Taste of the Past with Leslie Bush



When from a long distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered . . . the smell and taste of things remain poised a long time, like souls . . . [They] bear unfaltering, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection. – Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past

Dr. Leslie Bush, owner of Macrobotanical Analysis  (www.macrobotanicalanalysis.com), joins us today for Part 2 of her conversation about cooking with native plants. See the Archives for June, 2014, for Part 1.

Dr. Leslie Bush analyzing ancient plant remains.

Dr. Leslie Bush analyzing ancient plant remains.

Leslie: Sure. The important thing to know here is that I don’t have a garden in my yard – I was cooking with native Texas plants that grow uncultivated* in many parts of the state. Lots of people are eating uncultivated plants these days, whether at the “World’s Best Restaurant”, sticking to an allegedly Paleo diet, or eating the weeds. I won’t say “wild” because human influence is so pervasive on the landscape, even in remote areas, that all of the planet is effectively under human management. (See the work of ethnobiologist Eugene N. Anderson.)  Here are some things I’ve tried:

Kunuch Cake

Kunuch Cake

Kunuche Pecan Balls  for Cherokee Nut Soup Traditional Cherokee nut soup is made from hickory nuts, usually black hickory (Carya texana). The most common hickory in the Austin area is pecan (Carya illinoinensis), so I made the soup balls from pecan nuts.

Step 1: Pecan Balls. To make the balls, I cracked each pecan nut on my concrete porch with a grinding stone, then picked out and swept away the larger pieces of pecan shell. I put the nutmeats and the remaining bits of inner shell into a basalt molcajete and ground it into a coarse paste. I formed the paste into balls about 2 inches in diameter. The balls can be frozen for a few months or put in a ziplock in the refrigerator for a few days until you’re ready to use them.

Step 2: Pecan Soup. To reconstitute the balls into soup, just add boiling water and stir. Use one ball for a large coffee mug. Let the soup settle for a few moments so that the pecan shells drop to the bottom. Be sure not to drink the last drops, or you’ll end up with shells in your mouth! You can flavor the soup with dried cranberries (my favorite), dried corn, or even bits of turkey jerky.

Sumac-ade This recipe for sumac-ade comes from my friend Neal Stilley, whose many talents include primitive arts such as fire-

Simmering Sumac-ade

Simmering Sumac-ade

making and cooking uncultivated plants. The batch of sumac-ade I made this spring was from flameleaf sumac (Rhus lanceolata) harvested in February. Harvesting when the fruits have been on the plant for such a long time doesn’t make the best-tasting tea. I’m eager to try another batch in a few of weeks when the fruits will be fresh.

  • Wash sumac fruits under cold water.
  • Bring 1 part sumac fruits and 5 parts water to a simmer, being careful not to boil.
  • Simmer for 2-5 minutes, then turn off heat and let stand for 10-15 minutes.


Mesquite Cake

Mesquite Cake

Mesquite Cake Grinding mesquite pods into flour is a tedious undertaking. It’s probably best done with a big group of girls and women, sitting in the shade, singing songs, sipping cool beverages, and speculating on the activities of your neighbors. In ancient times, Native women used a gyratory crusher, a sort of funnel-shaped metate, to crush mesquite pods with a heavy wooden pestle. The crushed pods fell through the hole into a basket. The beans and the brittle, outer pod were winnowed out, and the inner pod parts were re-ground into fine flour. Since I live in central Texas and not the Sonoran Desert, I had to make my pods “desert-dry” by roasting them in the oven at low heat before I tried to grind them. I used a flat-bottomed cobble to grind pods on my concrete porch, but it was a very slow process without the walls of a metate to keep the pods under my grinding stone. I decided pretty quickly that

Mesquite Cake

Mesquite Cake

producing and tasting a couple of teaspoons of flour would be enough old-school experience to satisfy me. Most modern mesquite eaters use a high-powered blender or a hammermill to process mesquite – and now I know why! Mesquite flour is very sweet, even before you add sugar to the recipe. The high sugar content makes baking with it difficult –the centers of baked goods tend to stay soft and mushy. I recommend baking very thin things such as these thin yellow cakes I made with mesquite flour from The Mesquitery.

