Tucson’s UNESCO City of Gastronomy Designation Has Roots in Downtown

January 25, 2016

Bill DuPont plucks a pomegranate grown at Mission Garden on the West Side.

Bill DuPont plucks a pomegranate grown at Mission Garden on the West Side.

by Brad Poole

As you drive along Interstate 19 just at the southern edge of Tucson, you can see a few hundred acres of farm fields sprawling along the western bank of the Santa Cruz River.

The farmland, which yields a crop of squash, tepary beans, corn and other Sonoran Desert delectables, belongs to the Tohono O’odham Nation and has, in spirit if not legal fact, since long before a European laid eyes on it. Father Eusebio Kino almost certainly saw similar fields when he rode in with his contingent of, er, visitors in 1692.

Father Kino’s goal was to bring his culture here, by force if necessary, in the name of Charles “the bewitched” II, king of Spain, and Pope Innocent XII. He brought a lot of culture, including religion, government, and his own fruit trees and other foodstuffs, some of which linger genetically in Tucson backyard lime trees and avocados from Mexico.

Over the ensuing 300-plus years, we’ve merged a cultural and gastronomic cloth in and around Tucson that is unique in the world. The United Nations recognized us for just that in December, when its Education, Scientific and Cultural Organization, UNESCO, named Tucson a Creative City of Gastronomy.

James Beard Award-winning Chef Janos Wilder prepares world-class meals with locally grown native foods.

James Beard Award-winning Chef Janos Wilder prepares world-class meals with locally grown native foods.

The designation puts Tucson in a global spotlight — we’re one of just 18 such cities worldwide and the fist in North America — and drives home a point that travelers have been making for decades.

“Tucson is a destination city for people who love great food,” said Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild.

Downtown played a role, because considerations for the recognition included our active farm-to-table scene, use of traditional recipes, and festivals.

Tucson Meet Yourself, our annual food and culture fest, offers a mind-boggling array of foods from dozens of cultures, including Native American, Mexican and every imaginable European and Asian culture. We also have El Charro, the oldest continuously operated Mexican family restaurant in the nation, and numerous restaurants and bars using local ingredients ranging from pecans in beer to Arizona grown steak to farmer’s market salad and eggs.

The O’odham farm fields also played a role, as a key consideration for UNESCO was the passing down of traditional farming methods and crops. Were it not for the Tohono O’odham, we would not have that here.

The University of Arizona and Edible Baja Magazine were key drivers of the application, which was spearheaded by Gary Nabhan of the UA Southwest Center.

The Mission Garden includes examples of every key era of agriculture in the Tucson basin.

The Mission Garden includes examples of every key era of agriculture in the Tucson basin.

Nabhan, a co-founder of Native Seeds Search seed bank and a renowned researcher and advocate of conserving our cultural links to food, is a huge proponent of the local food movement. His goal isn’t just a thriving tourism or fine dining culture. His goal is loftier.

“That goal is a more just, inclusive, healthful, prosperous, and sustainable food system; one that will be more resilient in the face of climate changes because it fully engages the unique cultural and natural assets of our community,” he wrote in the wake of the UNESCO honor.

Richard McCarthy, executive director of Slow Foods USA, a global non-profit that aims to preserve culture and environment through sustainable and culturally rich food heritage, praised Tucson’s farmer’s markets.

“To see such a bounty of uniquely Southwestern, locally grown products — from tepary beans and squashes to cactus fruits and more varieties of chilies than I’ve ever seen before — makes Tucson unparalleled,” McCarthy said.

The crops from the Mission Garden end up at the Mercado farmer's market every Thursday.

The crops from the Mission Garden end up at the Mercado farmer’s market every Thursday.

With the UNESCO designation secured, Nabhan will continue to foster the kind of connections that made it possible.

The Southwest Center will open an office Downtown, where they can maintain close ties to the seats of city and county government to better preserve our culture via food and our food via culture. They plan to establish measurable guidelines to ensure that the UN program will have positive impact – whether it’s innovation and resource conservation, halting food poverty, or reducing negative heath impacts from diet.

Click here (http://www.downtowntucson.org/visit/dining/) information about Downtown Tucson dining options. For more information about the UNESCO Creative Cities proigram, go here (http://en.unesco.org/creative-cities/home). For more information about the University of Arizona Food Studies program and a list of the program’s goals, now that we have the UNESCO designation, go here (http://foodstudies.arizona.edu/)

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