Stage-3 Sierpinski Tetrahedron sitting in an agave roasting pit at the Desert Botanical Gardens in Phoenix, Arizona.
It is difficult to tell, but the agaves are huge and the pit is gigantic. The edge-length of the pink stage-3 Sierpinski Tetrahedron is about 9 inches. I spoke with Ruth Greenhouse, Director of Educational Services at the Desert Botanical Gardens about their agave roasting pit exhibit because the image is so compelling that I hoped to include some background detail about it, which was graciously provided. Below, I have paraphrased information that she shared in a telephone conversation.
Many agaves are edible. The short, thick stem, called the heart or head of the agave, includes an outer leaf base that resembles a huge artichoke. In the southwest, particularly southwestern Arizona, agaves were frequently harvested in the early Spring when they were starting to send up flower stalks. Sugar is stored in the stem for energy to grow. If the flower stalks were allowed to grow for very long (the same flowers that we see and admire when looking at agaves in bloom), the sugar in the stem would become depleted, thus, the agaves were harvested when their flower stalks were in early stages of growth when sugar in the stem was still abundant. The heart of the agave sits beneath the ground. It had to be popped out and thoroughly cooked in a large pit oven. To make the pit, a big hole was dug and lined with rocks, a fire was built and left to burn down to hot coals until the rocks were super-heated. Moist vegetation was placed over the coals (hot rocks), on top of which went the agave hearts, with more moist vegetation piled on top of them. The pit was then covered with dirt. The agaves steamed and cooked for two or three days, until they were tender. The leafy-looking pieces on the outside of the heart weren't eaten, but pulled away easily after the roasting process, revealing a central stem like a pineapple, fibrous and juicy, with a sweet and smoky flavor. They were then dried and eaten all year. The Mescalero Apache got their name from eating mescal (another name for agave).
Ruth wanted me to make a few points, the first being that all agaves aren't edible, second, that one should never experiment with eating wild plants, and finally, that it is illegal to collect agaves from public lands. The information on this page is being shared for historical purposes only.