Homesteading in Central Texas, or in any very arid area, isn’t easy. We try to grow peaches (we do alright,) apples (we fail,) and other fruit, but it is a real hit and miss proposition when you live off-grid and have limited ability to pump an unlimited amount of water to your trees. Industrial farming orchards and vineyards can do well out here, but usually only because of grid electricity and copious water pumped long distances from man-made lakes.
Prickly-pear cactus fruit has been a dietary staple in arid regions of the south and southwest for thousands of years. You read that right. This tasty fruit was not a snack but a dietary staple. It provided dietary fiber, good carbs, and a goodly amount of potassium and magnesium – important minerals that activate enzymes that help you process your food properly and maintain health. Most imporantly, prickly-pear is one of the greatest anti-inflammatories in the world, and the industrial/consumer diet encourages inflammation which is the root of almost all diseases today.
This wonderful cactus fruit grows ubiquitously across most of Texas and the Southwest, and almost all of it goes unharvested by humans who really need it.
Primarily we juice the fruit. Then we preserve the juice by canning it so we can harvest a lot and make it into products later. But traditionally a lot of the fruit was peeled and dried for long-term storage, or eaten fresh. It is healthiest when eaten fresh.
The prickly-pear fruit is well armed against invaders. Not only is the cactus full of big, nasty spines, but both the cactus pads AND the fruit are covered with little bumps that are actually made up of thousands and thousands of tiny spines that stick in the skin and really, really piss you off. So be careful handling the fruit! We use tongs to twist the fruit off of the cactus, and then use the tongs throughout whatever processing we do to the fruit. The little tiny spines (glochids) are easily burned off with a torch or any source of fire. Today, ranchers use propane “pear burners” to burn off the spines. Small hand-held torches work well too. (To my English buddies, a “torch” in Texas is a red-hot flame shooter-outer. It is NOT a flashlight. Your flashlight will not work to remove prickly pear spines!) The native peoples of this area would poke a sharp stick through the fruit and then hold the pears over the fire to burn off the spines. It really isn’t as hard as it sounds, and the glochids burn off quite easily.
Once the fruit is spineless, it can be handled like any other fruit. It can be skinned, and then the seedy center can be scooped out with a spoon or knife. The rest of the flesh is edible.
Like any sugary fruit, the prickly-pear fruit also ferments quite readily, and it can make a delicious wine or natural beer and can be distilled into booze. Again, once you’ve learned to de-spine the little pretties you can treat it like any other fruit and make whatever you like from it.
Most of our harvest is canned and consumed as a juice drink. Adding honey gives it a delicious sweetness, but don’t feel like you HAVE to make a sweet drink out of it. Modern tastes run toward wanting things ultra-sweet or ultra-savory, but part of living off-grid and making use of naturally occuring foods is learning to broaden your taste profile. The fruit is healthiest when it is not sweetened, and adding white sugar just counteracts most of the anti-inflammatory effects of the food.
In my post-apocalyptic/dystopian novel The Last Pilgrims, prickly-pear juice and naturally fermented beer are two of the common beverages (and medicines) used in the story. You can learn a lot from studying the past and seeing how people who live in greater harmony with their region and land survive and thrive. Check out my video on demystifying Prickly-Pear!