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Fruit of the desert: NM Prickly Pear Festival celebrates hardy, tasty Southwestern delight

Presenters give a demonstration at a past New Mexico Prickly Pear Festival. (Courtesy of Will Thomson)

Prickly pear cacti can be overlooked as a bountiful resource in New Mexico.

Will Thomson, organizer of the New Mexico Prickly Pear Festival, aims to change that. This year’s festival features virtual cooking demonstrations, cocktail-making presentations, music and more on Saturday, Sept. 12. A walk-through and a drive-through market also will be part of the event.

“We’ve been really happy that we’ve been able to convert it to a virtual format rather than just cancel it, especially since people are so starved for things right now,” Thomson said. “There’s going to be two main parts. We will still have an in-person market. It will just be a walk-through and drive-through market, so you can go on our website at nmpricklypearfest.com and shop all our 25 plus vendors on our online marketplace and with pre-order and drive through and walk through to pick up your products, or we will have purchasing day, where you will scan a QR code while you’re waiting in line and shop and walk through to pick up your stuff.”

Participating vendors will have many prickly pear products, including jam, syrups, doughnuts, sweets, cider and kombucha, as well as prickly pear-inspired art, prickly pear T-shirts, face masks, scrunchies and jewelry.

“Our focus is definitely on vendors from New Mexico,” Thomson said. “We want to promote it within the state, but honestly, partially because there aren’t that many businesses that use prickly pear, although it is quite an abundant plant that grows in the state, that’s partially why we expanded our reach because there’s not that many in New Mexico. I think one of the things is part of our mission is to promote to create a market for this in New Mexico and in the region and for it to be a thing that farmers, food businesses and food processors can really tap into as a resource that we already have that we don’t use as much.”

Virtual presenters include cookbook author Peggy Sue Sorensen of The Desert Kitchen, who will discuss prickly pear harvesting and processing. New Mexico State University County Cooperative Program Director Cindy Davies will do a prickly pear, jicama pickles demonstration. Kids Cook! will have a prickly pear cooking demonstration focused on child-friendly foods. Chef Lois Ellen Frank and Chef Walter Whitewater of Red Mesa Cuisine, based in Santa Fe, will hold two cooking demonstrations. One will focus on lunchtime cooking and the other on dinnertime cooking. Jessica O’Brien, creative director of cocktails at Sister bar, will conduct a prickly pear cocktail demonstration. Performances by Lara Manzanares and her band and singer-songwriter Liz Howdy end the programming.

All of the festival content will be streamed live. Interested viewers can register on the festival’s Facebook page or get a link through its website.

New Mexico Prickly Pear Festival workers at a previous event. (Courtesy of Will Thomson)

“This year, because we know that many people have been really hurt financially from COVID-19, we wanted to make the tickets no-barrier entry for anyone,” Thomson said. “The tickets are donation-based, with multiple tiers.”

All proceeds after event costs will benefit Three Sisters Kitchen, a nonprofit community food space in Downtown Albuquerque, and the Pueblo Action Alliance for COVID-19, which provides relief for indigenous nations.

Thomson hopes the festival encourages people to give the prickly pear cactus a second look as an ingredient to use in various dishes, desserts and cocktails.

“We are so close to Mexico, and it’s way more part of the food culture down there, and we want to create more of that here but also help out farmers, like, make this a resource for farmers by creating it more as an added value food product,” Thomson said. “… This plant that’s native to the U.S. Southwest is really sustainable to grow, because it doesn’t require a lot of water. It can survive very harsh conditions, but it’s also really delicious, and we want to show people that you can really do a lot with it.”

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