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Cooking San Pedro
San Pedro Preparation 2
by Steve Barton
Jan 21, 1994

ABSTRACT

Various nopale recipes from dianna kennedy's "the art of mexican cooking" are adapted to trichocereus pachanoi. implications of using this cactus as a foodstuff are examined. the primary challenge to the cook is seen to be mucilage and bitterness, rather than emesis or cramping.


INTRO

Traditional preparations of Trichocereus pachanoi involve boiling the sliced whole cactus for long periods of time with various admixtures. drawbacks to this are 1) emesis: the curandero actually seeks to make the patient vomit and if the pachanoi preparation fails to induce this a supplemental emetic draught is administered, and 2) pharmaceutical complications: a datura speciesis usually added to the broth. reliable dosage information for tropane alkaloids from natural sources is very hard to come by, the margin of error is vastly smaller than with, say, blotter acid, and the special contributions of tropane alkaloids to an entheogenic experience may not be sought-after. :-)

Most contemporary practice either mimics a simplified form of the traditional broth (abandoning both the datura, the emetics, and every shred of the set-and-setting of traditional use) or follows well-established chemical methods of alkaloid extraction (which is time-consuming and equipment-costly, and usually involves toxic solvents.)

One neglected approach is to treat the cactus as a vegetable foodstuff, and draw upon mexican culinary experience with nopales (opuntia cacti) as prior art. the results of some initial explorations of this approach are reported here.


PREPARING THE CACTUS

T. pachanoi is a slightly tapering cylinder with a small number of ribs (typically 6 or 7), and clusters of 1-2mm spines running along the ridge of the rib and spaced about 1" apart. cactus cuttings in the market range in diameter from about 2.5"-3.5". cuttings of these diameters range in weight from < 1.5 oz/linear inch to 3.5 oz/in.

The outermost layer is a tough, plastic-like membrane a significant fraction of a mm thick. directly underneath this is a zone of green tissue less than 1/4" thick. this shades rapidly into a zone of white tissue. at the core is a hollow cylinder of tough fibers, from 0.5"- 1.5" dia, with a heart of more white tissue. in younger tip-cuts the fibers are like a loofa-sponge, or softer. in more mature base cuts they are very woody, almost like bamboo bbq skewers.

There are conflicting statements in the popular literature about which of these tissues contain the entheogenic virtues. the outermost membrane is almost certainly devoid of them (unfortunately Ott's Pharmacotheon asserts that this is where they reside). the green tissue is most widely identified as the seat of these virtues, and i believe this to be the case. it is a logical location for a barrier of cactophagic repellents, it proves to be sharply more bitter than the white tissue (certainly indicating that it is very basic, and *probably* indicating that it therefore has the highest concentration of alkaloids), and the obvious informal qualitative bio-assay suggests that the white tissue is either very weak, compared to the green, or else entirely inactive. one experienced respondent opined that the white tissue none-the-less contains enough non-entheogenic psychoactives (such as the mescaline precursor dopamine?) to positively "color" the experience.

There are many ways to approach peeling off the skin, but this gave me the best results:

Nick or notch out the spine clusters. split the cactus by cutting from the "valleys" between the ridges inward to the center of the core. this yields a "stick" of cactus with a diamond-shaped cross section which gives the most support to the green tissue during the peeling. starting from the corners and working along the length of the ridge, carefully peel off the skin. take multiple passes to do this. it is possible to detach the skin in a single piece, if you are patient. avoid leaving any of the green tissue clinging to the skin. the skin is likely to tear when lifting it away from scars and blemishes. the peel can be re-started by picking at it with a thumbnail if this happens.

this is rather time-consuming. kennedy suggests listening to music while peeling nopale paddles, so there may be no way to speed this up. blanching the unsplit cactus for a minute in rapidly boiling water only makes things worse: it causes the soft tissues to begin to exude mucilage, a whitish waxy scum boils off of the skin (which is nauseating to even look at), and the skin still adheres.

once the cactus is peeled it should be further broken down. i split the green layer off, then cut the fibrous tissue off of the white tissue.

the peeled cactus can be used fresh, refrigerated for a week or so, or dried in a home food-dryer. "cactus jerky" can be further processed in a blender or food processor to yield "cactus granules".


RECIPES

*crudites st. pierre*

slice raw, peeled cactus into sticks. eat like "bitter cucumber spears". add salt, lime-juice and chopped cilantro to taste. this is, so far, my method of choice, partly because it is so minimalist.

*ensalada de nopalitos*

to each 4 oz of peeled, chopped raw cactus add 2 Tbs good-quality cider vinegar, and let stand in the refrigerator for at least an hour. add chopped parsely to taste. this is the second-best tasting recipe.

*nopales asados*

fry raw, peeled cactus strips in extra-virgin olive oil over medium- high heat, until the sharp edges brown, and small golden-brown blisters rise up on the faces. this ties for second best-tasting. the white tissue, in particular, has an underlying quality of sweetness that is brought out by frying, and the contrast of the crispness with the now-gelatinous interior is rather nice. serve lightly salted.

*nopales al vapor*

to 1 2/3 C peeled, trimmed, and chopped fresh cactus add 1 Tbs chopped scallions, a minced clove of garlic and salt to taste. fry in 1 Tbs olive oil, covered, over low-medium heat for 10 min. shake the pan from time to keep the cactus from sticking. when the juice has started to flow, uncover the pan and cook for an additional 15 minutes, until the juice has evaporated some, the residue has begun to resorb, and the cactus is lightly browned. scrape the pan with a wooden spoon to prevent sticking. yield 1/2 C.

this is the best-tasting recipe. my concern is that some of the mescaline might stick to the pan rather than being entirely resorbed, although perhaps it is not carried out of the tissues in the mucilage, but remains behind in the cells. it *does* significantly reduce the volume of the cactus material.

