Prickly Pear grows like a weed here in the sun drenched desert valley. The most recent news has been from The Mexican Institute of Nutrition in Mexico City where they're researching the health effects of the prickly pear in relation to cholesterol and diabetes. It was a caution to remove a couple of patches yesterday, suffice it to say I was covered with spines. When it's cut some of the downy like needles float into the air and can wiggle and work their way through just about any material. My jeans and a dual layer of T shirt and sweat shirt couldn't stop them all. When cutting back any kind of cacti make sure you cover yourself well, use a saw or loppers, wear glasses to protect your eyes, handle the fruits or pads with tongs and place them on newspaper so the papers can be easily lifted and put into the garbage or better yet a compost pile. If you do get spines in your skin, and there's no doubt you will, it's almost impossible to avoid, use tape to remove them. Press it onto the skin where the needle(s) are and give it a good firm yank, kind of like pulling off a bandaid real quick to get the pain over with as quickly as possible.
I guess the most vivid recollections of prickly pear encounters would have to do with my luckless Cousin Rickey. He was one out of the huge variety of cousins that would gather for family reunions in Lometa and always suffered the worst calamities. He decided one early morning to climb the big ole pear tree and fell smack dab into a big patch of prickly pear. Fate always seemed to get the best of him. My sister and I were city girls as far as most of my relations were concerned, so there was always some showing off to do for our benefit and one thing country boys like to show off are their guns. And Cousin Jerry was up to showing off his new shot gun. He pointed out his fancy work with a hand carved gun mount then pulled down off of the rack,cocked the gun and fired! We were all wide eyed with surprise when it blew a considerable hole into the cinder block wall, not to mention Ricky flying out of the bathroom which was on the other side of that said wall with his pant down around his ankles. The family seemed to take a great deal of pleasure in his mis guided statements like hollering off the front porch after dinner one night Look at that red bird's pecker! I was never too sure as we are a very strict Southern Baptist family so his great excitement was greeted with an ear spilliting silence. It was sad to read online in a travel journal that someone passing through Lometa, TX labeled it as a ghost town. The people there are friendly enough and quirky in the most lovable way. The Aunts were wanting to make up a batch of Prickly Pear Cactus Jelly late one summer and Cousin Rick and I were dispatched to gather up some of the deep red fruits. I had my sling shot Dad had whittled in case there was a rabbit or two to sneak up on and Ricky well he had his silly ole self and lots of questions to boot! We wandered up yonder towards my great grandparents which included a bit of a panic and a spint when I decided to take aim and shoot a bright white box setting high upon a fence post. I didn't know it at the time, but Grandpa kept bee hives to pollinate his crops in these big white boxes and Rick had learnt his lesson about hornets a while back, and he had warned me: Don't monkey with that! I guess what I recall the most was seeing Great Grandpa Godwin sitting in his rocking chair, it was hot and humid the buzz of cicadas in the summer air pushed the scent of honeysuckle and he's tetched a handkerchief up on his head with the four corners tied into knots so Ricky just had to ask him why was that and he says to me that it was to keep the flies off his bald head! Now go figger that one out and let me know what it might mean.
Summer time was canning time and it was an opportunity with so many hands around the house for Grandma to lay up a store of goods for the winter. She also helped out with the household income by selling her canned goods to the market in town. She was particularly well known for her pear preserves, sorghum syrup and oh she had the best tomato garden! I'd put a little salt from the salt box in my pocket hide out there in those itchy vines feasting ripe tomatoes! Her tomato preserves were so good that I would pour them right out on top of salad like a dressing. Anyway we would take the fruits of the prickly pear and hold them over the fire of her wood stove to burn the spines off and always early in the morning before the heat of the day. The best fruits (or as some call them tunas) are best to harvest when they're so red they're a deep purple and soft. We used thick gloves and a knife to harvest them while others try tongs and twisting them off of the pads.
Prickly Pear Cactus Jelly
One quart of prickly pear cactus fruit makes about 2 ½ cups of juice. Wash under running water, then use a brush to clean. Some folks leave the spines on the fruit and say they will soften during cooking and come off after the fruit is strained. To make juice, unpeeled whole fruit can be cooked with just enough water to cover in a sauce pan. Mash with tater masher
and let cook 30 minutes. Strain through several layers of cheese cloth
or cotton muslin
dish towel. Do not add water. Set aside and let the juices settle. For a clear jelly
, do not use the portion containing the sediment.
In a saucepan, measure out 2½ cups of cactus juice; add 1 package of powdered pectin. Bring mixture to a fast boil, stirring constantly . Add lemon or lime juice and sugar. Bring to a hard boil (one that cannot be stirred down with a spoon) and let boil for three minutes. Timing is of the utmost importance to get the recipe to jell properly. Remove from heat, skim and pour into hot canning jars leave ¼ inch space per jar. Wipe jar rims and seal lids. Process for 10 minutes in a boiling water bath.
Makes about 6½ pints jelly. Enjoy with biscuits,fresh breads, or over crackers with some Raspberry Lemonade for a unique treat.