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The Road to UNESCO – Tucson ambitiously seeks to be recognized as the first creative city for gastronomy in the country—but is it realistic?

By Heather Hoch

The winding, rocky road up to Gary Nabhan’s Patagonia home is definitely not suited for a sedan. It gets pretty hairy a couple of times while creeping up the path going just a few miles per hour upward, but there, at the top of a hill with a beautiful vantage of a couple local farms, is Nabhan’s rustic Southwestern home. The irony is that, in trying to figure out what makes Tucson a gastronomic destination, driving an hour south of the city and into another county actually makes a lot of sense-—if ever there was someone whose collective knowledge could sum up the long and unique farming heritage of the region, it’d be Nabhan.

Once at the top of the hill, his long career as an agricultural ecologist and enthobotanist is evident all around. Nabhan’s home is surrounded by trees and plants grown using farming techniques used in the area for thousands and thousands of years. It’s that continuous agricultural heritage, spanning back 4,000 years—the longest in the country, that offers one large argument as to why Tucson and its surrounding areas should be recognized as the first UNESCO-designated Creative City of Gastronomy in North America.

“This designation is about gratitude for everyone who came before me, who each in their own way told us something—the Native farmers, the local fruit peddlers, the archaeologists,” Nabhan says. “It’s a vibrant city that hasn’t forgotten about its past.”

Nabhan, who co-founded Native Seeds/SEARCH—a local seed bank that boasts nearly 2,000 ascensions of native plants, is growing fruit and nut trees that can be traced back to the Jesuit missionary Father Kino and his farming days at the end of the 17th century at the Mission San Xavier del Bac. The trees are dug into shallow trenches, surrounded by rocks, and when it rains, the rainwater reaches to those rocks at the tops of the trenches to maximize rainfall.

On the slope past his fruit trees, Nabhan employs one method of water diversion common in indigenous agricultural practices. Step-like ledges constructed from tree branches field water to agave and cacti along the decline. The agave was formerly used in fermented, but not distilled, drinks like pulque. He says that when the sun hits Tumamoc Hill back in Tucson just right, you can see evidence of this type of farming to this day.

Nabhan describes another of the region’s earliest water gathering techniques used in the floodplains from the mission, 10 miles north, to about where the Tucson Convention Center stands today. Canal systems, some of which date back to 1200 BCE, diverted floodwaters in a way that not only delivered water, but also sedimentary nutrients in the soil that would runoff in the process and help nourish crops. This technique was often employed to grow what Native American groups call the “three sisters”—corn, beans and squash.

Looking past the flourishing native plants growing on the slope, you can make out the Native Seeds/SEARCH Conservation Farm, which is currently between seasons showing hints of last season’s harvest in golden husks and this season’s eventual bounty in bright green sprouts. Of course, heritage plants are the focus of the farm, which grows 120 different varieties of desert-adapted fruits as well as chiles, onions, garlic, shallots and more.

Nabhan says just 50 years ago, most Tucsonans had backyard farms with both crops and livestock, and pastures and fields were abundant.

“When I came to Tucson, there were miles of floodplain water harvesting, and we’ve seen its demise. Desert Harvesters [a local nonprofit focused on promoting native farming through rainwater] was trying to bring back just as it was about to flicker out,” Nabhan says. “The food traditions are being revived by enthusiastic youth in the indigenous community. Very few regions have any of that left—an unbroken chain of food traditions.”

That chain is, according to Nabhan, “not just antiquity, but innovative exchanges between cultures,” and that’s where the viability of Tucson’s application really starts to take shape.


Gary Nabhan points to the Native Seeds/SEARCH Conservation Farm in the distance.
Gary Nabhan points to the Native Seeds/SEARCH Conservation Farm in the distance.



