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UNESCO's first City of Gastronomy: Tucson

UNESCO's first City of Gastronomy: Tucson
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  • UNESCO's first City of Gastronomy: Tucson

    Post #1 - December 3rd, 2018, 11:30 pm
    Post #1 - December 3rd, 2018, 11:30 pm Post #1 - December 3rd, 2018, 11:30 pm
    Was recently out in Phoenix for a food-writers conference, but after the conference was over, those who were interested were offered the chance to head south, to Tucson and Marana, to explore some of what captured the attention of UNESCO.

    While there, we sampled some of the local specialties, including the Sonoran hot dog, but our main focus (as was true of UNESCO) was on old stuff. We toured the Mission Garden in Tucson, which is divided into sections that reflect the agriculture of early indigenous people up through the mission periods and to the arrival of Asians. We stopped to shop at Native Seeds, where heirloom seeds were to be found in abundance, along with all sorts of foods prepared from local ingredients. Also visited the historic Congress Hotel, which contributed locally made libations to the day's entertainment. And had a feast of locally created and/or raised foods at the beautiful Loews Ventana Canyon Resort.

    Marana, Tucson's "near north," offered even more delights. I've had Carolyn Niethammer's book, American Indian Food and Lore, for a couple of decades -- so I was really delighted when it turned out that she would be our guide in the desert. She led us through a frequently prickly area (wear close-toed shoes) that let us see all the major foods of the region in their natural habitat -- foods that predate the arrival of corn from Mexico! Carolyn had brought prepared samples of cholla buds, mesquite flour, teppary beans, and more, so we got to sample many of the items we were seeing.

    We were then driven to the Ritz Carlton at Dove Mountain, where the chef had prepared several contemporary dishes using the ancient ingredients. (Absolutely sensational food, and a mind-blowing hotel.) Then, alas, it was time to head for the airport. But what joy, exploring all that ancient food.

    Food history was not our only focus, but it is the focus I figured might be less known among most Chicagoans than the latest great brew pubs and bread bakers. Because there were about a dozen of us, they put a couple of tours together, so that we packed in a bit more than is offered by any one of the regular tours people in the area have created to show off what makes the area noteworthy. But others could plan to stay for more than the day and a half we had and take in even more than we did.

    You don't need to be on a tour to visit Native Seeds. https://www.nativeseeds.org/2015-06-04- ... tail-store

    For everything else, it's advisable to have a guide, as some plants are protected, some are unhealthy if not treated appropriately, and almost all are prickly. Plus it's good to have someone tell you what things are.

    Gray Line Tours is the official company for doing the wild-food tours, and they offer a number of them in the area, depending on what your interests are -- and how much time you have.
    https://graylinearizona.com/our-tours/ (scan down for

    And there are websites that offer more info on the UNESCO classification, should you be interested. (And probably plenty other places, besides this.)
    https://www.discovermarana.org/things-t ... ood-farms/

    So next time you plan a trip to AZ, if you have any interest in food that reflects a few thousand years of local history and culture, this is a great option.

    Of course, the other advantage to visiting Tucson is it's where the saguaro cactus grows wild (the few you see around Phoenix are transplants), so you can be completely surrounded with plants that look like thorny aliens.
    "All great change in America begins at the dinner table." Ronald Reagan

    http://midwestmaize.wordpress.com
  • Post #2 - December 4th, 2018, 6:19 am
    Post #2 - December 4th, 2018, 6:19 am Post #2 - December 4th, 2018, 6:19 am
    Interesting. Of all the places in the world, I would never associate Tucson as a place to get a decent meal.
    Steve Z.

    “Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”
    ― Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Post #3 - December 4th, 2018, 10:13 am
    Post #3 - December 4th, 2018, 10:13 am Post #3 - December 4th, 2018, 10:13 am
    stevez wrote:Interesting. Of all the places in the world, I would never associate Tucson as a place to get a decent meal.


    I currently live 20 miles SOUTH of Tucson and I would say that I have to agree with you. I can count on the fingers on ONE hand the number of great meals that we have had since relocating here. It is honestly so bad that we have rediscovered chain restaurants. Over the past two years, we have spent more money at El Pollo Loco restaurants in Tucson than any other place.

    We have tried the upscale places and have been greatly disappointed. Even the Sonoran hot dog stands cheap out using 10-1 or 8-1 mediocre hot dogs that lack any real taste and are lost in the toppings.

    The only meals that we have been really impressed with in the area are SOME of the Mexican seafood places like Mariscos Chihuahua which is a local chain. However, even that place really varies in quality by location.

    If you are heading to Tucson, do not depend on the local newspapers or weeklies. They tend to give glowing reviews ... to their frequent advertisers.

