In 1841, the Republic of Texas sent the 320-man Texan Santa Fe Expedition to annex New Mexico. While traveling across the Texas Panhandle, however, the expedition ran out of supplies. The mesquite tree, which grows abundantly in the area, became the soldiers’ primary source of food. So useful were the beans from the mesquite trees, says Ken E. Rogers in his book, “The Magnificent Mesquite,” that the men referred to the roasted and boiled beans as “manna from Heaven.”
These men were not the only ones to discover the value of the mesquite tree as a food source, of course. During the Civil War, Confederate soldiers made coffee with roasted, ground mesquite pods and boiled dried mesquite leaves for tea. Honey from mesquite flowers was a valuable sweetener at the time, as well. But long before these 19th century Texas residents turned to the mesquite tree, the indigenous tribes who occupied the land that would become South and far West Texas already had a full understanding of the uses and benefits of mesquite.
The trees provided the native people in these regions with necessities such as fuel for their fires and construction material for their dwellings. Mesquite trees were also an important source of medicine; the natives used boiled and diluted sap as an eyewash and antiseptic, the boiled inner bark as a laxative and the leaves to make a tea to treat upset stomachs and headaches. But the pods of the mesquite tree were especially important. The seeds were dried and pounded into a flour that was mixed with other ingredients to make breads and drinks. Spanish explorer Álvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca, who lived with various groups of indigenous natives in the area after having shipwrecked on the coast, even wrote about the process of the pods being ground into meal using wooden pestles in the early 1500s.
The history of the mesquite tree is entwined with the land that became Texas, and for good reason. According to the “Texas Almanac,” about 56 million of Texas’s 167.5 million acres contain mesquite trees. Moreover, mesquite trees in Texas account for 76 percent of all the mesquite trees in the U.S. Although this hearty, stubborn tree enjoyed a reputation as essential to life during the early settlement of Texas, its reputation suffered as ranchers and farmers sought to tame the land. The tree has roots that extend deep into the ground, robbing water from other plants. Cattle have trouble maneuvering through the thickets the trees create with their low branches and thorns. And the Texas Natural Resources Server refers to the mesquite tree as “one of the toughest, most invasive species of brush in the world.”
Yet, despite the continuing antipathy toward the mesquite tree, its reputation as a food source is enjoying a rebound. People are making the old new again as they rediscover the valuable edible properties of the tree. In addition to the increased popularity of mesquite-flower honey and mesquite molasses, mesquite flour is rising to the forefront as a superfood. Made from the dried, milled mesquite pods of the honey mesquite (Prosopis glandulosa), the naturally gluten-free, sweet flour has a warm spice flavor of cinnamon, with notes of cocoa and molasses. It’s a low-glycemic food that’s high in protein and fiber with respectable amounts of calcium, magnesium, potassium and iron. Used as a substitute for 25 to 50 percent of other flours in a recipe, it imparts an exciting new flavor to dishes and improves the nutritional content. Mesquite flour is mostly available online and imported from South America, but according to Patsy Hester, owner of Ozona Flour Mill & Goods—which is currently the only source of Texas-produced mesquite flour—interest in locally produced honey-mesquite flour is growing. Considering the abundance of mesquite trees in Texas, this time-honored yet often maligned hero could finally reclaim its important heritage and place in history, as well as become part of the state’s culinary and economic future. The following recipes take advantage of the unique flavor qualities mesquite flour has to offer.
By Teresa Morris