In 2014, the City of Tucson, led by Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, applied for that UNESCO designation, but was informed that the application was just a few points short of being approved. That was hardly the end of the journey, though. Jonathan Mabry, who not only works for the city as its historic preservation officer but also serves on the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance board, was appointed to compile Tucson’s 2015 UNESCO application. He says the organization was helpful in recommending ways they could strengthen their proposal, but by the time the 2015 application was released, the entire application had been reformatted.

Looking over the application, there are about 30 prompts, many of which ask big questions that offer only 1,000-character (not word) responses. Mabry says research and editing aside (which is the main part of it), it took a couple weeks to draft. The application was due July 15, 2015, and Tucson’s submission was 16 pages when complete.

“Everything had to be wordsmith boiled down,” Mabry says. “It was a big relief once it was finally turned in. It was like the essay test from hell.”

Although Nabhan was the one to originally bring the designation to the city’s attention, he’s dismissive of taking credit for it.

“This isn’t about individual vision. It’s about showing the institutions of Tucson can collaborate in a way that shows the whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” he says, adding more plainly, “There ain’t no hero to this story, aside from the community itself and its multicultural legacy.”

While working to get this designation, Mabry has also grown accustomed to defending Tucson’s place as a leader in gastronomy.

“UNESCO has a much more expansive definition of gastronomy—it’s not just cuisine,” he says. “It’s about using gastronomy as a vehicle for economic development.”

Simply put, it’s all about the “Food SHE”—a mnemonic device Mabry uses to recall the full name of a city initiative that focuses on food security, heritage and economy. Mayor Rothschild said in a statement to the Tucson Weekly that those layers are what make the application a contender:

“I created Tucson’s Commission on Food Security, Heritage and Economy to look at issues as diverse as food deserts, heritage agriculture, community gardens and our overall food economy from farm to table. The gastronomy designation is broader than just our excellent restaurants, although our local foodie culture is a big part of it. For example, how we grow food in our desert environment is a matter of interest to other cities in similar climates. So UNESCO will be looking at our application from many different angles.”

Currently, there are 69 cities in 32 countries in the Creative Cities Network, which laud communities in seven categories including literature, folk arts and music. All fields use the same application. There are eight cities around the world that have the gastronomy designation, but none are in North America currently. The United States has three cities recognized in other fields, and China leads the way with eight total cities recognized.

Although Melika Medici, a project officer for UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, said the organization could not confirm the total number of 2015 applicants until the final announcement for recipients was made, Medici did describe what the organization was looking for in the following statement:

“Gastronomy, as one of the most universal cultural and creative practices around the world, is not only an inseparable part of history and tradition, a strong contributor to social identity and inclusion, but also an inherent carrier of cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible, as well as a unique link between urban and rural areas. In this regards, gastronomy can indeed enable economic and non-economic development as it is often people-centred and place-based.”

So, Mabry says in order to understand Tucson’s application, its food system must be seen from start to finish.


Looking at Tucson’s food system could really start in two different directions, both of which depend on each other. There are the seeds, and then there is agricultural education. Nabhan and others working through Native Seeds/SEARCH are restoring those native and heritage foodlines, but they’re not alone. The Pima County Public Library offers roadside seed libraries that lend heirloom seeds to the public, while also providing information on how to grow these foods.

The UA worked as a partner on the application. The state’s oldest university offers teaching farms, as well as partnerships locally and globally to discuss issues of conservation, agriculture, food security and justice. Maribel Alvarez, UA faculty member and Southwest Folklife Alliance executive program director, has focused on documenting and conserving traditional farming and foodways in the region through her organization Sabores Sin Fronteras.

The UA also offers 10 degrees through the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences that span topics from natural resource conservation to nutrition to plant science and more. Nabhan says the difference between when he was going to school for agriculture to how the topic is approached now has completely changed.

“When I was getting a masters in agriculture, we were discouraged from being farmers—what a stupid thing,” he says. “It happened to my brother at Purdue. They laughed at him and said someone from the city shouldn’t be a farmer.”

“We’d have to use [this designation] to get back to the lost value of producing food for your own citizenry,” he adds.

