This piece is the Readers' Choice winner of the Saveur Magazine Food & Culture Best Essay Award! You can learn more and see the other winners here.
Tucson, Arizona is a small-ish town not much more than an hour north of the US border with Mexico. Its arid landscape is unfriendly to greenery and in the summer, there's a relentless heat, and it has always felt like a place with an unvaried and largely not-that-exciting culinary tradition. There are a few stand-out restaurants, and a well developed Mexican food culture, but until recently, Tucson wasn't considered a major food destination. But then in 2015 something amazing and unexpected happened: Tucson was the only US city to be named a World City of Gastronomy by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). I lived in Tucson for ten years as a kid - and still head there for the holidays - and I thought this designation confusing and undeserved.
To understand why Tucson was awarded this designation requires an understanding of the agricultural history in the area, to dig deeper into the creative minds of local chefs, and to realize that the local variation of Southwestern Cuisine is a tradition all its own; something that only belongs to Tucson.
The Southwestern United States is comprised of Arizona, New Mexico, Western Texas, and the southern parts of California, Colorado, and Utah. All of these states share the common history of previously being part of Mexico, so there are multiple variations of Mexican-inspired food throughout the region. But it's important to distinguish that while the Tex-Mex in Texas or the smothered-in-green-chili cuisine of New Mexico are all delicious, they are not Mexican cuisine. And, they are also not truly Southwestern cuisine.
Spending time in Tucson, I thought I knew what comprised Southwestern Cuisine, but after the UNESCO designation, I realized that I had a hard time describing what exactly makes up the cuisine to uninitiated New Yorkers. Chilies, beans, and grilled meats make a lot of appearances, but that sounds vaguely like Mexican food. There's a lot of usage of native ingredients, but I had a hard time articulating the importance of the local Native American tribes and what exactly those ingredients are. Tucson's Southwestern Cuisine is influenced by its immediate sub-communities, and is a tradition all its own.
To get a better sense of what makes up Tucson's Southwestern cuisines, it became necessary to talk to as many advocates as possible — from local chefs and restauranteurs, to an organization dedicated to preserving local seeds — to really get a sense of Southwestern cuisine.
It's a half hour before the opening of Barrio Bread on a chilly December morning and there's already a line at the door. I never thought New York's favorite pastime — waiting in line for food — would ever make its way to the much smaller town of Tucson, but here we were, fourth in line to get one of Tucson's most in-demand products: whole-grain breads made with heirloom wheats. Barrio Bread and it's founder, Don Guerra, have reached a cult-like status among Tucson's food lovers, and it's not just because he makes some of the best bread we've ever tasted. Don is an advocate of using as much local wheat as possible because "it creates more variety and allows for more creativity," and it's paying off in a big way.
Among the wheat varieties Don uses is the historic White Sonoran Wheat, a species that is one of the oldest varieties in North America. Introduced by Spanish missionaries, it grows well in spring and winter, it produces stretchable dough that is ideal for tortillas, and its berries are used in regional soups. The earliest records document the use of this wheat in the early 1700s, and it was instrumental in the development of Northern Mexican and Native American cuisines¹. Once almost extinct, bakers like Don and farmers at BKW Farms and Hayden Flour Mills have helped bring this wheat back to the national stage. Within a year, Don will use only grains from Arizona — including White Sonoran Wheat — and he will use his bakery "[as a test] bakery to showcase different regional wheat varieties."
In addition to the now-famous Sonoran Wheat, there are a few other key ingredients in Sonoran Cuisine. When I sat down with Nancy Reid of Native Seeds/SEARCH — an organization dedicated to preserving food diversity in the southwest through seed preservation and distribution — she said that corn has been cultivated in Tucson for almost 4,000 years. Chapalote Corn, with its bright, tan and brown kernels has been widely consumed by the native tribes from southern Arizona to northern Mexico for millennia. Also integral to Tucson (and many other) cuisine is the chili pepper, and the Chiltepin Pepper, a tiny, fiery chile, is native to the southwest area and said to be the "mother" chili to all the chilis in the western hemisphere, having been cultivated for over 7000 years.
In collaboration with local and regional farmers, the Pascua Yaqui and Tohono O'odham Indian Tribes, and local chefs, Native Seeds/SEARCH has established a seed bank to preserve the seeds of plants that are native to the area and/or grow well in the region. The bank they maintain sits in large, walk-in freezers in small, ranch-style house on the north side of Tucson. With almost 2000 accessions from over 100 species of wild crop ancestors and domesticated crops that can be used as food, fiber, and dye, the seed varieties are open pollinated, can be landrace and/or heirloom, and can be considered non-GMO². Every year they donate to over 100 organizations, including many Native Indian organizations, as well as sell seeds in their shop to gardening Tucsonans.
