For the Table and the Soul
By: Gary Paul Nabhan
Home cooks and chefs of the Southwest have never lacked for delicious fruit, given the fact that native prickly pears, wild plums, elderberries, wolfberries, blackberries, hackberries, and persimmons grow along streams and in canyons from Texas to California. But a turning point occurred in southwestern agricultural and culinary history roughly 400 years ago, after the first Spanish-introduced fruit took root on American soil in the watersheds of the Rio Grande and the Rio Colorado.
Suddenly, large, edible, or fermentable fruits were available to be grown in this semiarid region, and whether dried, jammed, pickled, or fermented then distilled, they began to offer fruity fragrances and flavors to farming communities year-round.
Missionaries, miners, and Mediterranean fruits
Perhaps no other introductions were as rapidly adopted and distributed across the Southwest as were the Mediterranean fruits carried along by missionaries and miners. Arguably, the impact of these Spanish-speaking immigrants on America’s horticultural legacy dwarf those of Thomas Jefferson and Johnny Appleseed.
And yet, few American horticultural historians have bothered to pay as much attention to the northward cultural diffusion of fruits and nuts from Spain and the Canary Islands to Mexico as they have to the westward diffusion from Williamsburg, Plymouth Rock, and New Amsterdam. Nevertheless, prior to the arrival of the Spanish themselves, as far north as the Gila River near present-day Phoenix, watermelon fruit and their seeds had been traded up from Spanish colonies in Mesoamerica.