*chunky snot tea*

add 1 - 2 Tbs cactus granules to 1 C hot water, and let stand for a bit. insignificant-looking granules swell to rice-grain size, and even finely chopped and ground fibrous tissue become noticeable "chunky-bits". the mucilage becomes quite pronounced, dripping in strings from the stirring spoon. adding the juice of 1/2 lime, or so, decreases the bitterness.

i wish that i could say that the mucilage reconstitutes as a silky unction, reminiscent of some beloved child-hood comfort food, but what it really reminded me of was a bad head-cold. tossing the reconstituted tea back into the blender smoothes out the texture some. i can't help thinking that this treatment has potential, but i'm darned if i can make it manifest.

*cactus jerky*

the peeled, sliced, and dried cactus sticks can be eaten out-of-hand. this is my second-favorite recipe. it is more work than "cactus sticks", but can be made ahead, and is quite handy. since the mucilage begins to reconstitute during chewing this has the unnerving property of "the more you chew, the more there is to chew".


CONVERSIONS AND YIELDS

a widely-quoted figure says that t. pachanoi (wet) is 0.12% mescaline. freeze-dried unpeeled t. pachanoi is quoted at 2%. it is my impression that fresh cactus varies significantly in entheogenic activity, but this might be due primarily to water content, rather than environmental or cultural considerations. home-drying is probably not as complete as freeze-drying.

8 oz (226 gms) whole, unpeeled, fresh cactus == 270 mg mescaline
12 oz (340 gms) whole, unpeeled, fresh cactus == 400 mg mescaline

2-2.5" dia fresh unpeeled ~= 1.5 oz/in
3.5-4" dia fresh unpeeled ~= 3.5 oz/in

16 oz. fresh cactus ~= 3 oz. fibrous pith
   + 6 oz. white tissue
   + 6 oz. green tissue
   + 1 oz. skin and spines.
12 oz. fresh cactus == 1 oz. dried (+ 7/8 oz. peel).
1 oz. dried cactus == 2 slightly heaping Tbs cactus granules
4 oz. fresh cactus == 5/8 C chopped.



PALATABILITY

the discarding of the skin is probably an essential step to reducing the nausea induced by any cactus preparation (with the exception of a proper chemical extraction.) just looking at the waxy scum that boils off of it in just a minute of blanching is enough to turn my stomach. this stuff was not evolved to be digested, it was evolved to be abrasion-resistant and water-proof. it makes cucumber peel look burpless.

generally, the addition of lime-juice or vinegar improves palatability by neutralizing the bitterness, which is particularly intense in the green tissue (see "chemical considerations" below). mature tissue from the base of a column seems to have a sandy, crunchy texture, although storage in a dark closet for some weeks may reduce this, as well as possibly intensifying the alkaloidal content (one cactacean informs me that t. pachanoi moved into the shade increases its alkaloidal content, although it grows fastest in direct sun.) the bitterness compares to a bitter espresso, but in volume can become daunting.

i've only had one mild episode of stomach cramping. as noted an authority as shulgin says that that can almost be counted upon even with pure synthesized mescaline. i don't know if the mucilage actually soothes stomach tissues, or if an inveterate espresso-drinker such as myself has such a cast-iron stomach that mescaline can't get its attention, or if i just haven't yet eaten enough, often enough. nor have i yet suffered emesis, although sometimes those last few mouthfuls of bitter green tissue or the last gulps of mucus tea will start my gorge rising.

any kind of heating, as well as exposure to food acids, starts the flow of mucilage. some cacti species have such pronounced mucilage that they are used to repair pottery. dry-heat treatments such as pan-frying act against this trend, but diced t. pachanoi salad stored in the refrigerator can become quite slimy (although after an hour or so, the volume of drawn juice reaches equilibrium). reconstituted dried cactus (as in "tea", above) can become quite unpleasantly slimy.

i would discard the fibrous tissues, unless i was doing an extraction. it's just too hard to make it seem like food.

the best-tasting recipes *do* taste better than simple raw cactus, and also shrink the volume of cactus to be consumed, but they don't taste a *lot* better.


CHEMICAL CONSIDERATIONS

presumably the addition of lime juice or vinegar converts various free-base alkaloids into their respective citrate or acetate. i don't know if this has any implications for absorption. i would expect stomach acid to convert free-base to the chloride, so except for any alkaloids absorbed sub-lingually the body won't ever be dealing with eaten cactus alkaloids as their free-base.

according to mcgee "on food and cooking", heat-induced browning reactions in food occur from about 130C - 210C, so i'd expect the surface of frying (not scorching) cactus would not exceed that, nor the moist interior to exceed 100C. a kind respondent assures me that mescaline has a boiling-point of 320C @ 1 atm, and that offhand he sees no reason to think that it will decompose before it boils (although he suggests that i ask a Real Chemist (tm) to be sure. can any of you speak to this?).

it is not clear to me whether the break-down of cell walls and other plant structures (and possibly break-down of mucilage) in the process of cooking contribute to speed and efficiency of mescaline absorption. i am assuming, but do not know for a fact, that mescaline from well-chewed raw cactus tissue in healthy stomach acid is subject to an absorption practically as as complete and fast as that from a boiled-down sludge or hot-water extract.


FUTURE WORK

two approaches for further exploration suggest themselves. the first is to see if 30-60 minutes of pressure-cooking will reduce raw cactus (perhaps with a bit of lime-juice) to a porridge with a more-uniform texture, possibly with reduced slime. chilled, this might work as a gazpacho, or hot, as a vegetable consume' or chowder.

the second is to see if the mucilaginous quality can be capitalized upon and exploited as a virtue. i look forward to corresponding with any gumbo-cooks who might have thoughts along these lines.