    Personally, when my wife and I are looking for some great meals, we tend to head up to Mesa and try the large number of Asian restaurants along Dobson Rd. Or if we are in Phoenix, we pull up Dominic Armato's reviews in the Arizona Republic. His post on restaurants near baseball spring training facilities is great.
  • Post #4 - December 4th, 2018, 4:55 pm
    Post #4 - December 4th, 2018, 4:55 pm Post #4 - December 4th, 2018, 4:55 pm
    Spent four days last year in Tucson, devoted to visiting shrines to airplanes, for which Tucson is one of the world's finest venues. Worked damn hard trying to get a decent meal. Went to the Desert Museum (which really is world class!) on the Sunday, then went looking for something to eat. Bust. Basically nothing open in the city centre, old town, anywhere. Finally found Mariscos Chihuahua which was quite good, and even had a spontaneous mariachi appearance.

    Totally disappointed in Tucson.

    Geo
    https://mariscoschihuahua.com
    Sooo, you like wine and are looking for something good to read? Maybe *this* will do the trick! :)
  • Post #5 - December 4th, 2018, 9:00 pm
    Post #5 - December 4th, 2018, 9:00 pm Post #5 - December 4th, 2018, 9:00 pm
    Geo wrote:Spent four days last year in Tucson, devoted to visiting shrines to airplanes, for which Tucson is one of the world's finest venues. Worked damn hard trying to get a decent meal. Went to the Desert Museum (which really is world class!) on the Sunday, then went looking for something to eat. Bust. Basically nothing open in the city centre, old town, anywhere. Finally found Mariscos Chihuahua which was quite good, and even had a spontaneous mariachi appearance.


    You should consider yourself fortunate. I have tolerated some really bad meals on the way to the Fox Theatre on Sundays.

    Two of the museums - The Desert Museum and the Pima Air Museum have pretty good food. The Desert Museum does hamburgers and the like very well and is always a place that I don't mind ending up at. The Pima Air Museum features the ONLY good Sonoran Hot Dog that I have experienced, They wrapped the 4 oz hot hog in a really high quality bacon and the result was a very fine Sonoran hot dog where the meat actually stands up to the rest of the toppings.

    MOST of the family-run Mexican restaurants close on Sundays. The few that stay open offer a Sunday brunch which generally is subpar.

    The best stretch of Mexican restaurants would be on 12th Ave. between Valencia Rd. and Ajo Way which is close to downtown but unless you are familiar with the city, you will NEVER find it. To get there, you have to take the I-10 access road south out of the downtown area. At the end of the access road, you bear to the left on S. 12th Ave.

    Mariscos Chihuahua does feature one of the best shrimp dishes I have had - Shrimp Culichi. The shrimp are served in a culichi sauce that is basically a mix of crema and poblano peppers topped with cheese. I do not think that it sounded very good at first but it was excellent.
  • Post #6 - December 4th, 2018, 9:41 pm
    Post #6 - December 4th, 2018, 9:41 pm Post #6 - December 4th, 2018, 9:41 pm
    Of course, as noted, it is the history and indigenous foods that make it culinarily important -- not great restaurants.

    That said, if you do want great food, I think you'd be hard pressed to find fault with the Ritz Carlton at Dove Mountain -- which is even praised in the Michelin guide.

    But, again, it's about the history, as noted. If you don't care about indigenous culture, this probably won't be your cup of tea.
    "All great change in America begins at the dinner table." Ronald Reagan

    http://midwestmaize.wordpress.com
  • Post #7 - December 5th, 2018, 6:37 am
    Post #7 - December 5th, 2018, 6:37 am Post #7 - December 5th, 2018, 6:37 am
    I take your point Cynthia, but I think that the thing Joe and I are hung up on is the relative paucity of even decent places to eat in Tucson. It's actually quite a surprise, I must say. My sister lives in Mesa and that's a whole different culinary world than Tucson. Mesa has lots of GNR-quality places--I've eaten there with our alumnus Dom!--yet Joe and I would be hard-pressed to nominate a GNR in Tucson. It's just an oddity that we're remarking.

    But your point remains, of course.

    Geo
    Sooo, you like wine and are looking for something good to read? Maybe *this* will do the trick! :)
  • Post #8 - December 5th, 2018, 3:33 pm
    Post #8 - December 5th, 2018, 3:33 pm Post #8 - December 5th, 2018, 3:33 pm
    Ultimately, it's a poorly thought out moniker that UNESCO is using. It implies one thing, but means another. If they called it a city of ancient gastronomic history, or something like that, it might be clearer.

