The mesquite beans in the droopy seedpods
provided food for Native Americans, and, in a later period, many hungry
pioneers. In the early sixteenth century, Álvar Núñez
Cabeza de Vaca compared them to carob beans and described how Texas Natives
ate them ground into a meal. Most Spanish and Anglo settlers were less
impressed, but they understood the nutritional value in a pinch. J. Frank
Dobie told a story of some stranded Mexicans who lived on prickly-pear
cactus and mesquite beans until they were rescued. According to Dobie,
they claimed, "With prickly pears alone one can live, but with prickly
pears and mesquite beans, a person will get fat."
Early Southwesterners and Mexicans
used the tree in other ways as well. The sap soothed sore throats, the
root made a salve for cuts, the leaves brightened the laundry, and gum
from the bark both glued broken pottery and dyed hair black. When cowboys
ran out of coffee, they made a substitute from the beans.
Mesquite surged to a peak of popularity
only recently, however, as a charcoal wood for grilling. Contemporary
chefs found that mesquite briquettes produced a high, even heat and could
be promoted as a special Southwestern accent in their cooking. As Gary
Paul Nabhan says in Gathering the Desert (University of Arizona
Press, 1985), "The Wild West is now shipped off to East Coast restaurants
that advertise mesquite-broiled, smoky-flavored Marlboro Country meat.
Even though charcoal gives off little of the mesquite wood scent, the
whole pitch is lucrative as hell."
Most mesquite charcoal comes from
Sonora, where it's inexpensive to make and much easier to ship than wood
because of its condensed size. Crews stack logs in giant pits, cover them
with straw, burlap, and soil, and burn them down to coals, a two-week
carbonization process that eliminates most of the original flavor. The
business has been so profitable that mesquite is on the verge of disappearing.
Environmental groups urge cooks to substitute the beans in grilling, soaked
like wood chips, for a greater tang that doesn't sacrifice the slow-growing
trees. Look for them in ecologically minded supermarkets and outdoor-cooking