Sep 29 2013

Red with Envy

Melissa Crytzer Fry

Now that fall is here, I have a confession: I spent the summer with a bit of garden envy. You see, with Arizona’s summer temperatures in the scorching 100+ range, anything we grow during this season becomes brittle or baked, sizzled by the sun. Well – at least that’s been my gardening experience.

Who could blame me of this vegjealousy (yeah, I made that up…) – especially after a trek back home to Pennsylvania where my parents’ garden yielded such bounty?

In August, I had my share of fresh, delicious tomatoes right from Mom’s garden. Click to enlarge.

True, I am a novice potato-digger. Those are my skilled scalping – I mean shovel – marks. Click to enlarge.

Despite this envy – of not only the veggie abundance on the east coast, but also the gardener’s green thumb – you’d be surprised what the desert yields all on her own during the summer months … something I was sure to harvest before I left for Pennsylvania.

Meet the prickly pear cactus and its gorgeous magenta-colored fruit. Click to enlarge.

Appropriately named, this fruit is protected by the flat-paddled cactus and the dagger-sharp, prickly spines growing from it. Those spines, however, aren’t the biggest danger when harvesting prickly pear fruit.

You can, for instance, encounter this:

I belted out a pretty good scream when I pulled at a fruit that, unbeknownst to me, was hollowed out on the other side of my tinkling tongs. Inside: a lot of angry bees. Click to enlarge.

Or you might encounter this in the “prickly pear patch.”

Yep – that’s a rattlesnake slithering away, not quite awake at this early morning hour, except for my intrusion. I won’t tell you how close I came to stepping right on this fella who was coiled up and sleeping -- or how many snake ‘divots’ I counted. (I go out early to pick fruit before it’s … you guessed it … 100+ degrees).

Then there’s this:

What, you ask? No danger here. That’s some beautiful fruit, you say. But look closely at those tiny hairs piercing the delicate fruit flesh. (The goal when washing the fruit – armed with a small scrub brush and rubber gloves – is to remove these little buggers).

Those miniscule unassuming hairs are called glochids, and they sprout from the polka dots on each fruit, as well as on the paddles (nopales). In fact, when done with washing, this is always the sight in the sink:

BEWARE! Glochids are masters of disguise, lodging in fingers, arms – even the tummy, if you’re not careful. You may not even know they’re there, until you brush against one and see that your skin is an angry red. Owee! Then you’ll search and see nothing. You’ll wonder where this phantom pain is coming from. Tweezers will be your only hope – and provide your only proof.

So why do it? Why go through all the hassle of harvesting this fruit*? And why do gardeners labor the way they do, selecting the perfect seeds, cultivating to perfection?

This. This is why I do it. Prickly pear jelly is unlike any other flavor. In fact, I honestly can’t explain the taste. Not fruity. Not veggie like. Sweet but not too sweet. It’s untamed. It’s natural. It’s just … prickly pear. It’s just right. Click to enlarge.

I’ve also made a red onion-prickly pear relish, prickly pear margaritas, prickly pear syrup… Umm…

Yes, all that work is worth it in the end – just to see this shimmering quilted jar against blue skies, to taste the jelly’s sweetness on my lips, to see this beautiful thing that I played a role in harvesting and transforming.

Why else? Because sometimes we do things simply because we love them – despite the glochids that we didn’t even know were there, until one jabbed us, until one pierced our skin.

For Readers: What activities do you continue with, despite them feeling like labors of love? Why do you continue?

For Writers: What hidden glochids of the writing world have you faced? Have they been painful, rewarding, unexpected? Why do you carry on, even when faced with these hidden obstacles? How do you harvest and transform in your writing life?

*I accidentally discovered the lazy woman’s juice technique: freeze the fruits whole, then later defrost them, which yields incredible juice by simply squeezing the Ziploc. One must, however, strain the juice thoroughly through cheesecloth. Trust me: you don’t want rogue glochids piercing your tongue.


23 Responses to “Red with Envy”

  • avatar Julia Munroe Martin Says:

    I’ve never tried — but have always wanted to — prickly pear juice/jelly, so I’m very envious! Of the hidden glochids not so much. I’m afraid for me, most parts of the writing/editing process is fraught with hidden glochids. Challenges emerging when I least expect them… but like the prickly jelly, I imagine that to conquer or at least tame them is the best feeling ever!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Did they have prickly pears in Colorado or California where you lived? I thought they were mostly in AZ, but I don’t know!

    Yes… challenging glochids are hidden all over the place, popping up when you least expect them. Such is the writer’s life, eh?

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  • avatar Nina Says:

    I’m so fascinated by that jelly and MUST taste it some day some how!!

    Impressed by your parents’ garden too!

    I’d say the painful thing for me these days is having a deadline, but it’s also the thing that’s forcing me to produce more writing and develop more as a writer.

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    Melissa Reply:

    There is a place in Tucson that sells it commercially (it’s pretty good!): http://www.cherisdesertharvest.com. So you can order it, OR you can come out to the desert with me and MAKE SOME! 😉 I promise, I pulled the glochids off.

    Deadlines … yes: a blessing AND a curse.

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  • avatar Laurie Buchanan Says:

    Wasps, rattlesnakes, and glochids! Those are some mighty dangerous hurdles to leap prior to yielding the delicious, jewel-toned prickly pear jelly!

    You asked, “What hidden glochids of the writing world have you faced?”