    I'm sure the restaurant in the Four Seasons is perfectly fine, but I doubt I would want to eat hotel food for every meal, and my own research matches up with everyone else commenting on the thread. I've never found anything there that rises above the mediocre category, with many that don't even reach that low bar.
    Steve Z.

    “Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”
    ― Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Post #9 - December 5th, 2018, 6:46 pm
    Post #9 - December 5th, 2018, 6:46 pm Post #9 - December 5th, 2018, 6:46 pm
    Cynthia wrote:Of course, as noted, it is the history and indigenous foods that make it culinarily important -- not great restaurants.
    .


    Other than in super premium restaurants like the one you noted, where do you find indigenous food in Tucson?

    The Tohono O'odham Nation DID operate a restaurant called the Desert Rain in Sells, AZ which strived to serve mostly traditional Tohono O'odham food. This was done in an effort to improve the diets of tribal members as the nation has one of the highest rates of Type II Diabetes in the world. However, the restaurant closed in late 2016.

    About three years ago, the City of Tucson decided to post all of these "Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food" signs all over the city even in areas with no restaurants. I recently went down to the Visit Tucson Visitor Center to ask the people what 23 miles should I be looking for ... and again could get no answer which is par for the course in Tucson.

    My theory is this. Tucson is a relatively poor city where there are major pockets of poverty where the family income is less than $30k. Most of the people I know are looking for good food at a reasonable prices. There is just not a market for $14 hamburgers and the like as there would be in Phoenix or Chicago. So why not use free publicity and city funds to drum up support for promoting higher end restaurants. Only two years ago, they tried to allocate over $1M to turn South 12th Ave into a "culinary corridor." The voters overwhelmingly rejected that proposal.
  • Post #10 - December 6th, 2018, 4:00 pm
    Post #10 - December 6th, 2018, 4:00 pm Post #10 - December 6th, 2018, 4:00 pm
    For finding indigenous food, I'd recommend following some of the links I posted. They give lots of tips. Plus they offer tours. (Because I'm betting that not just anyone is allowed to go out there and pillage in the desert.)

    Not mentioned above, but we also visited one of the area's only bean-to-bar chocolate companies. Great chocolates.

    And apparently, even the modest places source everything locally, and that's another thing that got them noticed, or so we were told.

    But without more time down there -- and without an inside track on what UNESCO is judging on -- I can't say more. Everything we ate there was splendid, but I was only there for a couple of days.
    "All great change in America begins at the dinner table." Ronald Reagan

    http://midwestmaize.wordpress.com
  • Post #11 - December 6th, 2018, 10:44 pm
    Post #11 - December 6th, 2018, 10:44 pm Post #11 - December 6th, 2018, 10:44 pm
    Your point has been made -- Tucson is not a fine-dining destination. Maybe the tour guide knew the best three or four places in town. But I was posting about exploring the historic foods of the desert -- foods that Native Americans were using to survive even before corn/maize made its way north from Mexico. That was what I went for --and that is what I received, big time. So I can't contradict anything other posters are saying, because we weren't looking for the same things. Having an expert wild-foods guide and enjoying desert foods, some quite familiar and even readily available in Chicago (nopales, cactus pears) and some not (cholla buds, mesquite flour, teppary beans, chiltepines) was a complete delight. And having a chance to support the Native Seeds store by buying goodies. And eating white pomegranates at the Mission Garden. Just perfect.

    And speaking of buying historic stuff while there, the gift I brought back for tonight's LTH Holiday party fell into that category. Since no one got to read the write-up I created to go with the chiltepines I brought, I thought I'd post that write-up -- because I was pretty amazed to discover chiltepines while I was in AZ.

    The chiltepin is the only wild pepper native to the United States. Also known as chile tepin (as well as by several different Native American names), it grows naturally in canyons from West Texas through southern Arizona. It is widely used throughout this region in traditional cuisine and medicine.

    It is sometimes called “the mother of all peppers,” as some believe it to be the original wild pepper from which all other chiles were developed.

    All chiltepines are wild-harvested, hand-picked, and organic. Harvesting is a seasonal ritual in many communities, with families camping in the mountains in September and October, to collect this treasure.

    There are fewer than 15 known localities in the US that serve as natural habitats for chiltepines. They are protected in the US in Coronado National Forest, Big Bend National Park, and Organpipe Cactus National Monument.

    This chile’s heat ranges from 6 to 40 times hotter than a jalapeño—so a good hit of heat for a small amount of pepper—though the heat is short-lived.