From there, the application looks at different local growers like Tucson Village Farm, Las Milpitas Farm, the Mission Garden, the Tohono O’odham Nation’s San Xavier Co-op Farm and different urban agriculture initiatives, which provide education and land for people to learn to grow their own food, regardless of economic status. Although not expressly mentioned in the application, nearby farms like BKW Farms in Marana and Ramona Farms in Sacaton, also contribute to the culture by commercially growing heritage Sonoran white wheat, native tepary beans and more.

“It’s about more than just Tucson,” Mabry says, “It includes Baja Arizona and the borderlands.”

If produce grown in backyards or on local farms prove to be too bountiful for the grower, groups like Iskashitaa Refugee Network and the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona will come and collect excess produce in a process called gleaning. Over 100,000 pounds of freshly grown produce is picked, gleaned and redistributed to those who need it by these groups each year in just Tucson alone.

All of that education and agriculture go forward in the system to local markets and restaurants. Behind the scenes, community kitchens offer an important incubating space for food trucks, bakers and purveyors of value-added products at farmers markets. While states like New Mexico fund these spaces institutionally, Nabhan says Tucson businesses like the Mercado San Agustin have had to take the initiative to open kitchens on their own. Similarly, cutbacks in food relief and assistance programs, and comparatively underfunded initiatives to promote locally grown foods by the state, have led to other “do it on my own kind of” innovations, as Nabhan puts it.

“It’s our history and our identity,” Mabry says. “Tucson does well when we build on our strengths. When we try to become other cities, we struggle.”

While it’s been called the city’s food arch, it actually is beginning to form more of a closed loop. The 3000 Club’s Market on the Move and Borderlands Food Bank’s Produce on Wheels Without Waste have rescued millions of pounds of food that would be discarded between food distributors and grocery stores. They offer up to 60 pounds of fresh produce for a $10 donation. Of course, once food is no longer edible, initiatives like the UA-sponsored Compost Cats and the independently-run Scraps on Scraps offer ways to turn food waste into farm-friendly compost, and so the cycle continues.

All of those things considered, Mabry says, “I think we’re very qualified to receive the designation. It’s an exciting time for Tucson where we are getting recognition for our food, rediscovering our food history, being innovative about preserving heritage plants and grains through seed banks and libraries, rebuilding the food shed, restoring local food source … and learning how to reduce food waste.”

Of the 16 pages in the application, this all, of course, is only a portion of the organizations and initiatives mentioned. When it comes to tourism—one of the expressed increased benefits of getting the designation, there’s one section of Tucson’s gastronomy that should be given another look.

“It’s not just about the crops,” Nabhan says. “It’s also about the cooking techniques.”


Native Seeds/SEARCH is beginning to grow a sampling of the over 2000 native seed varieties they have in their bank.
Native Seeds/SEARCH is beginning to grow a sampling of the over 2000 native seed varieties they have in their bank.



What does Tucson taste like? This rather experiential question is now in mind when discussing the gastronomy of the region because it is something almost anyone living or visiting the region will encounter. According to Nabhan, it’s many things that come together to create a “playground” for local chefs.

“Sonoran enchiladas, mesquite pancakes, chiltepin salsa, mezcal bacanora, pecan pie set up with prickly pear syrup rather than high fructose corn syrup, fresh greens grown in local greenhouses year round, Sonoran white wheat made into tortillas as big as a pizza, mesquite smoked whiskey made from barley grown at a farm 20 miles away and malted off of Grant Road.

Nabhan continues: “It’s not the taste of a single food, but how it links back to a place. They call it terroir, and I know we have it. Now we can use it to get out of the deep shit politicians and pundits got us into.”

Mabry agrees. “Our city doesn’t taste like anywhere else,” he says. “It’s a combination of recipes and ingredients from a long and complex culture …You can find those ingredients in farmers markets now.”

