The Fruit of the Desert
By Justin Butts
In the lingering heat of September, when most plants wither in the scorching sun, all of South Texas becomes a glittering garden of sweet, purple fruit. It’s called tuna, the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, and there is a near-limitless supply now ripe for picking. Best of all, you don’t even have to grow it yourself!
A Native American Staple
Prickly pear cactus fruit was a staple food of the Native Americans of South Texas for centuries. Each year at this time, prior to European settlement, the tribes of our region called a truce and gathered in the vicinity of modern-day Alice, Texas, for the annual tuna harvest.
During August and September each year, the Mariames, Anagados, Charrucos, and Avavares converged on the tuna grounds. e tribes picked their way to the center of elaborate prickly pear stands to camp in safety from enemies. They lounged around smoky res, danced and sang, and ate their ll of sweet scarlet fruit.
The tuna festival included fairs where the natives could trade goods, barter for brides, and play games. It was the best time of the year.
Tunas grow in the desert when most plants are barren. Tunas, rich in vitamin C and anti-oxidants, were vital to the survival of these desert-dwelling tribes.
How to Harvest Tunas
Tunas are covered with barbed, hair-like thorns, called glochids, that are difficult to see but painful to the touch. Use tongs to pluck the tunas from the prickly pear pads. Choose firm, darkly-colored fruit. The picking goes quickly once you find your rhythm.
Watch for cactus spines as you reach among the prickly pears. Watch also for rattlesnakes, which hide in the shade beneath the cactus...and don’t always rattle before they strike.
Native Americans singed their tunas over a camp fire to remove the glochids. Fire (even a gas burner on the stove) is still the fastest and most authentic method to remove the glochids from your wild-picked fruit.
Many Culinary Uses
Peel the tuna skin away with a knife to reveal the scarlet pulp. Tuna pulp is sweet, dark, and delicious. Eat tuna pulp raw or juice tunas to sweeten tea and other beverages. For a real treat, boil down tuna fruit with sugar to make a fabulous crimson jelly.
Tunas are a challenge to harvest in a desert of snakes and thorns, but that is part of the adventure that makes this wild harvest so rare and so completely authentic.
Yes, there are thorns in the desert, but there is also an abundant supply of sweet scarlet fruit, just beyond your doorstep and ripe for the picking