Agave Pit Roasting: A Southern California Tradition
"You women who go out to gather acorns and walnuts, don't go alone. Go in a party of three or four. Look after each other. If you get a mescal head ready to cut off, don't stand on the lower side of it; always work on the upper side. If you stand below it while you cut, it will roll on you, and its sharp points will stick into you. If you cut it off and are about to chop away the leaves from the head, don=t open your eyes wide. Close them halfway so the juice won't get in them and blind you."
--Excerpted from daily, pre-dawn instructions given to his kinfolk by a Western Apache headman prior to beginning the day's gathering activities (Basso 1983:472).
This paper addresses the Southern Californian's use of Agave, sometimes called Maguey or Yucca. It is important to recognize that every group had its own particular way of doing things and the following description will not accurately represent the tradition of all Southern California Indians. The information in this article represents the way women from three different Cahuilla lineages use Agave.
If you squint your eyes and look at an Agave heart ready for the roasting pit, you can imagine it is a Rhinoceros skull, bleached white in the sun, the horn protruding. A careless misstep will remind you that the Agave heart is much more dangerous. Even in Paleolithic times men and women must have known they would more than likely get a painful poke or two while harvesting Agave, but the rich rewards must have made the risk seem reasonable. The Cahuilla prepared Agave where it grew, on rocky, eastern facing drainages and slopes of the mountains of the Sonoran Desert. For the Cahuilla this meant the eastern slopes of Santa Rosa Mountain, Mount San Jacinto, and the Chocolate Mountains. It was here that the roasting pits were constructed. The men dug three-foot deep, parabolic pits in sandy, out of the way, locations. Some of the pits were as long as twenty feet. A largish hearth stone was set in the bottom center of the hole and the sloping sides were lined with smaller stones. A fire of logs was built and maintained until the hearth glowed red and a thick bed of hardwood coals had been banked. The coals were covered with a layer of rock, then a layer of succulent Agave leaves was added. The clean, trimmed Agave stems sometimes called hearts, were added to the pit and covered over with flavorful, herbaceous greens, and more Agave leaves covered the whole. Finally, the pit was sealed with sand. The contents steamed and baked in this oven for three nights and two days. The entire process varied slightly from group to group, some elders recall herbs being added in their favorite family recipe, others do not.
Not all pits were used in this fashion, nor was Agave the only pit-roasted food. Chester King noted (Blackburn and Anderson 1992:283-293) some pit ovens in Ventura county were clean pits which were not filled with ash. Fires were built near these pits; there rocks were heated before being placed in the oven. Remnants of soap plant and unknown corms have been found abandoned in the ashes in another pit, presumed to be Chumash, and the addition of greens to the pits is indicated by the presence of pollens, which also indicate that the firing happened in the spring or early summer. The largest part of identifiable charcoal indicates the two most important woods used for firing the pits were Wild Lilac (Ceanothus spp.) and Chamise (Adenostoma fasciculatum); but minor amounts of Sugar Bush (Rhus ovata) and Manzanita (Arctostaphylous spp.) were identified also.
Although they are known elsewhere, the presence of roasting ovens corresponds roughly to the geographic limitations of Agave growth, extending from southern Mexico northward nearly to the Four Corners area and southwestward to the Pacific coast. Within this range grow a wide variety of Agaves, each exploited according to its individual characteristics. In some places pit-roasting ovens were known and used for other purposes. Such a pit is dug (with a backhoe) every year and used to roast packets of steer at the annual fiesta at the Malki Museum on the Morongo Indian Reservation, held the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend. This is also the only oven available in San Jose de la Zorra, Baja California, Mexico where it is employed every holiday and occasion for celebration when there is enough money to buy the meat or someone has been lucky in their hunt.
In the old times, when the air grew warmer, the shadows became shorter, and the sun lingered longer in the sky, the children knew it would soon be time to eat the sweet, meaty Agave hearts, which favorably compare with baked yams. In Southern California and Baja, most roasting began in April and continued for four or five months, further south roasting began in December, January or February, depending on the latitude and elevation. Agaves at the lowest elevations and latitudes would generally ripen earlier than those farther north or growing higher up the mountainsides.
The ripening of the Agave meant the end of the hungry months of winter. The acorn, mesquite, annual seeds, and piñon had ripened and been harvested before the rains began in the fall, and in most years the supply and variety had dwindled by the end of winter. Now the children, eager with anticipation, would run to the edges of the villages as their elders left to harvest and roast Agave. The littlest boys remained at home with the women and girls, but many of the older boys went with a few of their older male relatives to work the pits and proudly transport the harvest back to the village. The men and older boys lived in camp near the roasting pit for a week or two performing the many chores necessary for the roasting: cleaning out the pit, removing broken stones and ash; gathering fresh stones to replaced those which had cracked during the previous firing; gathering the wood for firing the oven; gathering and preparing Agave parts; and gathering other plants used for seasoning.
