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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Life is Beautiful: Cascabel

When my friend Monica first invited me to go to Cascabel for a night of camping at her friend Chet's property and attending the local mesquite milling festival, I probably made a face and offered some lame excuse about being busy but promised to try to make it if at all possible thinking there would be no way that would happen. But when she e-mailed the reminder a week before the even I gave myself a stern look in the mirror and said: "You love camping. It is probably a beautiful place. How much work would you get done on a Friday night. Plus, Monica mentioned mesquite pancakes for breakfast. You would love it. Go." And so I did. And I loved it.

Cascabel is a small town situated on the banks of the San Pedro river, east of Tucson, AZ and about 24 miles north of the town of Benson. I didn't know anything about it when we left Tucson but by the end of the trip I was happier for knowing such a place existed in the Universe. In the words of Mary Taylor who has written a brief history of the area "Cascabel is a place and a community. The place is an area about 40 miles long and ten miles wide along the San PedroRiver, beginning about 8 miles north of Benson. There is no post office, no school, no service station, no quick mart and just the beginning of a general store. There is only one road in, through and out of the area with some ranch access roads. The Community is mostly made up of special, different“characters,” independent, but cooperative when needed. "

Having left Tucson after sunset in a caravan of nine cars we arrived in Cascabel well after dark and soon joined the crowd huddled around the fire. Dinner time! I honestly didn't see what everyone else had for dinner but my friends and I, all being amateur gourmands, brought some seriously tasty stuff! I threw several potatoes stuffed with butter, thyme and garlic and wrapped in aluminum foil in the coals in my first adult attempt at real baked potatoes. While I was waiting for the potatoes, Monica treated me to a generous serving of pasta salad with sun-dried tomatoes and smoked gouda, James shared some cheese tortellini with home-made pesto and pine nuts, and Jon grilled a dozen skewers with elk meat over the camp fire. Smores followed dinner; the tin box full of chocolate chip cookies which I passed around came back almost empty; Monica was taking orders for hot chocolate with mint schnapps. We sang and laughed, and looked at the almost full Moon, warming our hands, and feet by the fire late into the night.

Roasted marshmallows. Chet and Monica. Fire. Jon singing.

The morning came earlier than expected, and after the soft lights and deep shadows of the night before, now everything seemed almost too sharp, the sunlight brighter than usual, the air crisper, the edges sharper. I climbed the hill above our camp ground and the horizon opened - rolling hills, towering Saguaros and low shrubs, and only a gravelly road winding into the distance, the pristine beauty of the Sonoran desert. Breakfast was served at the Community Center where the smell of pancakes and waffles filled the air in the spacious hall and the line was winding to the door. Almost all ingredients of this delicious breakfast were local - from the flour for the pancakes to the prickly pear syrup on every table. So, so tasty, I went for a second waffle. As the mesquite bean milling began and clouds of flour swirled in the wind, we headed out back home.

Making pancakes. Breakfast. Milling mesquite. Locally grown.

What struck me most about Cascabel and its people was the deep dedication to living sustainably. The eggs and milk came from chicken and goats in town, there was talk about the community garden, all produce was grown there, by these people. Knowing where the food came from, talking to the people who invested their effort and time in bringing it to the table, listening to them talk about it, made me have so much more respect and appreciation for the breakfast on my plate, and gratefulness to these wonderful folks. Chet was explaining about how cows in the town are being herded on foot and led to different grounds to avoid overgrazing of the fragile desert flora. Pearl stopped by our table while refilling the prickly pear syrup bottles and gave us tips on harvesting the prickly pear fruit. People were sharing the long wooden tables for breakfast and everyone was pitching in with something - cleaning the tables, washing the dishes, shelling corn or picking through the mesquite pods.

Indeed, life is beautiful, especially when mesquite waffles are a part of it.

Daniel's Mesquite Waffles

1 C whole wheat flour
3/4 C mesquite flour
3 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
1 1/4 C milk
1/2 C oil

Separate he eggs. Stir together the dry ingredients. Combine egg yolks, milk and oil, and stir with the dry ingredients. Beat the egg whites until fluffy and fold them with the rest of the ingredients. Do not over-mix. Follow the instructions of your waffle-iron to make the waffles. Makes about 8 waffles.

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