Welcome to Sonoran Arcana, a column seeking to probe the margins of Arizona cuisine and define a more specific, novel cuisine that has emerged in America's great Sonoran Desert: New Arizonan. Here, we will venture into the arid wilds and culinary unknown to spotlight the chefs and foragers, the millers and brewers, the miso masters and palo verde pod-pickers who are pioneering New Arizonan cuisine, or simply rocking out the food of Arizona. So throw open the doors to your mind and enjoy.
A new stand at the Old Town Scottsdale Farmers Market has products unlike the fruit, vegetables, and prepared foods sold by the others. At this stand, an armada of jams rises in jars purple, orange, pink, blue, and yellow, shades of the colors you will find hiking through our desert. The stand is called Sonoran Scavengers. And its chief forager and proprietor, Karen Bedell, culls its bounty from the land.
Bedell sells jams: wolfberry, barrel cactus, prickly pear, mesquite, manzanita.
She sells powder made from prickly pear (good for, she says, putting in lemonade or on ice cream), candied barrel cactus fruit (the seeds go to granola), and candied cholla.
She sells flour ground from amaranth, blue corn, palo verde beans, and mesquite. Each of her baked goods — muffins, cookies, and more — uses at least one desert ingredient, such as her recent pumpkin muffins made from oat flour and flour milled from palo verde beans.
“Almost everything that we use is local to Arizona, with the exception of the pineapple,” Bedell says. “And most of it comes out of our desert.”
Bedell has been a forager for most of her life, beginning in Colorado, in the small town where she was born. There, wild plants were used for more than eating. “We didn’t have a doctor,” she says. “We had a nurse. But she was also an herbalist, so you might get medicine, chances are you’re going to get a plant to fix it.”
Twenty-four years ago, Bedell came to Arizona for a six-month stay that never ended. The desert presented different plants, a different landscape. “When I came to Arizona, nothing was the same,” she says. “So it was kind of a slow learning process. I really started with mesquite, and then built from there.”
Through Desert Harvesters in Tucson, Bedell milled mesquite flour using a hammermill.
Today, she prefers palo verde flour to mesquite — and Sonoran Scavengers is her livelihood. She sells at markets in Old Town, Estrella, and Peoria.
The flours, powders, jams, candies, baked goods, and other products she sells give market-goers an opportunity to supplement their hauls of citrus, salad greens, meat, and eggs with foods culled from the desert, rather than farms. Farms serve their purpose, and provide their own flavors. Foraged foods can add to that purpose, and provide new flavors — as this series has seen at restaurants throughout town. These days, Bedell does most of her gathering near Buckeye, where she lives.
“My backyard opens up to about 2,000 acres of farmland,” she says.
That allows her to forage “all the way to Gila Bend.” She also gathers in Rainbow Valley, where she’ll go camping, staying overnight in wild places to gather. Other times, she’ll throw her kids in the car and head on a trip. They’ll go forage. See a new town. An old mine.
One of the keys to Sonoran Scavengers is the relationship Bedell has with farmers. “I’ve developed good relationships with a lot of our local farmers,” she says. “So what is their wasteland — which is their desert land — I’m permitted to go and harvest there.”
This is a symbiotic relationship, because some of the foods Bedell forages are seen by growers as a nuisance. For one, there is amaranth, an invasive species that grows fast. “Farmers hate it,” she says. “They can’t wait for me to come get this off the side of their field. But, by the same token, it makes a really amazing flour.”
Here, as with palo verde beans, she is turning something that others see as an inconvenience into food, nutritious food, food that speaks clearly of place.
Wisely, Bedell tries to use every part of the wild foods she forages. For example, she harvests prickly pear. The fruit becomes jam, and the seeds become powder. This even recalls an ancient Hohokam practice — which we know about through surviving archaeological evidence. In times when organ pipe cactus fruit were in season, the Hohokam of present-day central Arizona used to pick and eat them, excrete the seeds, grind the seeds into flour, make that flour into bread, and thereby eat the seeds again — using every last fruit part.
The Sonoran Desert, though abounding with beauty and wild food, can be an exacting master.
When mesquite and palo verde are in season, the sun becomes too hot close to midday. “We’ll get up early, especially on mesquite and palo verde, because … it gets 110, 120 that day," Bedell says. "We’re out there at 4:30 [a.m.]. As soon as that sun is in the sky, we’re out harvesting.”
She doesn’t stop for winter, like some Sonoran foragers do. The wolfberries, she says, are just now coming back into fiery bloom.
Bigger fruit, like wolfberries and hackberries, do better when closer to a water source. “Follow the washes,” she says. “I happen to know an area where water is close to the surface, and sure enough the wolfberries grow better there."
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And so she ventures downstream, gathering in wild places. “I read just about every book I could find on foraging,” she says, back at her white-canopied farm stand on the cracked pavement of civilization. And browsing the forms and colors of her wares, listening to her patiently explain the unknown to customer after customer, spooning bracing samples of mesquite and fig jelly, you believe her.
“I think people are starting to take notice of what’s there,” she says of wild food beyond town.
Though from a place known for snow, she prefers the Sonoran. “I live in the middle of nowhere for a reason,” she says. What’s that reason? Flip over the brown business cards she shares to learn. The back reveals what’s on the front of her mind.
It says: “I’d rather be in the desert.”