The return from the Agave roasting pits was only the end of a long chain of events which had begun months earlier. Before the plants were harvested in April, when the leaves and stalks were full of sap, lineage members scouted their traditional, family Agave stands noting the vigor of plants, the presence of disease or parasites, and any foraging by a major competitor, the Big-horn Sheep. After the spring harvest of flowers, stalks, and leaves, the plants were watched to see which stands prospered and offered hope of a good harvest. Because the areas harvested varied from year to year, pits were sometimes left in disuse for years, only to be returned to when the Agave was again ready in that place.
In caves near the pits the men sometimes stored the long hardwood, fire-hardened poles and other tools used to harvest the Agave. Agave is a treacherous plant with sharp, hard thorns at each leaf tip and in saw-toothed ridges on each leaf margin. The poles were protection against the Agave's painful sting; they allowed the harvester to remain well out of range of the thorns. The business end of the pole was sharpened to a point, slightly oval in cross-section. The pole was made from a sapling and ideally, the point was made from the root or bole end. Sometimes the point was fire-hardened for added strength. A slightly bent pole made a better tool, because the elbow could act as a fulcrum. Although the hardwood poles were heavy, they needed to be very strong since their job was actually to sever the Agave stalk and lever the heavy heart out of the plant.
The sharpened, blade end of the pole was forced deep between the leaves and into the succulent flesh at the hidden base of the Agave stem where it disappears underground. The harvester worked around the base of the stem, severing any tenacious root fibers, until the mass of heart and leaves was free. The toughness of the job was matched by the toughness of the Agave, it was hard, sweaty work. In some places, a short stake was hammered into the hard-hearted Agave. Once the underside of the plant was exposed the leaves could be removed, beginning at the broken end, by separating them from the hearts with a hardwood, shovel-shaped, fire-hardened hand tool. The creamy, satiny stalks, some the size of a woman's thigh, thus left exposed, were ready for roasting.
Men were judged by the quality and quantity of Agave they provided for their families, consequently, boys were trained from an early age in Agave cultivation and preparation. A good provider brought home enough to fill the bellies of his family, and enough to put away dried for the hungry months of winter before the hearts, flower stalks, and blossoms were ready again. Before the flowers opened, the buds would emerge on long candle-like peduncles rising from two to forty feet above the leaves, depending on the variety of Agave. These stalks like the hearts, were harvested and roasted when they were three or four feet tall and looked like gigantic asparagus stalks. Some stalks were spared so that the flowers they would produce later could be eaten, and likewise, some blossoms were spared so the sweet, seed pods could be harvested in high summer. Many pounds of flowers were picked by the women each spring. Like the roasted hearts and stalks, some of the flowers were eaten fresh, but most were dried and stored for future use. In this way Agave played a role as a major source of fresh food for four or five months in the spring and summer; the remaining months of the year, dried Agave products were rehydrated for use.
Agave stands were frequently five miles and sometimes more than ten miles from a village. The roasting tamed the Agave so that it could be taken home, soft and relenting, calorically concentrated, wrapped in leaves and packed in Agave nets, the thorny tips, excess water-weight, unusable fiber, and bitter leaves were left behind to recycle themselves. The first known use of pack horses by the Cahuilla was to transport Agave hearts home from the roasting pits (Katherine Saubel by personal communication).
The Cahuilla had special songs which were sung at camp on each consecutive night of the three-night Agave roast; each night had its own special name. Among the Kumeyaay, if one man saw the smoke from another's roasting operation, the one whose smoke was seen would have bitter Agave and would never know why. The observer of the operation must remain forever mute on the subject, however, lest his braggadocio ruin his own Agave.
Agave has long been used as a material for a host of jobs from, as Gary Nabhan wrote, the Grand Canyon to Guatemala. In Mexico, the plants frequently serve as fences. The roots of some species of Agave are grated and used as soap. An old Central-Mexican Indian man, whose name I never knew, showed me in 1981 how to peel off the impermeable exoderm of a five-foot long Agave leaf, called Maguey, in thin transparent sheets. He said the Aztecs used similar sheets as paper. I have never heard of Aztec paper made this way from any other source, but I can easily imagine this layer being laminated onto a substrate to create a smooth, matte writing surface. He also showed me how to extract a threaded needle from the same leaf.
Donna Largo, a Cahuilla basket maker, showed me a technique ten years later for extracting a needle and thread from a Yucca leaf; it was the same as that shown me years before by the old man, three-thousand miles away in Central Mexico. The thorn at the leaf tip is attached to fibers which run the length of the leaf. As the flesh is scraped away and the fibers are released, a needle and thread appear. The erstwhile thorn, now a needle, is trimmed to the desired diameter. These fibers have great tensile strength when plied together; they have been cropped from Agave leaves for thousands of years and fashioned into nets, sandals, baskets, bags, bowstrings, cordage, skirts, and mats. During the late 1800s there was a thriving business in Agave saddle blankets among the Cupeño at Warner's Hot Springs.