Yucca Petals (raw) The flowers of all the yucca species I’ve tried have been edible and delicious. They

Yucca Blossoms

Yucca Blossoms

have a texture like green onions but with more substance. Most plants I’ve tried taste like radishes. A few lack that spicy kick and taste more like carrots. Some people eat the pistils and all the inner flower parts, but I stick to the petals. You can even eat them straight from landscaping in the mall.  (See blog articles from the Archives for June and July, 2012, for my own yucca experimentation–MSB.)

Woodsorrel Greens (raw) Woodsorrels have cute little heart-shaped leaves in a clover-like configuration. Here in central Texas, we have two woodsorrels: yellow woodsorrell (Oxalis dillenii), a branched plant with small yellow flowers, and Drummond’s oxalis

Wood Sorrell

Wood Sorrell

(Oxalis drummondii), a single-stemmed plant with larger, pink flowers and a bulb below ground. The wonderfully sour, refreshing leaves can be sprinkled on salads or tossed in cream sauce over pasta. Be careful not to eat too many of the raw leaves at a time, though: oxalic acid interferes with iron absorption, and too much of it can be very serious for people with impaired kidneys.

Commercially Available Sources For the May meeting of the Native Plant Society, I rounded out the table of native plant snacks with purchases from the local grocery store: agave syrup, prickly pear soda, nopalitos, and pecans. I’ll have to see what’s growing in my yard for the Caldwell County Genealogical and Historical Society next month . . . .

Grocery Store Snacks from Native Foods

Grocery Store Snacks from Native Foods


Joint Pain: Medicine Kit of the Lower Pecos, Part II

Handful of native chili petines

Handful of native chiltepines

Human beings have been plagued with joint pain throughout the history of mankind.  Arthritis, the condition caused by the wearing down of beneficial cartilage in the joints, affects over 27 million people in the United States today, according to the Arthritis Foundation

A joint with osteoarthritis

A joint with osteoarthritis

(www.arthritistoday.org). I don’t know enough about the skeletal evidence from the Lower Pecos of Texas to do more than speculate, but at least some people in the region 4000-6000 years ago must have worn out a knee or two climbing up and down steep canyons and running over rough stone outcroppings in the uplands. In other words, they probably had  their share of  “archaic arthritis.”

Ow! Even that phrase hurts!  Osteoarthritis produces stinging pain and can cause swelling and stiffness in the joints affected. Generally, the older you are, the more wear and tear you have on your joints.  A stiff knee could make a thirty-year-old adult from the archaic period feel old before his or her time. But somebody had to hunt, somebody had to gather plants. It’s not like they could just stay at home with their feet up. So what did they do?

Recently I was forced to experiment to find out.  I had to forego my usual arthritis medication from the doctor, and researched various herbal remedies.  I decided to try cayenne capsules, devil’s claw root extract, and yucca root extract to alieve my own symptoms because native varieties of these were likely available during the archaic period in the Lower Pecos.

The “hotness” of chili peppers is measured in Scoville units. Cayenne is measured at between 30,000 and 50,000 Scoville units, but our native chiltepine pepper comes in at a whopping 50,000-100,000 Scoville units!  The “heat” is caused by capsaicin, which is present in all hot peppers to some extent. capsaicin is a main ingredient of various topical creams available today to treat arthritis. Some sources suggest rubbing the cream on the affected areas four times a day for best results.  Capsaicin seems to work by interfering with the perception of pain (aside from burning tongues!)

While cayenne does not grow wild in west Texas, chiltepines should. I recently asked four people who know the land and plants in that area intimately (ranchers, archeologists, botanist), however, and they could not recall seeing a wild chiltepine plant in recent years. So, even though the plant should be well suited to the area, there must be some reason why they are not currently in evidence.  At any rate, IF they were there during the archaic period, it is likely the people would have utilized the small peppers for flavoring and medicinal purposes. One way they might have used the little chilis would be to apply crushed pods to swollen joints, perhaps mixed in a plaster of some sort. Another way might be to drink the crushed peppers as a tea, although that would burn the mouth.

