A Food Arena

Tucson Meet Yourself expands with a new City of Gastronomy Kitchen Stadium and exhibit.

September 9, 2016

GleaningsIssue 20: September/October 2016

Ever been to a foodie rock concert? Well, this year’s Tucson Meet Yourself Folklife Festival is offering one. Kinda, sorta.

The City of Gastronomy Kitchen Stadium will celebrate Tucson food and foodways in a new arena, complete with bleacher seats, demonstrations, recipe sharing, food sampling, live music, and lectures throughout the three-day festival, Oct. 7 – 9. Its main purpose will be to showcase the many reasons Tucson was designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy.

TMY was named in the application to UNESCO as an example of the city’s long-term cultural engagement with foodways, said Maribel Alvarez, executive director of Tucson Meet Yourself. “It’s not just about Tucson’s fancy restaurant and chef scene but also about the living practitioners of cultural foodways embedded in Tucson’s diverse communities,” Alvarez said.

Festival founder Jim Griffith’s vision was to highlight food-sharing as a vehicle for cross-cultural dialogue, said Alvarez. And while the food-culture connection has been a mainstay of the festival since its inception in 1974, it has sometimes been difficult to highlight because vendors don’t always have the time to talk about cultural traditions while they are preparing and serving food, Alvarez said.

Half of TMY’s food vendors are small entrepreneurs, families, or ethnic and regional food businesses. The other half is nonprofit clubs, churches, temples, and associations, for whom the festival offers an important fundraising venue to support their cultural activities.

Still, “We know that cultural exchanges happen,” she said. “Every year, 80 percent [of vendors] say first and foremost how happy they are to share their culture.”

The City of Gastronomy Kitchen Stadium will connect the public with cooking and food stories. “And that is really central to the festival,” said Alvarez.

It will provide a venue for the voices of indigenous community members, local producers, farmers, and cooks, all of whom help define a distinctly Tucson cuisine, said Liane Hernandez, Kitchen Stadium coordinator. For example, local herbalist John Slattery of Desert Tortoise Botanicals will share from his new book Southwest Foraging.

Tucson Meet Yourself brings small entrepreneurs, families, and ethnic food businesses to downtown Tucson for three days in October.

Tucson Meet Yourself brings small entrepreneurs, families, and ethnic food businesses to downtown Tucson for three days in October.

Hernandez’s goal is to offer a place “that folks can drop in and learn together and gain familiarity and even a sense of community through the sharing of these recipes and voices.”
There will be organizations engaged in social justice projects, such as Iskashitaa and the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, as well as some “pop-up” performances, such as Richard Noel and drumming circles. The Pima Community College culinary program is providing the mobile kitchen.

A City of Gastronomy exhibit produced in partnership with the City of Tucson and the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Center for Regional Food Studies will offer visual displays and information about the many creative food initiatives that earned Tucson the UNESCO designation. “We know that these exhibits are very successful in connecting the public to information and history they might not otherwise learn,” Alvarez said. The exhibit curator, Dena Cowan, wants the exhibit to do more than just inform. “I hope people will be inspired to get involved and scale up and expand on the great work that many Tucsonans are already doing,” said Cowan.

Community partners contributing to and supporting the exhibit include Watershed Management Group, the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, Mission Garden, Native Seeds/SEARCH, Edible Baja Arizona, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, Desert Harvesters, UA Compost Cats, and the UA Community and School Garden Program.

Cowan said TMY is “a perfect framework” for celebrating the UNESCO designation since it is already a celebration of Tucson’s rich culture of gastronomy. “It didn’t get the nickname ‘Tucson Eat Yourself’ for nothing!”


Kimi Eisele is a freelance writer and multidisciplinary artist in Tucson.

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