The prickly pear cactus, or “nopal” in Spanish, is a common vegetable used in Mexican recipes and dishes. Traditionally, it is eaten in tacos, salads, or with eggs, and most Mexican restaurants have it on their menu in some combination or alone (which tastes great, too). But this past Sunday, July 24, the vegetable appeared in some more unusual incarnations—like “nopales tuna con pastel de queso,” or cactus and tuna with cheesecake.
The day marked the Second Annual Festival del Nopal in Downtown Santa Cruz, a celebration of cactus, music, and Mexican culture.
The street was packed with vendors on both sides, giving the feel of a Mexican food Farmers’ Market: pervasive aromas of cooking tortillas and grilled carne asada, pollo, and al pastor (pork) wafted through the air, while families and couples walked up and down the street, choosing which taco booth would serve their palette best. One generous booth gave away free cactus plants for people to plant in their gardens.
The real action was the recipe contest, where attendees crowded around a corner booth to taste one-of-a-kind recipes.
Seven contestants, with a total of 10 entries, vied for the prize of best nopal recipe. The dishes ranged from more traditional—“nopales con carne” (cactus with meat)—to the strange (the aforementioned nopales con pastel de queso). According to event organizer and Santa Cruz City Councilmember Tony Madrigal, the latter, devised by Linda Gardener, won the Blue Ribbon and $100 prize. Second place went to contender Sal Ponce for nopales with pork rinds and pork chunks in red chile sauce, and Jaime Ortiz landed third place for a shrimp, chorizo, rice and nopales gumbo.
”Festival del Nopal in Santa Cruz was a huge success,” says Madrigal, noting that volunteer canvassers estimate attendance to be between 7,000 and 9,000. “I’m thrilled with the attendance to celebrate el nopal cactus,” he adds. The crowds came in full force to enjoy the festivities, which also included a Queen of the Festival del Nopal contest and free entertainment by Ballet Folklorico Centeotl, Ballet Folklorico Raices de Santa Cruz, Ballet Folklorico Aguila Real, and musical groups Rivales Musical, and Los Reyes de la Banda, La Calle Show, singer Eduardo Franco, and professional clowns performances by Chapita Show and Bebito.