    So a rare and historic treat for the chile lover.
    "All great change in America begins at the dinner table." Ronald Reagan

    http://midwestmaize.wordpress.com
  • Post #12 - December 7th, 2018, 8:08 am
    Post #12 - December 7th, 2018, 8:08 am Post #12 - December 7th, 2018, 8:08 am
    I was intrigued when you first mentioned the chile tepins, and was pleased to read your addendum about it. It's a very interesting pepper indeed, and apparently is wild-seeded and spread by birds in its various enclaves in the south west. Years ago, I first read about it (I'm a chile-head, of course!), and discovered that Penzey's has it. So of course I bought a bottle! It's a lovely chile: hot with a very distinctive flavour; the heat dissipates quickly, which is a nice feature. And now on to a story that you, as an historian, will enjoy, I hope.

    My next-door neighbor in Kansas City was from Nicaragua. He told me that every family had their own tepin plant (or two or three) growing in the yard, transplanted from the wild, because they were impossible--or so it was believed--to be grown from seed. Well. I said to Edmundo, "You've got a BS from Davis in agronomy, and I know a thing or two about growing stuff, let's crack this problem." So we set out to crack the tepin-from-seed problem. We read up on the natural history of the plant and its wild cousins--all sorts of peppers, many of them chinensis --grow wild, from Texas all the way into Peru and parts south. Most of them are spread by birds and mammals. The hypothesis was that it was the trip through the digestive system that potentiated germination in these wild peppers. So when 'Mundo next visited his family, he brought back a pocketfull of tepins from home. We worked out several varied treatments with stomach acid, abrasion, different soak times, etc., and, in the end, we got germination, and 'Mundo had his family tepin growing in his Kansas City back yard. The plant is a perennial, so with protection, he got it through the Winter.

    The tepin is a great chile, thanks so much for reminding me. These days I just buy it from Penzey's, but once upon a time... : )

    Geo
    PS, I'm really enjoying your piggy book!
    Sooo, you like wine and are looking for something good to read? Maybe *this* will do the trick! :)
  • Post #13 - December 7th, 2018, 10:55 am
    Post #13 - December 7th, 2018, 10:55 am Post #13 - December 7th, 2018, 10:55 am
    Cynthia wrote:Your point has been made -- Tucson is not a fine-dining destination. Maybe the tour guide knew the best three or four places in town. But I was posting about exploring the historic foods of the desert -- foods that Native Americans were using to survive even before corn/maize made its way north from Mexico. That was what I went for --and that is what I received, big time.


    Cynthia,

    I totally get that, and I'm glad the trip was worthwhile. I'm only objecting to the misleading title that UNESCO uses to describe Tuscon. As I said earlier, if they referenced it as an historical gastronomic site, rather than implying that it's a current culinary mecca, it would be much clearer to the average person (like me) that might come across the mention through a google search or on a board such as this.
    Steve Z.

    “Only the pure in heart can make a good soup.”
    ― Ludwig van Beethoven
  • Post #14 - December 7th, 2018, 7:29 pm
    Post #14 - December 7th, 2018, 7:29 pm Post #14 - December 7th, 2018, 7:29 pm
    Geo wrote: And now on to a story that you, as an historian, will enjoy, I hope.

    Geo
    PS, I'm really enjoying your piggy book!


    Thanks for the story, Geo. Definitely enjoyed it. I'm always delighted to learn how people tackle various challenges.

    Glad to know the tepins can be acquired locally.

    And, of course, delighted to know you're enjoying the book. Thank you.
    "All great change in America begins at the dinner table." Ronald Reagan

    http://midwestmaize.wordpress.com
  • Post #15 - December 7th, 2018, 7:34 pm
    Post #15 - December 7th, 2018, 7:34 pm Post #15 - December 7th, 2018, 7:34 pm
    stevez wrote:Cynthia,

    I totally get that, and I'm glad the trip was worthwhile. I'm only objecting to the misleading title that UNESCO uses to describe Tuscon. As I said earlier, if they referenced it as an historical gastronomic site, rather than implying that it's a current culinary mecca, it would be much clearer to the average person (like me) that might come across the mention through a google search or on a board such as this.


    While I don't know that anyone would ever mistake you for an average person, I do understand your point. And I can certainly see why, if good food was not widespread, the UNESCO title would be misleading. I suspect the guides very carefully vetted the food we encountered during the tour, and we had no meals that weren't part of the tour, so I had no idea that the culinary delights we experienced were the exceptions to the rule.

    Of course, its being the UN, perhaps they have a different idea of what gastronomy is. :)
    "All great change in America begins at the dinner table." Ronald Reagan

    http://midwestmaize.wordpress.com
  • Post #16 - December 7th, 2018, 7:39 pm
    Post #16 - December 7th, 2018, 7:39 pm Post #16 - December 7th, 2018, 7:39 pm
    Food & UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage List
    Cathy2

    "You'll be remembered long after you're dead if you make good gravy, mashed potatoes and biscuits." -- Nathalie Dupree
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