All hail the mighty mesquite

Politically correct barbecuing: Fun for the whole world.

By Andrew Leonard
April 13, 2006 2:41AM (UTC)
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When I grill, I use mesquite charcoal. I sometimes worry that this is an effete Northern Californian foodie affectation. The hoi polloi can have their briquettes or gas grills, but I won't let my grill or smoker be kissed by anything but hardwood mesquite lump charcoal. Oh, I have my reasons -- it burns faster and hotter, it tastes better -- but still, there has always been a bit of ambivalence: Should I really be paying that price premium?

Why yes, yes I should. I learned several new reasons to love mesquite today. First, an Energy Bulletin link to an article in the U.K. Guardian informed me that from an environmental and climate-change standpoint, lump charcoal is the superior choice.


Charcoal briquettes are the worst: If they aren't pre-impregnated with a hydrocarbon solvent to help them catch fire, they're still produced by an energy intensive manufacturing process that often includes mixing in nasty coal dust, wood scraps, sawdust and other ingredients. Propane is considerably cleaner, but still a net contributor of greenhouse gases.

Lump charcoal, however, is "carbon neutral" -- an aspect that these days is just about as close to living in a state of grace as we humans can aspire to. When you burn it, you're simply emitting the carbon dioxide that the plant captured during its life cycle. I was also quite relieved to learn from the Naked Whiz's Lump Charcoal Database (Reason No. 1,745,982 why I love the Internet) that the brand I use exclusively, Lazarri mesquite, is sustainably produced by pruning and selectively thinning Mexican mesquite trees.

But the glorious mesquite (aka "wooden anthracite") saga doesn't stop there. Mesquite has often gotten a bad rap -- ranchers in the American Southwest hate it because it grows in thorny impenetrable thickets that are almost impossible to eradicate. But therein lies a clue. Mesquite is a member of a group of about 40 different species of trees belonging to the genus Prosopis, and Prosopis is a hot topic in development circles. Prosopis trees grow in extremely arid, semi-desert conditions and fix nitrogen in eroded soils. Mesquite timber can be made into high-quality furniture. Prosopis seed pods are a great source of animal feed.


But there is much work to do. As an announcement of a Prosopis conference in 1996 noted, "Despite the widespread importance of Prosopis for firewood and forage for very poor people of Mexico, Haiti, Sahelian Africa or India, due to very limited communication between these poor people of arid regions there has been little international awareness of the problems and potential for Prosopis. With recently improved genetic strains, soil management techniques, native stand management techniques and marketing efforts, there is great opportunity to rapidly improve the lives of very poor people in some of the world's most harsh ecosystems."

It just goes to show, one person's invasive weed is another's hardy "pioneer." And as a summary of the main findings of the 1996 Prosopis conference noted, "the importance of a nitrogen fixing species with strongly pioneer characteristics must never be under-estimated." So fire up the barbecue, and raise your tongs to the mighty mesquite. Good for the environment, good for the developing world, the enemy of desertification, a plant that can benefit man, woman and beast.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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Environment Global Warming Globalization How The World Works