November 12, 2020

I’m Culinarily Dating a Prickly Pear. Here’s Why

by christopherabdo

When I was a teenager an into my college years, I wanted that wish that just about everyone has: to travel the world. Almost everyone wants to travel, to go wide. To leave what they know. I'm asking though: do I know where I am? Do I really know Austin, Tx the way an indigenous person could see and enjoy this place? 

There isn't anything wrong with traveling the world, but what if there could be something magical about where you are now? What if you could go more deeply into your sense of place? What would it be like to get to know your place (for me its Austin, Tx) from subsoil to treetop? Is there another world waiting to be discovered that doesn't require a plane ticket, and that may forever change the health, the well-being, the sense of belonging or the trajectory of your life? 

Can you imagine the tremendous sense of belonging and home that an indigenous tribe experienced? To know every tree, every creature and make the absolute most of it? 

I'm going to get to that in a moment, but for right now: I'm gonna culinarily date a prickly pear. 

So in Austin, Tx prickly pear is abundant. It's easy to grow. It doesn't take a lot of water. Its cancer fighting and blood sugar regulating properties are off the charts. It also has a very long history of culinary use. 

But I don't eat it. Well. I'd like to change that. I want to see if there is a way I could enjoy prickly pear, so I can get all those benefits. 

Despite prickly pear being EVERYWHERE, sitting around, waiting to get eaten, I don't see it at stores as much as I would think. It's not really celebrated as a native plant we can actually eat here in this weird climate of Austin...desert/tropics/temperate.

I didn't grow up eating prickly pear. In fact, I'm a little weirded out by it. But I've learned that I don't know what I don't like, until I've tried it 7 times in 7 different ways.

I grew up giving a new food exactly one and only one chance: I had mushrooms once, described them as having the "texture of human flesh" and then didn't eat them again, for 10 years...

Until I had a mushroom-based spaghetti sauce. Then I felt sad that I had been so closed to mushrooms because I didn't quite know how to enjoy them. Just like I would likely not know how to enjoy surviving in the woods in Austin. I could do it, but there would be many, many skills and experiences I would need to actually enjoy it. This is what I'm curious about creating. 


In her book, "French Kids Eat Everything", by Karen Le Billon, Le Billon describes how the French expose young children to many different foods very early on in childhood so that they learn the art of expanding their culinary palette.

The French seems to do it beautifully, enjoyably and that's what I love about how this book shows that contrast and real, practical ways to bridge the divide between American and French food choices without belittling the real struggle of lifestyle changes. 

What this means, is that they don't get so grossed out and skittish with trying new things...which means that if a French kid move to the U.S. and discovered prickly pear, he may not have the cultural resistance I'm facing within myself to try prickly pear...or may already know the rule of 7. 

So here's the thing: I love this strategy for me. It strikes a beautiful balance between making room for where you are now...but also nudging you along to grow a little, as a person, an eater and beyond. 

So I now see that you really need to start dating a food, to truly find out if you like it or not. 

When I read the book, I recalled reading about how corn was despised by the British colonists. We tend to hate what is it possible that my own fear of whether I will like prickly also related to prejudice as a whole?  What would it be like if I could take a tip from the French, to become more native? To open my mind to what is here, ready to eat, the prickly pear? 

I am so divorced from a sense of place, because I eat mostly exotic foods shipped in from somewhere else, that I could on the one hand ,  from a place of guilt, live in a cardboard box and try to just survive on native foods. OR I could realize that I will always love and enjoy cherries shipped in from somewhere (you can't grow cherries here, don't think) but that I can make room on my plate for something new. I can travel to a new destination: that prickly pear over there that I really haven't gotten to know. 

So by culinarily dating prickly pear... 

  1. I'm learning to undo an upbringing that taught me to stay closed to new food experiences...which has ripple effects too big for me to write about today. 
  2. I'm finding a way to grow food, that could take much less effort because this food already grows here.
  3. I'm becoming more resilient. If I know how to harvest and prepare prickly pear, it is one small step that makes me less dependent on a food system...should we get another batch of listeria...e coli...among other things.  
  4. I am, in some small way, making an effort to honor the people who actually survived here...the indigenous tribes that were both tough enough to live here without AC, and kind enough to leave no trace. 
  5. You get the idea by just keeps going and going. 

So tell me, what would change for you, if you were willing to try something that brings you closer to belonging in the natural world...more than once? More like 7 times? 


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