to life at night.

The cactus stand became a rendezvous place for the friends I was with. As we'd wait for our friends, often with the heavy desert heat pounding on us, we'd refresh ourselves with succulent cactus pear, coolly packed in ice. Eating those deliciously ice-cold fruits with the war around us was like finding an oasis. I will never forget those moments.

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