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Why Desert Foods are the Most Fragrant & Flavorful in the World

An Interview with Gary Nabhan by Casey Kittrell

Casey: In your new book Desert Terroir , you make the claim that some of the foods from the Desert Southwest are among the most flavorful and fragrant in the world. Why is that?

Gary: Well, the very chemicals that we love to taste and smell in a well-prepared meal of herbs, vegetables, grass-fed beef and wine produced in our region are present because they play roles in the survival and adaptation of the plants and animals that evolved here. In fact, their intensity is heightened during the heat waves and droughts we’ve been having because they help reduce stress, protecting the species from solar radiation, water loss or tissue damage. Our book Desert Terroir explains how desert ecology and evolution affect culinary quality.

Casey: Give us some examples of the desert’s most pungent and delicious foods.

Gary: There’s a Mexican oregano and a wild chile pequin pepper down in the Big Bend of West Texas that can knock your socks off with their pungency;  by the way, they are high in anti-oxidants. The purple wine grapes grown in our region—from Mission to Tempranillo—get higher doses of flavorful phenols when they grow under late season stress. So do purple and red prickly pear fruit. And some of this carries over to the intense but agreeable flavors of grass-fed beef or mutton, especially from heritage breeds like Texas Longhorn and Corriente cattle, or Navajo-Churro sheep.

Casey: So how can we think about this in relation to the drought that has hit Texas and adjacent states over the last couple years?

Gary: While yields have been dramatically diminished, flavor intensity in some food products has been significantly heightened. If you are a farmer or rancher, tell that story and ask consumers to pay higher prices for flavor, fragrances and textures they are not likely to get from the watered-down Midwest or East, where such culinary qualities are diluted.

Casey: Talk a little more about terroir—the taste of place—in relation to story.

Gary: Chemistry is not the only factor that affects our taste of place. Our taste memory is heightened by memorable stories, and cultural connections. Eating is always about more than getting sufficient calories and nutrients. The traditional foods of the Southwest have great stories behind them, and I tell a few in this book.

Casey: In fact, you take us back to the first recorded accounts of immigrants from the Old World naming and tasting the native plants and animals of Texas.

Gary: Yep. I have argued in Desert Terroir  that the unsung hero of Southwestern cuisine was an African-born slave turned Native American medicine man, Estevanico el Moro aka Moustafa al-Azemmouri. He kept the Cabeza de Vaca expedition alive by his know-how of how to survive in the face of drought. We could all learn a trick or two from him.

Casey: speaking of the senses, you recruited your old friend and collaborator from other award-winning books to help you with Desert Terroir . How do you think Paul Mirocha’s  visual images in the book help people grasp what terroir is all about?

Gary: For me at least, Paul’s drawings and paintings are so evocative. They use graphic images to heighten our sense of place, which leads into more fully relishing pour sense of taste. One sensory stimulus triggers another. That’s why Paul’s contribution to our first book together, the John Burroughs Medal-winning Gathering the Desert  were so significant that I considered him a co-author rather than simply an illustrator.

Casey: One of the joys of this book is discovering just how many culinary connections there are between this desert, and those fabled deserts of North Africa and the Middle East. There’s a certain amount of agricultural & ecological continuity in what thrives in an arid climate, of course, but do you think immigrants to the Desert Southwest were even keener than immigrants to other climes to re-establish their native foods in their new homeland?

Gary: Yes, they were much keener to do so because seeds and breeds from temperate and tropical climes often fail under the heat, drought and alkaline soils that are characteristic of deserts. So those heirloom crops which had done well in the Middle East, North Africa, Andalusia and the Canary Islands were actively sought out by immigrants who knew they were going to drier lands in the New World.  Conventional seeds and breeds from wetter climes make desert food production far more expensive, even when they do survive or succeed. So those who had already been exposed to the indigenous agriculture of drier regions in the Old World integrated both foods and techniques derived from several continents to create a mestizo agriculture and a fusion cuisine. Mole sauces are a great example of this—they are Moroccan as much as Mesoamerican.

Casey: There’s also quite a bit of personal history in this book. Could you talk a bit about some of your personal epiphanies, the moments when you felt the Southwest had its own special taste?

Gary: You know, Casey, we tell stories to discern our own paths within this world, and our readers want to know about how our journeys have shaped or ethical, spiritual and ecological sensibilities. Good readers ask authors a simple question: how did this experience change you, and how might reading this nook change me.   In my case,  did not become engaged in writing about food history because I grew up in a family of gourmets;  I learned to love the peasant-style foods of my Lebanese aunts, my Hispanic and Native American neighbors  who used locally-harvested ingredients often because they had no other choice. But their foods were steepened with a sense of place, and were delicious. That was an inspiration in and of itself.

So when I first prepared a “local dinner” of Rio Grande catfish, wild-harvested Mexican oregano and chile pequins while I was in Big Bend, it was out of humility for having just been with Mexican families who had few choices except to make the best with the herbs, game and fish they could bring to the table. It was an epiphany—that true food justice means that we don’t privilege ourselves with foods out of reach of our neighbors, but share the same foods as a gesture of cultural communion—it’s sort of a food golden rule. That is what motivated me to become a pioneer in the local food movement, not an elitist urge to eat high on the hog.

Casey: The epilogue posits that, ironically, just as we are re-awakening to the noble idea of terroir, climate change threatens to alter it beyond recognition. But even if we accept a certain degree of climate change as inevitable, what can we do now to maintain a sense of place in our food for the future?

Gary: Climate change will inevitably alter what we can reasonably grow where we will live, and will subtly change the tastes of the foods and beverages we produce. But the exciting endeavor is using our knowledge to “adapt to the new normal” – and renew our sense of place. That’s what ‘m trying to do with rainwater harvesting for 50 varieties of heirloom fruits and nuts in Patagonia Arizona. Come and visit, Casey. Taste and see.

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