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Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Foods

Taste Here What You Can’t Just Find Anywhere, And See

For millennia, the Santa Cruz River Valley has been a natural corridor for the seasonal migration of birds as well as other wildlife, and for the cultural diffusion and exchange of foodstuffs. It harbors the northernmost populations of wild peppers known as chiltepines, but the first culinary use of chilies north of the present-day U.S./Mexico border was also recorded in one of its prehistoric villages. Other wild plants that have been prepared as food or drink in the Desert Southwest for upwards of eight thousand years —from century plants to velvet mesquite—remain in use here today. Thus the Santa Cruz River Valley can rightly be called one of the ancient hearths of Southwestern cuisines.

When we try to recall what foods have been grown, harvested, prepared and served here for many centuries, at least a dozen immediately come to mind: green corn tamales; carne machaca con verduras; flat enchiladas made with “gordita” corn cakes; tepary bean casuelas; prickly pear and saguaro cactus syrups; atole del mesquite; calabacitas; chiltepin salsas; sweet compotes made from quinces, figs, agave hearts or barrel cactus; capirotada bread puddings; and a kind of chile relleno stuffed with picadillo and garnished with pomegranate seeds.

These are some of the signature dishes of the ranchero culture which developed from Native American, Hispanic and Moorish roots over the last three hundred years. Some of them occasionally resurface in the cantinas, cafes, festivals and restaurants of the Santa Cruz Valley, but to most contemporary residents, they are at least seasonally out of sight and out of mind. And yet, when they do reappear during a quinceañera or cuaresma celebration, they are just as cherished as they were decades ago. While historically rooted in ranchero culture, these traditional dishes never remain the same for very long, for they are not fossils but living, changing foods. Their recipes shift as new influences and ingredients become available, and their presentation on the table has also varied through time.

Change is also the norm—not the exception—in farming and ranching traditions, although there are strands of continuity. Although the criollo corriente cattle were among the first livestock introduced to the region, other breeds have usurped them in importance. Ranchers religiously assess the status of native grasses and browse on the range, and alter their livestock management practices accordingly. Likewise, farmers are always finding new ways of directing water to the roots of their crops, so that currently-touted drip irrigation and water harvesting techniques are but a few links in a long chain of innovation and adaptation.

My point may already be obvious to you: the heritage foodways, farming and ranching practices of the Santa Cruz Valley are eclectic, building on many cultural influences and many improvisations pioneered by innovators here in our midst. The goal of the Heritage Alliance is not to freeze them in time, label and license them, but to let them live, breathe and mutate through time in response to human needs and ecological necessities.

Years ago, I made a pilgrimage on foot— up the Santa Cruz River from near its confluence with the Gila, all the way to Nogales, and beyond, to Magdalena, Sonora. When I arrived in the Upper Santa Cruz Valley near Continental, I came upon a small residence that had a simple hand-written sign declaring “green corn tamales” on its lawn. After I had put down my rucksack and knocked on a screen door, I was greeted by a woman in an apron who had been making green corn tamales all morning from a newly-harvested batch of Mexican June corn. Those tamales were so full of sun and soil that when I closed my eyes to eat them, they even tasted green. But they were not the only exquisite tamales being made that day; all the way down the road that I trod, I spotted other hand-written signs proclaiming “Get Your Fresh Tamales Now,” or, “Best Tamales on Earth.”

In the Santa Cruz Valley, it seems that every tamale is the best on the planet, and every salsa is better than average. Whether you find them for sale, or shared for free only at family feasts, remember that such foods bring us the distinctive tastes of very unique place. Seek them out, and savor them; they are our manna, the ephemeral nourishment of a dry land like no other.


Gary Paul Nabhan is co-founder of the Sabores Sin Fronteras foodways alliance. He currently lives between Sonoita and Patagonia, near the headwaters of the Santa Cruz.

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