Devil's Claw

Devil’s Claw  seedpods

Another plant the ancient people likely exploited is Devil’s Claw (Proboscidea parviflora), which grows in dry places throughout the American Southwest. The dry seed pods which give the name to the plant were used by the Pima Indians in basketry and well as for medicine. They  broke off a piece of the claw and pressed it onto the affected area. Then the claw must be lit on fire and allowed to burn down. Ouch!

Devil's Claw plant

Devil’s Claw plant

Another variety called Harpagophytum procumbens has been studied for effectiveness. The journal Phytomedicine (2002) reported a study of 227 people treated with Devil’s Claw extract for eight weeks.  They each took 60 mg of the extract daily, and at the end of the study, about 60% reported decreased pain and increased mobility and flexibility. People are cautioned not to take this if they are pregnant, have gallstones or ulcers, or are taking antacids or blood thinners (see http://www.arthritistoday.org).

Yucca Root

Yucca Root

Yucca root is also known to have been used by Native Americans to alieve joint pain, among other things. The root has anti-inflammatory  properties, but little reasearch has been done to support effectiveness (see http://www.livestrong.com). I can say from the experience of taking four tablets of yucca root a day in addition to Devil’s Claw extract and cayenne capsules, that the combination reduced the stinging pain in my wrists and I had more flexibility in my knees.

The last plant in my Lower Pecos pharmacy for joint pain is stinging nettle (Urtica dioica).

Stinging Nettle--handle only with gloves

Stinging Nettle–handle only with gloves

As the name implies, contact with the leaves, or little tiny hairs on the leaves, can be rudely painful. The leaves and stems are widely used in Germany, however, to make a tea for both rheumatoid arthritis and osteoarthritis. A small study from the University of Maryland was inconclusive regarding the anti-inflammatory compounds in stinging nettle as a topical cream.

As you can see, people living in that beautiful region we call the Lower Pecos, between the Pecos, Devil’s and Rio Grande rivers in south Texas, could have used several natural pain relievers to help keep their joints moving 4000-6000 years ago. I wish I knew their medicinal recipes…

Cooking with Yucca

Here are two ways to use black yucca seeds in your not-so-survivalist cooking.  First, I gently toasted the seeds in a dry frying pan on the stove. Then I sprinkled some on a salad, seen below.  The next day I got a wild hare (hair? ) and ground them up as a coffee substitute.  I confess I did add a little real coffee as well.  The result was great.  Tasted like toasty coffee! Ok, friends and neighbors, please send me more suggestions for cooking with yucca or other native plants and uses for sotol!

Fruit of the Desert

Ever see those reality TV shows where someone is set loose somewhere in the world and told to find their way back? I don’t watch them myself, but I want you to be prepared in case this ever happens to you.  Let’s pretend you are helicoptered in to an undisclosed location in the Chihuahuan Desert, with no map.  Only a knife and your wits.  After locating water and shade, you thoughts will turn to finding food.

One of the best things you can eat right off the stalk in early summer is the green colored fruit of the yucca.  Just break off the pods and cut them open, you don’t even have to peel them.  You can eat both the white and green flesh, which has a surprisingly sweet taste.  You can even eat the crunchy black seeds with no ill effects.  The seeds are almost tasteless and could be added to many other things for texture.  I imagine they would be good toasted also, although I haven’t tried it yet. Let us know if you try it.  If you send me a recipe for how you use this fruit along with a picture, I will even feature it on this blog!

36 Hours in the Lower Pecos

The Lower Pecos region in south Texas doesn’t look like much as you drive west on highway 90 from Del Rio.  Dry, dull grey or brown, nothing but creosote and cactus.  Even Lake Amistad, built by damming the Rio Grande, looks like dry bones after years of severe drought. Long distance trucks fly by without a glance on their way to El Paso or LA.  But with over 300 aboriginal petroglyph sites deep in the canyons, this hidden gem holds wonders topped by nothing else in the world, much less in North America.