It's thanks to Native Seed/SEARCH that chefs like Ryan Clark have access to an abundance of locally-specific produce that be incorporated into recipes in their restaurants. Ryan Clark is a rising star in the Tucson food scene, and is currently the Chef de Cuisine at PY Steakhouse at Casino del Sol on the Pascua Yaqui Tribe reservation, and was previously the Executive Chef at Agustín Kitchen.
Admittedly, I am not a frequent steak-house-goer, so I was apprehensive about meeting Chef Clark for dinner at his restaurant. I imagined the menu would be steak, potatoes, and salad, of which there are many options, but when I arrived I was pleasantly surprised to see how many non-traditional steakhouse ingredients appeared on the menu. My meal (braised short rib, cauliflower grits, smoked broccolini + tomatoes, and mint-garlic yogurt) doesn't exactly scream southwest food, but as Chef Clark told me, "My food tastes like Tucson...I use as many local ingredients as possible." Tucson has a rich agriculture history, so it's fairly easy to get local produce, and he almost exclusively uses Arizona-raised beef. "I want to elevate local and heritage ingredients. I have relationships with local farmers, and I change the menu at PY to reflect those relationships and the ingredients."
In addition to using as many local purveyors as possible, Chef Clark also likes to highlight native ingredients like tepary beans, cholla buds, and mesquite flour to "elevate heritage ingredients." These ingredients are relatively unknown to even the most advanced of palates, but they've been part of the Native Indian diet for thousands of years. When asked about Tucson-style southwestern cuisine, Clark thinks that Tucson had shifted away from appreciating this kind of food, but was seeing a resurgence, especially because of the UNESCO nod. "There's more of a food culture than before, and it's easier to highlight these native Tucson ingredients."
When Donna Nordin arrived in Tucson, it was the 80s and Continental cuisine was having a moment. Coming from San Francisco, she had a more refined palate than what other chefs were cooking in Tucson, but she adapted her California style to fit the ingredients of the southwest. "Very few restaurants were doing southwest cuisine. It was all Mexican and Continental," she told me. After visiting Tucson for a short trip, she fell in love with the flavors of the Southwest and opened Café Terra Cotta, one of Tucson's original and most successful Southwestern restaurants.
The menu didn't start out with recipes of the Southwestern cuisine that is widely known today, but adapted her Cordon Bleu-skills to the flavors and ingredients of the Southwest. "We were doing meatloaf with Southwest Flavors." Eventually, the menu changed to incorporate more traditional recipes. "There are so many chili varieties, it is essential to know all of them," she says. She incorporated local ingredients like prickly pear cactus fruits and chilis into more French-style recipes, that created a sophisticated and refined menu that routinely landed Café Terra Cotta on the nation's best restaurants lists. While these ingredients weren't new to Tucsonans, Donna Nordin put Tucson Southwest cooking on the map.
On my last day in Tucson, I had the opportunity to meet with Chef Janos Wilder, who may be the biggest name in Tucson cooking. He's had a long and storied career in the kitchen, and is also the biggest advocate of localized, southwestern cooking. A James Beard Award winner, Janos has made it his mission to incorporate native-to-Tucson ingredients in his menus. He dubs the main ingredients of Southwest cooking as the "three sisters": corn, beans, and squash. Of course there are other ingredients; tomatoes, cilantro, and meat, but the three sisters are known to grow in the area and "have informed the dishes of the region."
When challenged on which dishes make up Southwestern cuisine, Janos spoke about the culinary iconography of the region. Some of these dishes are more commonly known and iconic: "Tacos, enchiladas, and rellenos are well known, but dishes and ingredients from the Sonora Region or Sea of Cortez off Baja California have made their way into Sonoran cuisine," he told me. A big part of what makes up many historic Tucson dishes involve ingredients that could be foraged from the surrounding area. "Prickly pear cactus, Sonoran Wheat, and mesquite flour are ingredients that go back four thousand years. Basically everything was native until relatively recently," explained Janos.
Like all the chefs I spoke with, Janos spoke of the importance of the ingredients historically used by the local Native American tribes. "Even though they were traditional foods, they were forgotten for awhile," he said, "But they now have a rightful place in Tucson's culinary tradition."
So what is Southwestern food? First and foremost, Southwestern food is about utilizing the ingredients that are native to the area. Without the "three sisters" of corn, squash, and beans; the chilies; and the native ingredients like tepary beans, cholla buds, and mesquite, Tucson Southwestern food wouldn't have the unique elements that would separate it from regional Mexican cuisine.
But perhaps more important than the ingredients is the incorporation of the culinary traditions that have been developed and mastered over the course of Tucson's four thousand year culinary heritage. Tucson may seem like an unlikely place to have received such a profound UNESCO honor, but with a culinary tradition as old as Tucson's, it was only a matter of time.
Brianna is the Founder & Editor-in-Chief at Hook & Blade. She is based out of New York City where she enjoys exploring the city, trying new foods, and people watching. She works as the Global Email Marketing Manager at Global Citizen, and tries to travel as much as she can.