Donna Largo shared most of the following technical description of processing Agave for fibers with me. She learned these techniques from Tohono O'odham basket- maker friends of hers who regularly use Yucca in their basketry. The two most efficient ways to separate the fibers from the flesh are scraping and retting. Fresh or dried leaves are laid on a flat, firm surface for scraping. If dried leaves are used they are soaked until soft and pliable. A dull blade is chosen for the scraping as a sharp one might cut the fibers. The stroke direction is parallel to the fibers, and in a few firm, even strokes the fibers begin to separate. Sometimes the blade is held still and the Agave is pulled between the blade and the firm surface. Depending on the genus of Agave, the fibers can be left connected to each other to form 1/4" wide ribbons or separated into fine threads as thin as human hair. Several years ago, in one afternoon my daughter, then aged thirteen, stripped the fiber from a huge Yucca heart with ease.
Retting frees fibers through bacterial action. Agave leaves are soaked in stagnant water for prolonged periods, until the soft tissue becomes putrid and rots away, leaving fibrous strands. These strands are washed and dried for later use. Sometimes the leaves themselves are dried and saved for future use. Leaves stored for their fiber content must be specially treated. If white fibers are desired instead of brown or green ones, only the young leaves, never exposed to sunlight, are used. Each leaf has to be split at least once before being dried in the deep shade. Unsplit leaves develop chlorophyll as they dry; eventually they turn black and unusable and are discarded. Once properly dried for storage, the Yucca can remain in stasis for many, many years.
Southern California Indian peoples cultivated Agave like the Indians in Mexico did, planting what Nabhan called "pups" over thousands of acres. Evidence of Agave agriculture exists in central and southern Baja, and there is clear evidence of Agave agriculture among the people of the coastal and the inland valley regions of Southern California, particularly among the Kumeyaay. California people were never known to make intoxicating liquor from Agave as do the Indians of Sonora, Mexico, who not only ferment a Maguey beer, but distill alcohol from the juices of roasted hearts of their local Agave.
When the Europeans plied the waters off the coasts of Baja they recorded seeing an extensive series of fires along long stretches of the mountains in the interior of central Baja from the second week of November through the third week of December in 1539 and 1596. The December 9, 1539 journal entry of Francis de Ulloa reads (Mathes:38), "From the day before, which was the Conception of Our Lady, we saw many great smokes, whereat we much marveled, being of diverse opinions among ourselves, whether those smokes were made by the inhabitants of the country or no." Another translation of the same journal notes additionally (Mathes:80), "During those days we saw six or seven leagues inland many and large smoke signals, far apart and in such numbers that they were three or four leagues in extent." On December 21st the entry reads (Mathes:85), "...and here we saw the same smoke signals in the same manner and fashion as before. We were astounded to see that they lasted so long, especially since at night enough dew fell to quench all the fire in the world." The journals do not record that there were any lightning storms prior to sighting the smoke. Some of these fires might have been cleansing burns long used by Indian people to improve the quality of the plant materials they produce.
The Indians in all of Baja have long practiced ethnoagronomy in the form of extensive wild-plant management; there is no doubt that this is an ancient practice. Archaeologic evidence of extensive paleolithic use of plants strongly suggests more than 7,000 years of wild crop management experience. Agave was included in this complex social behavior of managing indigenous plant resources. We know that the Spanish were offered cooked Agave hearts and that the Agave was roasted from late-December onward, so it is reasonable to assume that some of the smoke seen by the Spaniards was due to Agave roasting and emanated from the ovens.
In 1596 Sebastián Vizcaíno recorded meeting people from southern Baja saying they brought various foods to him, including Agave, which he described (Mathes:137) "...and some thick white roots as large as an arm and very reasonable in flavor, which is the ordinary bread from which they sustain themselves." By 1602 Vizcaíno had learned much and Agave had become more for him than large white roots (Mathes:157), "Their ordinary meal is mezcal root because there is much Maguay."
Modern Indians still eat many traditional foods, Agave among them. They still gather Agave leaves for fibers. They make sure their children know how to prepare the plants, demonstrating and encouraging participation. There is always lots of laughter. Some things are different. Now, men, women and children of all ages gather Agave on family outings. Travel to and from gathering sites was originally on foot, later horse-drawn carts were employed, and now families and friends go by car or truck. No one I know stores the roasted stalks in the traditional pulverized, dried cake form. Pit roasting is now reserved for special occasions and to instruct the younger generation about the old ways. Modern appliances are preferred for routine cooking.
