Atole is a drink popular throughout Mexico, Central America, and the American Southwest. Atole is a usually a warm drink, generally based on corn, frequently sweetened somehow, and often prepared with cinnamon as well. Atole has countless various recipes for preparation, and every family has their own. Most people who grow up drinking atole consider it a breakfast drink, and/or a comfort food, and in some cases, a holiday treat. You could compare it to cocoa in the USA. Atole is not always made from corn. It can also be made from rice, wheat, oatmeal, or mesquite pods.
Mesquite in the Southwest
For over 4,000 years, the peoples of the Southwest used the pods of the mesquite tree. Mesquite is one of roughly 40 species of Prosopis, a desert legume tree. The pods are of various edibility and palatability, but all are considered “mesquite” a word that comes to us from the Náhuatl mizquitl.
Most species of mesquite have sweet pods that can be eaten right off the tree, much in the manner of carob or tamarind. Mesquite pods contain seeds, but they are tiny. If eating fresh pods, the seeds can be spit out, much like watermelon seeds.
Mesquite pods ripen in July, and thus the pods are a valuable source of food during the summer months. For farmers or hunter-gathering peoples, summer can be a lean time, before the corn is harvested, before many fruits are ripe for plucking, and long before it is time to harvest wild nuts.
Harvest & Preparation
Pods are plucked ripe from the tree. In the past they were laid in the sun to fully dry before grinding or storage. Modern cooks toast the pods in the oven.
Traditional use was to enjoy the bounty of the season in the season when it occurred. Some pods were stored for fall celebrations. This was in part due to bruchid seed beetle larvae that often inhabit the seeds.
The pods of mesquite contain many complex carbohydrates, including soluble gums and fibers, making them a “slow release” carbohydrate source. These pods can taste quite sweet but have a very low glycemic index, making them an ideal food to help control blood sugar, and a food often possible for diabetic to safely enjoy.
Native peoples avoided eating an excess of fresh pods all at once. If overindulged in, these gums and fibers might lead to what can be politely termed “gastric distress.” Pods are also “a good source of calcium, manganese, iron, and zinc,” according to information compiled by anonymous (s.d.) in Healthy Traditions.
The entire mesquite plant was, and still is, used in many ways, and I recall the first time I ever tasted one. My mother was a student of Edward and Rosamond Spicer, noted anthropologists. Thus in my childhood, we visited the Tohono O’odham many times and participated in an array of festivals. There were joyous processions, dancing, singing, laughing conversation. Older women clustered around small smoking fires with pots and kettles of tasty foods cooking and simmering away. The children ran and played kid games until called to order by the adults. I knew no words of O’odham, but kids don’t need words to play tag, jump rope, or take part in a popular hoop rolling game.
Every so often, one child would be called over by a grandmother, and the rest of us kids were invited too. Some tasty treat was passed around on a plate with a spoon or maybe a single tin cup for all to sip from. Lip smacking, gentle smiles, soft words, warm glances. I learned to say “kúi wihog,” the O’odham word for mesquite.
Basically, all you need to make mesquite atole are some mesquite pods and water. If you are wealthy, and want to honor the reason for the festival (such as a saint’s day or a memorial service), then you can add brown sugar and cinnamon.
Whole mesquite pods are broken into small pieces and tossed in a pot of water to soak overnight. The next day, right in that same pot, heat up the water and pods. Mush the boiled pods well with a broad spoon against the side of the pot to release the sweet pod fibers to swirl in the water. Drink when pods are all mushy and have released their flavor. Some mesquite smoke from the campfire adds to the overall uniqueness of the experience.
Mesquite atole was consumed warm in the cooler months of winter. In summer, it was allowed to cool overnight and drunk as a nutritious morning breakfast drink. To this day, I make some for myself every so often. I “cheat” and use ground mesquite meal, roughly 2 tablespoons per cup of boiling water.
Anonymous (s.d.). Healthy Traditions: A Cookbook for Native Americans. Native Seeds/SEARCH, Tucson, AZ.
Dahl, K. A. 1995. Wild Foods of the Sonoran Desert. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum Publications, Tucson, AZ.
Ebling, W. 1986. Handbook of Indian Foods and Fibers of Arid America. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA.
Hodgson, W. C. 2001. Food Plants of the Sonoran Desert. University of Arizona Press, Tucson, AZ.
Nagel, C. (s. d.). Mesquite Recipes. Friends of Pronatura, Tucson, AZ.
Soule, J. A. (2011) Father Kino’s Herbs: Growing and Using Them Today. Tierra del Sol Institute Press, Tucson AZ.
Tohono O’odham Nation (s.d.). When Everything Was Real: An Introduction to Papago Desert Foods. Tohono O’odham Nation, Sells, AZ.