Food & Drink

The cactus connection: Tucson becomes an unlikely food star

There are food deserts, those urban neighborhoods where finding healthful food is nearly impossible, and then there is Tucson.

When the rain comes down hard on a hot summer afternoon here, locals start acting like Cindy Lou Who on Christmas morning. They turn their faces to the sky and celebrate with prickly pear margaritas. When you get only 12 inches of rain a year, every drop matters.

Coaxing a vibrant food culture from this land of heat and cactuses an hour’s drive north of the Mexican border seems an exhausting and impossible quest. But it’s never a good idea to underestimate a desert rat. Tucson, it turns out, is a muscular food town.

Eight months ago it became the only place in the United States designated a City of Gastronomy by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known by its acronym, UNESCO.

A half-dozen years ago, the international agency began including food as a part of cultural heritage worth protecting, recognizing the importance of things such as Armenian lavash, the Mediterranean diet and the gastronomic meals of the French.

In 2004 the group began a Creative Cities Network to link places where folk art, literature, music and other creative pursuits are being put to use to guide sustainable urban development. In the gastronomy category, Tucson joined 17 other cities, among them Parma, Italy; Bergen, Norway; and Ensenada, Mexico.

“They want towns where the designation will make a difference,” said Jonathan Mabry, Tucson’s officer for historic preservation and an author of the application.

To an outsider, Tucson’s star turn may be a bit of a head-scratcher. Certainly, the city has plenty of reliably delicious tamales, brilliant renditions of huevos rancheros and devoted eaters who will spend the day debating the best place to get a good raspado.

There’s even an outpost of Pizzeria Bianco, Chris Bianco’s Phoenix restaurant, which serves what several critics have called the best pizza in the United States.

Still, Tucson has never been high on any list of great food cities. Even Santa Fe, N.M., its Southwestern-food sister, gets more love.

But as people here will tell you, being a great food city is not always about the restaurants.

“Tucson has really figured out the connection game,” said Megan Kimble, the editor of the Tucson magazine Edible Baja Arizona and the author of the 2015 book “Unprocessed: My City-Dwelling Year of Reclaiming Real Food.”

The UNESCO designation has been a rallying point for a city that has to balance an annual influx of snowbirds and University of Arizona students with a substantial American Indian community, recent immigrants and deep pockets of poverty.

“It gives us a reason to have deeper discussions about food and what it means to everyone who lives here,” Kimble said.

Cooks here make great use of the food that comes from the desert, finding ways to incorporate agave, cactus pads, amaranth and the tiny wild pepper called chiltepin. Mesquite pods are pounded into sweet flour that is baked into cookies.

Descendants of fruit trees introduced in the 1600s by the Rev. Eusebio Francisco Kino, an Italian who explored the Southwestern deserts, offer quince, figs and white pomegranates with soft seeds that taste of apple and grapefruit.

Cholla buds, the slippery flowers of a cactus that taste vaguely of asparagus, are chopped into salads and salsas. Members of the Tohono O’odham nation sometimes gather them on the San Xavier Indian Reservation near Tucson and dry them, selling the buds in jars and soup mixes at the San Xavier Co-op Farm.

“They’re OK, but it’s not like cholla buds are going to take the country by storm,” said Janos Wilder, a French-trained chef who opened his first Tucson restaurant in 1983. “But they’re neat because it’s an absolutely unique and important story. It takes its place in a larger context.”

A lot of the food from the Sonoran Desert is like that.

“I thought it was a wasteland when I first came here, but slowly my eyes opened up,” he said.

The city’s devotion to creating livelihoods from its heritage foods is part of what appealed to UNESCO, said Gary Paul Nabhan, a seed-saving expert who advised the city on its application. Nabhan, a MacArthur Fellow and director of the Center for Regional Food Studies at the University of Arizona, has written more than 30 books, most of them about the plants and cultures of the Sonoran Desert.

Nabhan, an ecumenical Franciscan brother who helped start Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit organization that saves and distributes Southwestern heirloom seeds, is a proponent of what he calls desert terroir, and the ingredients that make up what he calls borderland cuisine.

One of them is white Sonora wheat, one of the oldest varieties grown in North America. Kino introduced it to the Tohono O’odham farmers, who welcomed it as a winter crop and used it to make the precursor to the thin, stretchy wheat tortilla that is the foundation of Mexican border cooking.

Don Guerra, a cult star among the nation’s slow-fermentation bread bakers, uses it in the loaves he bakes in an Italian deck oven he installed in his Tucson garage. His community-supported bakery, Barrio Bread, produces 900 loaves a week for people who order it online.

“Tucson has a kind of open-software approach to food,” he said. “People want others to succeed, especially if you can make food from this region.”

The UNESCO honor has lifted a town that sometimes doubts its place in the cultural hierarchy.

“It’s like a new point of pride,” Guerra said. “For so long we’ve been this poor cousin of Phoenix.”

But Tucson will always be Tucson, a place people either love or hate.

“There’s no one who’s ambivalent about it,” said Kimble, an L.A. transplant. “But once it gets in your soul, it’s in there.”