How Would You Like Your Century Plant?

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What do these wilderness sights have in common: Gold-topped spears spread across the hillside; old juniper trunks crudely barren of their branches; mounds of ashen soil and stones.

They are signs of an agave harvest by native people. You have come upon a mescal-roasting pit. One of the serendipities while hiking in the foothills and lower mountain slopes of the Rim country is to find a roasting pit, and let your imagination fill with scenes of busy Apaches or Anasazi camped there, harvesting this dietary staple.

The Rim country is a bonanza for mescal, often called the century plant, and known more commonly as agave. Agave has been harvested for over 10,000 years in the Rim country, and used for food, fiber and medicine. The harvest comes long before the agave plant sends its asparagus-like pole into the air. It is often described as "a rosette of lance-shaped leaves," each with a sword point. When the pointed leaves are cut off, the plant looks like a giant pineapple.

During early April, parties of Apache or Yavapai would go out to collect the agave hearts, known as mescal. Each band had its favorite gathering place, and would return year after year. The women collected the plants, digging them out with sticks and sharp stones, and the leaves were cut off with sharpened rocks. Meanwhile, the men dug the pit for roasting, most likely redigging one that had been used for many years. Apaches also used the roasting pits of ancient Anasazi. The pit was cleaned, and the sides and bottom lined with rock. Preferably lava rock, which would hold the heat longer. The pit was then filled with oak and juniper branches. The wood of pine or other trees could spoil the flavor of the mescal. After weeds and grasses were gathered and stored at the ready, the fire was ritually lighted.

The fire burned until the wood became hot coals and the rocks were white hot. Then green grasses, rushes and leaves were hastily placed on the coals and the mescal hearts laid on that. More grasses and leaves were laid over them and dirt covered the whole, mounded on top.

Now began a two-day wait, a time to visit, to gather other foods in the vicinity, and to dance and sing. This was also a good time to play with the children, gamble with cards made of cowhide and marked with painted designs, and tell stories of brave deeds. The women told each other how they preferred their mescal, "I like it with crushed walnuts, and some honey." ... "That's good, but not as good as mixing it with pinion nuts." ... "You're all crazy. Juniper berries give it the best flavor."

During the second day of waiting, a brush-covered frame was built on which to spread the roasted mescal.

The pit was opened on the third day, and a full day's work was in store. The sweet core of the mescal might be sliced and given to the children as "candy." The rest of the roasted plant was cut and pounded into sheets, then dried on the racks. The dry sheets were rolled up and tied with bear grass. The product could be eaten fresh or dried. It could be rehydrated into gruel, and mixed with crushed berries and nuts, or mixed with greens in a sort of salad and eaten with cornbread. Roasted mescal also was made into soup for babies.

Agave plants not only furnished the people with food, but also produced syrup, fermented drinks, and the stalks made good hoe handles or lances. A one-stringed fiddle could also be made from the stalk. A byproduct of roasting the mescal was paint, both light brown and black, used for designs on one's body or buckskin. The mescal juice even helped to waterproof woven jars (tus). Soap could be made from part of the plant, and the mescal fibers were good for sewing.

The smoke from a mescal pit fire could be a danger, alerting an enemy to the location of the Apache camp. During the 20-year Indian war in the Rim country, contingents of soldiers often came upon smoking mescal pits that had been abandoned by fleeing Apache or Yavapai bands.

One day, exploring the old Bush Highway near Mount Ord, I found where the obvious road veered off the ridge, yet before me was a wide swatch cut through the juniper trees along the ridge. Either it is an old wagon road, or it was used as one of the sheep driveways that came over the Mazatzal Mountains. A few hundred yards along this cut is a marvelous example of a mescal-roasting pit. It seemed to have been placed there after the cut went through, leading me to surmise the Apache or Yavapai used it after they returned from the reservation in the 1890s and were camped throughout the forest. Sure enough, nearby the old trees had been crudely cut with axes, and a campsite yielded glass, porcelain and 19th century tin cans.

We live in such a fascinating place, where those who went before us loved the Rim country as we do; enough to return again and again and draw their livelihood from its vast resources.

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