Chef Janos Wilder has led the charge for native foods in the restaurant community for over three decades. He describes the flavor of our city by both its ingredients and the “cultural culinary icons”—those dishes made here that everyone knows and loves.

“It’s the earthiness of the beans. It’s a good acid balance because we grow so much citrus. It’s spicy, but a rounded spicy that’s not about how hot you can make something. It’s floral and juicy. It’s fatty from the meat and dairy. It’s earthy again from the corn tortillas. It’s herbaceous from cilantro and such. You just know it when you taste it.

“Really, those flavors are the same everywhere because those are just balance points. It’s the ingredients that make it play out differently,” Wilder says.

Although Wilder now serves on the Native Seeds/SEARCH board and won a James Beard award for his work in Southwestern cuisine, he says his path to appreciating the region’s flavor wasn’t exactly a linear journey.

While working at a restaurant in Colorado at over 8,000 feet in elevation, Wilder found it difficult to get deliveries to his restaurant. He’d wake up at 8 a.m. to drive to Boulder to buy groceries for the night’s meal until he noticed his neighbors growing rhubarb, fishermen catching trout and other locals foraging mushrooms.

“The idea was that if I could barter food for meals, I could sleep in,” Wilder says. “It never worked out that way, but the decision to grow my own food was always for practical reasons more than anything else.”

When he worked in France, he’d go from market to market in the restaurant’s arrondissement to buy locally made and grown ingredients, writing the night’s menu while walking back to the restaurant.

“When I came to Tucson there weren’t really any small suppliers. I knew that if I wanted to do an ingredient-driven menu, which I did, I’d have to grow it myself,” he says. “I hired gardeners before cooks, but back then I was like 90 percent of people who think, ‘What the hell grows here?'”

He says one catered dinner for the Native Seeds/SEARCH board changed his mentality from “what could grow here to what does grow here.”

“What I was cooking before could’ve been at home anywhere,” but after researching “the hell out of” that dinner, he says. “That was an epiphany for me. It was when we became a restaurant that could only be here, and my goal was always for you to be able to eat my food with your eyes closed and know you were in Tucson.”

For his current Sense of Place menu, Wilder offers a cholla bud escabeche with other native ingredients like amaranth shoots and tepary beans.
For his current Sense of Place menu, Wilder offers a cholla bud escabeche with other native ingredients like amaranth shoots and tepary beans.

From there, Wilder spent time reverse engineering those culinary cultural icons like chiles rellenos (which he’s written a book about) to take them from processed cheese and other ingredients back to their “ideal times” iterations. He says when looking for inspiration then for his restaurant Janos and currently for his restaurant Downtown Kitchen + Cocktail’s “Sense of Place” menu, he looks to smaller restaurants as the keepers of Tucson’s culinary heritage.

“More than anything else, I look at the mom-and-pops. Those are the places that have always been my frames of reference,” he says. “I’ve been buying tortillas from Anita’s Street Market since I moved here.”

However, even Wilder admits finding those native and heritage ingredients in local restaurants can be difficult.

“I can do an entire coursed menu that’s 70 to 80 percent local, but I don’t know if I can do full menu with appetizers, entrees and deserts,” he says. “It does shock me that more people don’t use what we have here—it doesn’t have to mean all in.”

Nabhan says support for native and local cuisine must come from consumers at the forefront, citing the recent closure of one small farm—Walking J Farm.

“Janos has always had an interest … but it takes a critical mass of interest from chefs and consumers to keep these small farms in business,” Nabhan says. “The market needs to come to the farmers.”

So, whether this designation will bolster support for a type of highly place-specific cuisine is anyone’s guess, really, though Wilder continues to grow his own purslane and uses tepary beans, amaranth shoots, cholla buds and more in his menus.

“We’re not a rich city. It would take a big step on a really thin limb. I don’t know that the designation would give anyone the confidence to do that,” Wilder says.

Still, the blending of cultures and traditions in food preparation in Tucson and in the borderlands offers as unique of a perspective as any, even if it isn’t always seen in a high-end, fine dining capacity.