    I’m not a tremendous fan of the “pitching” process in the world of writing. But I carry on because I love to hear the “Yes!” response.

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    Melissa Reply:

    We have that in common, Laurie. Pitching is tough work, and often not very fruitful! 😉 But you keep picking away till you get a yes!

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  • avatar Erika Marks Says:

    What a wonderful treat to see the evolution of this treat! My dear, remind me: Is this that fabulous jelly you sent us? I can’t recall exactly the name but only that it was so delicious and so exotic. This looks incredible–and clearly a lot of work to yield such a luxurious flavor. Yum!!

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    Melissa Reply:

    I do believe it was prickly pear jelly – though it also could have been saguaro cactus jelly (So sad that I can’t remember!). Guess I’m going to have to make some and ship it out to some friends! 🙂

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  • avatar Jolina Petersheim Says:

    Oh, YUM! What a delicious treat. Now I’m the one struggling with envy! 😉

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  • avatar Shary Says:

    Your harvests, both in PA and in AZ, are beautiful! I love gardening, but have better luck with flowers than veggies because I’m very neglectful. I’ll get involved in a story or I’ll have a week packed with rehearsals and I forget all about my plants. Only the strong survive!

    My writing glochids are all internal and they center on self-doubt, a very prickly emotion. But I find if I focus on the pleasure of writing instead of the fear of failure, I get a lot more done.

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    Melissa Reply:

    Me too, with the neglect – unfortunately. Someday I want to possess enough patience to garden and keep the veggies alive!

    Oh, girl – boy do we have some writing glochids in common when it comes to self doubt. At one point, I become completely ineffective at objectively looking at my work. But you’re so right: if we focus on the ‘journey’ and not the destination, it’s much more pleasant!

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  • avatar Annie Neugebauer Says:

    It was really neat to see that process. I remember all the trouble my mom used to go to just to make dewberry jam, and that has significantly fewer hazards. 🙂 I imagine the bars in Arizona must have lots of prickly pear flavored drinks!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Wait … what? What is dewberry? It sound delicious! C’mon down, and I’ll make you a prickly pear margarita, my friend.

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  • avatar Donna Says:

    In my opinion, making jelly is an art. And those jars of Prickly Pear jelly look like works of art. 🙂

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    Melissa Reply:

    Funny enough: prickly pear jelly is THE only kind of jelly I’ve ever made!

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  • avatar Jackie Cangro Says:

    A friend visiting Arizona brought me a treat: prickly pear jelly candy. The taste was heavenly. I could enjoy that flavor every day.

    I always wonder, who was the first person who decided to pick this fruit? How many of those glochids did he/she get stuck with? I would have given up, but I’m glad that person stuck with it. 🙂

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    Melissa Reply:

    Well, I believe the Native Americans in the southwest came up with a use for the fruit, out of necessity. It’s actually very watery, to be honest, so I imagine it was used for hydration. But I haven’t a CLUE how they figured out how to harvest it without rubber gloves and scrubber brushes. I’m in awe thinking about it. They also knew how to use mesquite pods and grind them into flour (a laborious task). The paddles of the catci are also edible before the spines get really spiky (when they’re young, they are just soft nubs). Tastes like zucchini. I love it! More than you ever wanted to know, I’m sure!

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  • avatar Cynthia Robertson Says:

    What beautiful red jelly, Melissa! I miss those Northern gardens as well, though I’m finally getting the hang of SW gardening now, (after 11 years of living here).
    Glochids – I never knew what those little tormenters were called. They make getting fiberglass in your skin seem like nothing, by comparison. I’ve thrown shoes and clothes away, rather than deal with them.

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    Melissa Reply:

    The smaller jar to the right actually also has jalapeños in it!

    SO- what’s in your garden? And what are your secrets? We have so many critters here that it’s nearly impossible. My first garden attempt down here was a complete failure, with the rock squirrels stealing my cherry tomatoes just as they ripened, something felling my almost-ready pepper plants at the bottoms of the stems … no beavers around here, and I’m still perplexed. Then there were the tiny virdens that liked to peck their beaks into the cherry tomatoes for the moisture only. And, of course, bunnies and javelinas and desert pack rats oh my!

    YES! Fiberglass in the skin IS preferable to glochids. And affirmative on throwing away the clothes. Not worth it to try to get them out!

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  • avatar Amber West Says:

    I see these things on my neighbors unruly cactus and have always wondered if they were prickly pears!!

    Guess who’s sneaking in…ahem, I mean, asking her neighbor if she pick their fruit? 🙂

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    Melissa Reply:

    Ha… I can just see it, your stealthy moves under the cover of darkness. Make sure they’re prickly pear cacti, first! And be forewarned: they kind of taste like “nothing” juice-only. Now when you get the sugar mixed in is when you have some flavor! Naturally.

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  • avatar Mari Says:

    Wait. You can eat those pink thingies? I feel stupid now. Because we have a massive cactus in the back yard – way in a corner – and I thought those were just some odd flower. Boy, do I feel dumb dumb and dumber than dumb. Thanks for this, Melissa!

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    Melissa Reply:

    Ha, Mari – you’re cracking me up. One would probably NOT look at them and think they’re edible. And they’re only edible with lots of prep. As I told Amber, they are NOT sweet to eat and really only seem to come to life with the aid of sugar. Trying to slice and peel one like a real fruit is also nearly impossible. They’re really mushy, and you’d be lucky to salvage one “chunk” of the pulpy fruit. A labor of love for sure!

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