Rugged canyons protect world-class rock art from over 4000 years ago.  Most of these treasures of human creation are on private property with no public access.  But several sites are owned by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the Rock Art Foundation, which offer tours for the adventurous to selected  locations.

Del Rio, Texas, makes a good base for a visit, with plenty of cheap hotels, restaurants, and bars. Just a short drive away a new world opens up, when you take the time to see.

Friday  6 p.m.

1. Fortifying Your Belly

Have dinner  at Wright’s Steak House, a family-owned spot in business more than 30 years.  The bartender/owner will make you a margarita to soothe your soul, or anything else you like from the full bar.  Order the fried onion rings as an appetizer for about $5.95, but don’t bother asking for a half-order.  They just won’t do it.  You’ll be delighted with the towering plate of golden rings anyway, and they are perfect for sharing with four people.  Excellent steaks are $15-25.00, with full salad bar and vegetables of the day. Be sure to see the year-round Christmas tree. It had big pastel bows, silk  flowers,  and colored Easter grass the last time I was there.  Live music on weekends. Wright’s is located about 8 miles west of Del Rio on highway 90.

 Saturday, 9:00 a.m.

2. Prepping Your Senses and Sensibilities

Leave Del Rio about 9:00 and drive about 60 miles west of Del Rio on Highway 90 to Langtry, population 30, clinging to a spectacular golden side canyon on the Rio Grande. Visit the Chihuahuan desert botanical garden at the Texas Highway Department Visitor Center to learn about the many uses of desert plants.  Then wander through the Judge Roy Bean Saloon and Opera House. Judge Roy Bean billed himself as the “Law West of the Pecos” in the 1880s-90s, and was infatuated with the English singer Lily Langtry, thus the name.

The Galveston, Harrisburg, and San Antonio Railway used to stop here to take on more fuel and water.  A small community grew up around the stop to service the train, and a few people took up ranching on the side. Judge Roy Bean ran the saloon and served as Justice of the Peace.  He also sponsored boxing matches and kept a pet bear.

Drive down the streets in Langtry to see the crumbling adobe ruins from over 100 years ago.    The old white school house from the 1920s now serves as the community center.   That and the church where services are held about once every three weeks are all that remain of the village.  Drive to the end of the pavement, and proceed carefully on the gravel road to glimpse the majestic canyon.  You will need four-wheel drive to go very far, so take it easy. Prepare to leave Langtry by 11:15 for the drive back east on highway 90. Just before you cross a little bridge that says “Eagle Nest”, pull off on the wide shoulder.

Take a good look at the canyon in front of you.  Turn your head slightly to the right to see a cleft in the canyon edge across from you, and a big tumbled rock pile.  That is Bonfire shelter, location of several spectacular bison jumps during the past 10,000 years. Do not even think of going down there.  It is private property (patrolled by shotgun) and extremely dangerous. Instead, read all about it at www.texasbeyondhistory.net/bonfire/index.html.

As soon as you cross the Pecos River high bridge, turn left into the White Shaman Preserve. Stop at the gate if it is not open and wait for the guide.

12:00 noon

3. White Shaman Shelter

Arrive White Shaman Preserve gate by noon. Eat the sandwiches and apples you brought and put on your hiking boots, preferably  with two pairs of socks.  Slather on the sunscreen and bug spray. Adjust your hiking sticks.  Get your hat and sunglasses, and pack plenty of water. Tours start promptly at 12:30 every Saturday, no reservations needed.  Donations of $20 cash per person are appropriate.

White Shaman Preserve is owned by the Rock Art Foundation (www.rockart.org), which vigilantly protects the property. The ancient rock art here is world-famous, and justly so. New research is currently on the verge of breaking the iconographic  code to understand what the artists from long ago were telling us in this panel.

An informed guide leads each tour.  The climb down into and up out of the canyon is moderately steep, and it can be very hot.  It is not recommended for those in poor health or with mobility issues.  The tour generally takes about two and one-half hours.

4:00 p.m.