The flowers are still prepared the same way. JoMay Modesto a Cahuilla woman from Cahuilla Reservation described the process like this, "You pick the flowers before they get that yellow thing in there. You can use the yellow ones if you need to, but they are more work, so try and get the blossoms just barely opened." I went to the field to gather blossoms and sure enough the older, open flowers had a bright-yellow thing inside. Each stalk can bear over two pounds of flowers, so I left the older flowers and selected those just opening. In half an hour I had gathered several pounds of the flower clusters attached to the ends of tender branched stems.
Agaves are monocotyledonous plants, and the yellow things inside are the stamens and the gynoecium. These are the gene-bearing, male and female reproductive parts. The flowers are beautiful; they have the translucence of orchid petals and they glisten with sticky nectar as clear as water. The petals and sepals range from pale ivory to deep gold in color and the stamens and the gynoecium develop a brilliant lemon-yellow or black color as the flower matures. The individual blossoms are joined in odd numbered groups and connected to the flower stalk by means of bright, pale-green pedicels. The blossoms hang like bells with up to a hundred groups on a single flower stalk. Their beauty, combined with the heady fragrance of this night-pollinator, and the human scale of the inflorescence make gathering the flowers a totally satisfactory experience, especially when the flowers are gathered under a full moon.
Before the sepals, petals, and pedicels, or the succulent flower parts, can be eaten the bitter, yellow insides need to be pinched out. Then the blossoms must be leached to release any remaining bitterness. The way JoMay does this is to wash the blossoms, put them in a kettle and add enough cold water to cover. She brings the pot to a boil and as soon as it boils, she strains off the boiling water and again covers the blossoms with cold, fresh, water. She brings the kettle to a boil again and as soon as the water boils, as before, she rapidly drains and cools the blossoms. She repeats this process until all trace of bitterness is gone from the translucent, cream-colored flowers. Two leachings should be sufficient for young blossoms, unless there was little rain the year before. They are delicious, slightly sweet and mild in flavor. I have served them (to rave reviews) steamed with garden peas and fresh thyme. Elder Katherine Saubel jars them; they are beautiful on the pantry shelf.
I cook Yucca stalks in my crock pot like JoMay taught me. I think it is the equivalent of a pit oven, steam created by radiant heat. Gather the stalks when they have emerged but not blossomed. Clean the stalks, no need to peel, and cut them to fit in the pot. Fill the pot no more than 2/3 full. Add two tablespoons of liquid. Add herbs for flavor. Seal the top of the pot very well with aluminum foil, shiny side down. Put the lid on. Cook on high for 8 - 12 hours. The stalks can also be sealed tightly in foil and baked in a 325 ° oven until soft. They are delicious in soups and stews, or marinated and served in salads.
These notes were written based on conversations about traditional plant preparation held over several years with Cahuilla elders, Katherine Saubel, Donna Largo and JoMay Modesto, who kindly encourage my curiosity. My thanks also to the unnamed elder in Mexico. I have relied on Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants by Lowell John Bean and Katherine Siva Saubel and Gathering the Desert by Gary Paul Nabhan. I recommend Temalpakh for further detail and its photographs of Agave roasting and fiber preparation and manufacture. The material from the translation of old journals can be found in Mathes. For those interested in environmental management I recommend Before the Wilderness by Thomas Blackburn and Kat Anderson. An expanded version of this article which provides an archaeological look at remnants of ovens in the Mojave Desert appeared in Schneider et al. Finally, for those who want to know what that little yellow thing in there is or looks like, I recommend The Visual Dictionary of Plants.
Basso, Keith H.
1983 Western Apache. In The Handbook of North American Indians, Vol. 10 [Southwest], p.472. Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Bean, Lowell John and Katherine Siva Saubel
1972 Temalpakh: Cahuilla Indian Knowledge and Usage of Plants. Malki Museum Press, Morongo Indian Reservation.
Blackburn, Thomas C. And Kat Anderson
1993 Before the Wilderness: Environmental Management by Native Californians. Ballena Press, Menlo Park, CA.
Mathes, Michael W., editor
1992 Ethnology of the Baja California Indians. In Spanish Borderlands Sourcebooks, Vol. 5. Garland Publishing, Inc, New York and London.
Nabhan, Gary Paul
1985 Gathering the Desert. University of Arizona Press, Tucson.
Page, Martyn, series editor
1992 The Visual Dictionary of Plants. Eyewitness Visual Dictionaries Series. Dorling Kindersley, Inc, New York.
Schneider, Joan S., Elizabeth J. Lawlor and Deborah S. Dozier
1996 Roasting Pits and Agave in the Mojave Desert: Archaeological, Ethnobotanical and Ethnographic Data. In San Bernardino County Museum Archaelogical Papers. San Bernardino County Museum, San Bernardino, CA.