“People put it together in ways I’ve never seen and it creates a new paradigm,” Wilder says.

Interestingly enough, Mabry says the restaurant and beverage industry alone accounts for over 30,000 jobs in the city, and when combined with retail food jobs, food-related employment doubles that of the tourism industry. So, with food driving Tucson’s economy in such a pronounced way, it’s all the more important to get back to the “S” in “Food SHE”—security.




Imagine a huge community table on Alameda Street that stretches with enough chairs for 400 to 500 diners. The section of road is closed off to traffic, not unlike how it is during the annual All Souls Procession. The large table is similar to the Noche en Blanco dinner, however this event would serve a different segment of the community. Independently owned restaurants from all around Tucson would chip in to provide meals, each feeding six or so guests at the massive dinner event. The guests would be referrals from local community food banks and pantries, as well as local shelters. It’s a free dinner to serve “people who haven’t had the opportunity to recover from the recession.” It’s a “symbolic gesture followed up by real action.”

This is what Nabhan hopes to be one of the first events to happen if Tucson gets the UNESCO Creative Cities designation for gastronomy.

“It’s a hollow victory if we don’t use the designation to help the poorest of the poor,” Nabhan says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a foodie or not. It’s about economic recovery.”

Nabhan notes the seven government-designated “food deserts” within 15 miles of the UA. Though the Community Food Bank and others mentioned seek to help alleviate the strain on food security for some in Tucson, Nabhan notes low levels of charitable giving in the state overall.

“This is a wake up call,” he says. “UNESCO is not looking for cities that already have that international draw. They’re looking for ones that can use the designation for economic recovery.”

Already certain farmers markets in town are doubling the worth of food assistance or “SNAP” benefits for low income individuals, offering healthful alternatives affordably. Mabry also says that linking local farmers to restaurants will keep money in the city’s economy. He notes that the added tourism and interest in the city’s restaurants from getting the designation could help improve local restaurant revenue, thereby increasing wages for some of those 30,000 food and beverage service workers.

Whether that last bit of trickle down restaurant economics is feasible without specific government intervention in wages—which is gaining more of a voice nationally in the “Fight for $15” per hour wages, the designation would also link Tucson to an international community as a voice for conservation and food justice.

“I’m excited for the UNESCO designation because it would offer exchanges with other cities,” Nabhan says. “It would be not only food, but water issues too. We want to help be a leader in that discussion.”

Allison Wright, UNESCO’s U.S. delegate, said that one other city in the country applied for the gastronomy designation this year. The organization, according to her, is looking for much more than just international recognition for cuisine.

“Cities are selected for having creativity as a key part of the [community’s] development and an interest in international connections. A city can be world renowned for a field, but it must display the intent [to] promote cooperation,” she told the Tucson Weekly via e-mail.

Even if Tucson ties for first in the states to get the title, Mabry and Nabhan see the benefits to the city on the horizon. Even if it doesn’t happen, Mabry says those initiatives will still be pursued, though the bolstered support from getting the designation would help speed up the process.

For those still skeptical over Tucson’s place as a world capital of gastronomy, rather than, say, San Francisco or New Orleans or Chicago, Mabry offers a simple answer:

“Well, they can apply themselves,” Mabry says, laughing. “I don’t think Tucson should boast it’s the only gastronomic hub in North America, but I would say we’re at the forefront of Southwestern and borderlands culture.”

Wilder agrees. “It’s because we live here,” he says. “We’re not promoting New Orleans or Portland or Seattle. We’re as worthy as anyone else.”

UNESCO plans to announce the 2015 additions to the Creative Cities Network on Dec. 11. If Tucson doesn’t get the designation for the second consecutive year, the city will have to wait three years before trying to reapply.

So, is Tucson going to be the first UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy in North America?

“I don’t bet on anything. I don’t even play FanDuel,” Wilder says, jokingly. “I’d like to think so, though.”






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