Tuscon Arizona may be known for lavish spas or beautiful sunsets but food? Surprisingly this desert town is now part of the Unesco World Heritage sites joining the more culinary sophisticated cities like Lyons, France and Chengdu, China. Tuscon has deep roots to food, along with a varied indigenous and European diet, started centuries ago.
Kim Severson, a regular contributor, wrote about this interesting food-centric city and its' recent honor in today's New York Times Food section.Eight months ago it was the only city in the United States to be designated a City of Gastronomy by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, known by the acronym Unesco. About six years ago the international agency began including food as a part of a cultural heritage worth protecting as it recognizes and protects such diverse dishes as Armenian lavash,the recipes from the Mediterranean diet and the lush gastronomic meals of the French, Tuscon joins not only Chengdu and Lyons but also Parma, Italy,Bergen, Norway and Ensenada, Mexico, The reason why this southern Arizona was selected was explained by its'officer for historic presentation, and the author of the application, Dr. Jonathan Mabry. Towns were chosen because the designation will make a difference. Still, it's a puzzler. After all there is New York City, although the city doesn't celebrate it's indigenous culinary
heritage (which is obvious in the oyster beds in surrounding waters and acres of wild grapes grown just outside the city).
Tuscon has a history that stretches back 4,000 years when it was a farming community to local tribes such as the HoHokan and Tohono O'odham.Dr. Mabry was one of the archaeologists, hired by the city in 2000 for a dig not far from the downtown section. What he found was amazing, There were layers of layers of irrigation trenches and then charred corn.It was proof that this modern day city was built on top of a four millennia old farming village. The surrounding desert can still yield up interesting crops that have created unique dishes with a definite Southwestern taste. There has always been agave,cactus pads and amaranth along with tiny wild peppers called chiltepin. Mesquite is not only used for barbecuing but also used for baking cookies thanks to its' pods being pounded into a sweet flour.. Descendants of the fruits trees, first planted by Italian born ,Reverend Eusebio Francisco Kino in the 1600's yield up quince, figs and white pomegranates, the last with a taste that combines apples and grapefruits. Tuscon chefs also use cholla buds that bloom into cactus flowers in salsas and salads. They have a vague asparagus flavor which makes them also good for certain soups. The one tribe, Tohono O'odham, dry them and sell the buds in jars at the local San Xavier Co-op Farm. This devotion to creating livelihoods from heritage food is what got it noticed from Unesco.
Tuscon is a fascinating city full of food history and unique flavors. Unesco was right in choosing it as a World Heritage Site. It is fascinating from so many angles, both in its' story and in its' foods.