Culture History

Jelly making in the desert

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Making prickly pear jelly

By Don Decker, YAN News   11/7/18

The Nation’s culture center had a jelly making class a while back using prickly pear fruit taken off of cacti plants.

Barbara McCabe, Apache specialist, mashes down the prickly pear bulbs in a plastic bowl.

Several members of the community spent a day going through the steps of preparing the harvested bulbs off of cacti plants at the culture center.

The hardest part is going out to the desert surrounding Camp Verde collecting the cacti bulbs. It’s not an easy task. Sometimes one has to hike a great distance to find a cactus grove or a patch. And while you are on your way, watch out for the desert varmints such as rattle snakes. Never reach into a cacti plant without looking first for this reason as rattlers like to hang around where birds might flit to catch a drink from one of the ‘pears’.

Linda Rocha, coordinator of the CHR Program for YAN sits down with mother-in-law Elizabeth Rocha, Apache elder who is an Apache language specialist.

When you harvest the bulbs off of the cacti plants there are certain procedures one has to follow. First, carry a large brush that you can use to clean off the bulbs before you try to pull them off of the cactus leaf. On the surface of the prickly pear one can see tiny nodules or spot. These places hold thousands of tiny spears that cane seen only with a magnifying glass. If one looks closely, you will notice that each of the spears pointing outward is actually a spear. That is, a sharp point with other spears covering the spikes all the way to the tip.

You will want to clean all of the spears off of the bulbs before you start harvesting. Otherwise, you will suffer severely with hundreds of tiny spears penetrating your skin on your fingers. It will take weeks for these tiny spears to extract themselves. They will remain embedded underneath your skin and they will create absolute trouble for you for days on end including losing sleep over it. You will regret picking prickly pears without cleaning them properly.

Once you clean and collect, you are off to the kitchen where you will further clean the bulbs by washing off the dirt and left-over ‘spears’ that you brushed off earlier.

Linda Rocha from CHR was at the workshop and said that all the bulbs are thrown into a large bowl where it is smashed and squished with a kitchen device (that’s used to smash boiled potatoes) to drive out all of the juices from the bulbs.

Instructor Patty West drains the prickly pear juice into a bowl.

Luckily, the Nation has friends all over the place such as Verde Valley School where teacher Patty West teaches. Patty, who is a close friend to Apache elder Elizabeth Rocha (who was in attendance), gave the lessons on prickly pear jelly making.

Prickly pear bulbs smashed and juice is drained into the jars.

Once the juice is separated from the now smashed bulbs, the juice is drained separately and collected in a separate container. The smashed bulbs are disposed of.

The recipe calls for some sugar and pectin that is added to the collected juices which is then boiled.

(Check on precise measurements for the recipe before attempting this).

Within 15 minutes (according to Linda), the boiling mixture begins to jell– which is a good sign that the formula is working.

The completed partially coagulated prickly jelly is poured into sanitized jars after which the lids are screwed down tightly. The jars are placed in a large boiling pan and it is boiled intensely to completely seal up the jars and creating a vacuum inside of the jar.

The lids become airtight and the hot water temperatures sanitizes all of the jars including the now partially jelled prickly pear jelly inside of the jars.

Jelly containers filled with prickly pear jelly

After the boiling time, let the completed jars of jelly cool off completely.

Prickly pear jelly is big business and if you pull into any roadside stop from Texas, Arizona and California, you’ll find these on the shelves with exciting labels on them. Remember though, it was with the work of blood, sweat and tears which made this jelly possible and that’s why they are expensive!!! Don’t complain when you pay for this at the counter. If you get a free one, count your blessings.

Now, get a loaf of 9-grain bread and spread some prickly pear jelly on it with a tinge of butter.

Make some tea also.


Photos by Chasen Ross, Nation’s media department

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