4. Cool off in the Pool

This being hot desert country, almost any Del Rio hotel you stay in will have a pool.  The Ramada Inn’s two pools (indoor and outdoor) and three hot tubs are highly recommended.  Plunge into the cool water to lower your body temperature, then soak your bones in a hot tub.  Your muscles will thank you. Next, time for a nap in your dark air-conditioned room.

7:00 p.m.

5. Dinner Again at Wright’s

This is the best place to eat I have found in Del Rio.  Try the chicken fried steak with real homemade mashed potatoes and gravy or the  16 oz. garlic encrusted ribeye.  Really good. They also have fish, quail, and frog legs.

If it is dark when you come out, and the sky is clear, look up.  The Milky Way spreads out like heaven itself here in the desert. Better yet, drive further out of town and find a side road to park on.  Then stretch out on the hood of your car and drink in the night sky.


8:00 a.m.

6. Canyon of the Winged Anthropomorphs

Leave Del Rio by 8:00 a.m. for the 40 mile drive west on highway 90 to Seminole Canyon State Park (432-292-4464). Pay your entrance fee and tour fee of about $8.00 per person.  Wander the small but well done museum that explains human life from the  Paleolithic era to the present in this area. Listen to the explanation of rock art and watch the informative video while overlooking the canyon.  Put on your hiking boots, etc., use the restroom, and meet on the back deck at 9:55 for the tour to Fate Bell Shelter. Entrance to the canyon is by guided tour only.

Tours leave Wednesday-Sunday at 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. from September through May, and 10:00 a.m. only June through August. If you are lucky you will get an informed guide, but sometimes you get an intern that is pretty green, so you never know.  The hike in and especially out is moderately strenuous and very hot. Carry water with you. Do not put your hands and feet anywhere you cannot see, i.e. in rock crevices.  That’s where rattlesnakes like to hang out.

You will see two rock shelters on this tour, the largest of which is named Fate Bell, for the rancher who once owned the property.  Fate Bell is a huge rock shelter where 30 people or more could have lived comfortably.  And live they did, as evidenced by the sotol matting still visible in the disturbed cave dust floor.  Stay on the rubber mats put down by the park service at all times in order to prevent further damage. Flint flakes are everywhere on the floor as well, but do not be tempted to take them with you.  Look but don’t touch.  Please.

Fate Bell shelter is inspiring now, and must have been almost overpowering 4000 years ago.  Notice how the paint goes all the way down below the current floor level.  It probably continues down several feet, but we may never know, as any archeological digging would likely destroy the art that can be seen today.  It’s a real dilemma that frustrates many a concerned person.  The paintings cover the entire expanse in this shelter, so look carefully as you go. 

The brightest and best preserved grouping is the “winged shaman” at the left end of the shelter.  No one really knows their meaning, but they are powerful images, nonetheless.

12:00 noon

7. The Joy of Running Water

When the tour is over, you will likely be covered in sweat, so drive up to the campground and take a shower to cool off.  Hot and cold running, courtesy of the Texas state parks. Put on clean clothes. Believe me, you will feel much better.  Then eat the sandwiches you brought (you did, didn’t you?) and drink plenty of liquid. This is the time for that bottle of Gatorade.

1:00 p.m.

8. Pecos River Overlook

Leave Seminole Canyon State Park and turn left onto, you guessed it, highway 90.  Within about 2 miles you will see a sign for a scenic overlook.  Turn left there and wind around past the old mobile homes.  You will come to a roadside park with a magnificent overlook of the Pecos River.  The view is spectacular.  Look far to the left to see the conjunction of the Pecos and the Rio Grande.  From here, it’s time for the journey home, or to continue on your way.  Happy Highways!

If You Go

The Ramada Inn Del Rio, 2101 Veteran’s Blvd (aka highway 90), 78840, 830-775-1511, www.ramadinndelrio.com is a good hotel with two swimming pools, three hot tubs, an excellent gym, dining room, etc.  A room with two queen beds is about $60.00 per night.  There are many other inexpensive motels along this strip, as well as lots of chain eateries.  The Wal-Mart is one of the best-supplied I’ve ever seen, and is great for that forgotten sunscreen or hat.