In December 2015, Tucson, Arizona, was named a City of Gastronomy in the Creative Cities Network by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It is the first city in the U.S. to receive the designation.
Gary Nabhan, W.K. Kellogg Chair in Southwest Borderlands Food and Water Security at The University of Arizona, explains what that means for the city.
Von Diaz: What's up in Tucson?
Gary Nabhan: We are delighted that something we've been working on for years has finally borne fruit. That's becoming the first UNESCO City of Gastronomy in the U.S., and one of just six cities in the UNESCO Creative Cities Network in the entire country. This means that we can really celebrate our traditions and heritage with food, but also continue to foster the incredible innovation and vitality we've seen in Tucson over the last few years.
VD: What does it mean to be a global city of gastronomy?
GN: We're part of a Creative Cities Network of 116 cities in some 54 countries around the world that interact through scholarly and other kinds of exchanges -- exchanges of food artisans, for example, chefs, farmers, bread makers and cheese makers. This brings us into dialogue with other innovators around the world so that we can not only jump-start new innovations in our own city, but evaluate them and see whether they can be transferred to other U.S. cities as well.
VD: Paint me a picture of Tucson.
GN: Tucson is a place I deeply love. I've been living in it off and on for 40 years. It has a 4,100-year-old continuous history of agriculture inside the city limits. With Native American groups, Hispanic communities joining in about 300 years ago, and then now over 60 immigrant groups that have made Tucson home.
At our Tucson Meet Yourself festival in the fall each year, we have 100,000 to 120,000 people eating the foods of 50 different ethnicities around the region and the world. This town just lives and celebrates every day with its great food and its great farming traditions. One in six jobs here in Tucson is related to food and farming.
VD: What are the foods and dishes that make Tucson Tucson?
GN: They are different from the Tex-Mex borderlands cuisine and even from the Santa Fe Southwestern cuisines. We really have a border culture here that's this fusion of Yaqui and Tohono O'odham indigenous traditions. Those groups live within metro Tucson's area, as well as Hispanic and Anglo-cowboy traditions.
The foods include things like a kind of enchilada that you can't see anywhere in the world more than 50 miles away from here called flat enchiladas, or enchiladas chatas. They are cheese-stuffed corn cakes that are made completely differently than other enchiladas. We also have Navajo-Churro sheep lamb chops and Corriente Criollo cattle beef in our restaurants every day of the week. They're the oldest livestock breeds in North America.
Then we have wild foods that sometimes reach beyond the region but are celebrated here like nowhere else. There's the wild chiltepin, the hottest chili in North America, and cholla cactus buds -- imagine eating the flower bud of a spiny cactus and finding it delicious. Things like mesquite pods and other wild foods that may not be known past this region are integrated almost every day and week into something done at a restaurant, cafeteria, elderly home or homeless shelter here.
VD: How did you wind up in Tucson?
GN: I'm of Arab American descent. My family is Lebanese and Syrian. I think I was pulled to this desert even though I also love the deserts in the war-torn areas of the Middle East. There's something about the pungency of the herbs and other plants that occurs in desert climates. The essential oils that give them this powerful fragrance are actually enhanced by the hot, dry climates here. We have a wild oregano here that is about 20 times more potent than any other oregano in the world that's high in antioxidants, but more than that, high in flavor and fragrance. There's something special that I was just pulled to being of desert descent in the Sonoran Desert, one of the great deserts of the world.