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.
30 Minutes spoke with Gary Paul Nabhan, Ph.D., about Tucson’s recent designation as a UNESCO World City of Gastronomy and what that means. He is the newly appointed director for Center
for Regional Food Studies. Nabhan discussed the breadth of Tucson’s food cultures as well as the importance of food justice and food security for everyone in our community.
A half century since Cesar Chavez led a national boycott of grapes to highlight the civil rights of farmworkers, the status of both immigrant and native contributors to Arizona’s food system is still in debate. Although Chavez left an indelible mark on our agricultural history, we must look and see how much more equity Arizona’s food system has now than during Chavez’s march on Delano, Calif., 50 years ago.
How have the civil rights for farmworkers of various races and cultures fared over the past half-century in Arizona? And what next steps need to be taken to ensure justice and equity for all those who bring Arizonans their daily bread?
From agricultural sciences to folklore, cutting-edge nutrition to ancient food systems, UA researchers have a long history of researching, documenting and promoting the borderland culinary heritage that makes Tucson a distinct food city.
To coincide with Tucson’s designation as the newest UNESCO City of Gastronomy, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the Southwest Center have established the University of Arizona Center for Regional Food Studies.
We’ve known it—those of us who eat here have tasted it. We’ve felt it in the soil under our fingernails. We’ve seen it in the magenta stain of prickly pear. We’ve heard it in the hammer mill grinding sweet speckled mesquite; smelled it in the exhale of steam from a crowded pot of tamales.
Tucson has always been a city of gastronomy. Today, it was designated a World City of Gastronomy by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), becoming the first city in the United States to receive such a designation.
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…
The Desert Southwest harbors at least 41 of the 76 milkweed (Asclepias spp.) species known to exist in the lower 48 states. The species richness of milkweeds in this region is influenced by the tremendous diversity and range of vegetation types, soils, topography, climate, and the exposure of unusual rock types that occur over more than a 9,000 foot elevation range.
The nectar of milkweed flowers is attractive to dozens of insects including bees, wasps, butterflies, moths, and hummingbirds. The bees that milkweed flowers attract to agricultural landscapes are important for pollinating a wide variety of vegetable forage and fruit crops.
Three hundred years ago, Spanish missionaries introduced a suite of arid-adapted fruit and herb varieties to the Sonoran Desert region, many of which have barely survived to this day.
These desert-adapted, heirloom fruits enriched the diets and diversified the farms indigenous and immigrants alike, but fell out of availability and culinary fashion. Today, these forgotten fruits are once again needed because they are tolerant of heat, drought and even alkaline conditions.
These are various questions that were given to Gary Paul Nabhan by hosts of his tour, Conservation You Can Taste. In particular, these came from representatives from the University of Ohio, and the University of Minnesota.
Nogales, Arizona, is the largest inland food port in the world. Much of the fresh produce trucked up the “food superhighway” of Mexico’s west coast comes through there—and a shocking amount of it doesn’t travel much farther, dropping into local landfills instead of being sent to consumers.
It’s a loss to the farmers who harvested the food and to the consumers who would have eaten it…