“You want the ones about the size of a woman’s hand,” says Laurie Melrood, cutting a fat green pad from a prickly pear plant. “Those are tastier and more tender.”
The pad will soon sit in soy sauce on Melrood’s counter, softening through the hot August afternoon before making its way onto the grill. For Melrood, the roasted pad is more than a dinnertime side dish—it’s activism.
“We call ourselves ‘mesquiteros,’ or mesquite activists,” says Melrood. “We reconnect people and plants.”
With Desert Harvesters, a Tucson-based grassroots group that celebrates Sonoran Desert plants, Melrood is teaching Arizonans how to eat very, very local.
In workshops at community centers or in her own West Side home, Melrood introduces desert dwellers to the culinary possibilities of mesquite pods, cholla buds and other native foods.
Discovering how much of the desert is edible—and healthful—transforms how people think about the desert, Melrood says.
“People call this place a desert, but it’s really full of food and medicine,” she says. “I call mesquite ‘big pharma,’ because there’s so much going on with that tree. You could live on mesquite alone.”
Melrood is no stranger to activism, or to transforming how people think. As a social worker and community organizer, she has spent more than 40 years advocating for refugees, children and the elderly.
Re-awakening people to the plants around them is just another way to inspire change, she says. But it’s not a way she expected to adopt when she arrived in Tucson in 1993.
“I’m from Wisconsin, where the soil is blacker,” Melrood says. “When I came to Tucson, I thought I’d never have a garden again.”
Melrood struggled to grow the vegetables she knew and enjoyed in the hard, dry soil of Southern Arizona. Then a Yaqui acquaintance came to visit her home, and pointed out the many edible pods on Melrood’s backyard trees.
“She got a ladder and just started harvesting,” she recalls. After that, Melrood was hooked. She bought books and began taking classes in plant medicine and native foods. She learned that creosote has anti-cancer properties, that ocotillo flowers be brewed into a vitamin C-rich tea, and that barrel cactus fruits make tasty chutney.
Soon she was harvesting and milling gallons of mesquite flour each summer, and gathering basketfuls of cactus pads and fruits for her family’s meals. Once she started eating her yard, she says, she began to feel at home in the desert.
“It just takes hold of you,” she says. “The plants have given me knowledge ... and they’ve made me more humble too. There’s so much to learn and so little I know.”
Now Melrood is focused on sharing and protecting traditional knowledge of native foods, which has been passed down through generations of Sonoran Desert dwellers. The community would benefit from closer ties to that heritage, she says.
“It’s a source of sustenance, and it can provide income and connect the generations,” she says.
The evidence supports her vision. Research by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture and other organizations has shown that a healthy, vibrant local food system can improve employment, income and access to affordable food in the local community.
But there are less tangible benefits too, benefits Melrood has experienced firsthand and seen in the hundreds of students she teaches each year.
“When you become more connected with your environment, you become more adventurous and joyful,” she says. “And I think we don’t have enough joy.”