You’ve spent the last 18 years mining Yuma’s history and exploring its food traditions. Now you and local chef Eddie Guzman run gourmet cooking classes and Farmer’s Wife Cooking Classes in a kitchen behind the Old St. Paul’s Church, a Gothic building built in 1909. Tell me about this kitchen.
This kitchen fed GI’s during World War II. Gen. George Patton was in the Yuma area with GIs who were training at bases in California and Arizona. Each soldier got a ticket for a free lunch once every three months.
Your parents were both chefs who worked for Vincent Astor, of the Astor Family (and the Waldorf Astoria hotel in Manhattan), and helped run its restaurant. What did you learn from being raised by two chefs?
My parents’ palates were really educated. I learned so much from them about being a gracious host. You open your heart and your kitchen and your home. They were really the consummate hosts. People just loved to come to our house. Some of the best parties, I find, are when everybody ends up in the kitchen. That’s what we aim for with our cooking classes.
Tell me about the history of farming in Yuma.
Yuma has senior water rights on the Colorado River, and we irrigate 220,000 acres. It’s the winter veggie capital of the world. If you’re in New York in a snowstorm in January and you’re having a salad, you’re eating Yuma lettuce. This climate allows us to grow all the winter vegetables. Almost a quarter million acres of the most perfectly arable land, but there was no water. Yuma agriculture started with Teddy Roosevelt, who tried to figure out a way to populate the western United States. In 1909, Yuma built the first dam on the Colorado River, the Laguna Dam, as well as the Yuma Siphon in 1912. It was an engineering miracle. Roosevelt launched the Reclamation Service, what is known today as the Bureau of Reclamation. This was an incredible agriculture community waiting to happen. And it’s why the desert can bloom. It’s called water.
What did they first plant?
Cotton was the big, big crop. They were experimenting with everything from the get-go. The Quechan tribe has been at the narrows of the river for hundreds and hundreds of years. They planted squash, beans, corn, and melons. They also experimented with wild lettuce. The Colorado River then was 100 times bigger than it is today. The tribe helped Juan Bautista de Anza cross the river in the 1770s. And they gifted the Anza expedition 3,000 watermelons. The settlers saw the desert coming to life. The Colorado River was everything to the Sonoran Desert. An incredible ag community waiting to happen.
How does this history affect Yuma’s contemporary cuisine?
Where did this beautiful red soil come from? It’s the rocks of the Grand Canyon, transported to Yuma by the Colorado River, which carried a load of silt that was 50 percent solid at some points. The old-timers described the water from this river as “too thick to drink, and too wet to plow.” If you wanted to have water at your house in Yuma you had to put it in a barrel and wait about three days. It was a very sweet water. We can get the freshest produce, the crispiest, crunchiest lettuce. We’re eating highly nutritious food. It’s big agra in so many ways, but we have farmers who are so proud of what they grow. In a spiritual context, there’s this synergy about being proud of our industry here, honoring the farmer, and honoring the chef. The food scene in Yuma is sort of Johnny-come-lately compared to San Francisco, San Diego, Tucson. But we’re catching up.
How is the Yuma food scene making its mark?
We’ve long been considered a gas stop on the way to San Diego. This is one of the hottest places in the world. But Yuma is also a historical place. People have been crossing the Colorado River at this point for hundreds of years. Even during the Gold Rush of 1849, we had a hundred thousand people crossing the Colorado at Yuma. People still think of us as a pit stop, but we revere our farmers. We bless our farmers. And our farmers are putting Yuma on the foodie map. There is a real sense of community here.
Tell me about your Farmer’s Wife Dinners.
Most of the people who come are farmers’ wives or their children. Wives of growers and farmers come together to share recipes and talk. When we first started doing this, one of the wives thanked me, telling me that they hadn’t seen each other in 20 years. A farmer’s wife or two gets up and talks about their recipes, how they met their husbands. In the first year, every farmer’s wife had a Jell-O recipe. We had a lot of Jell-O recipes at first. We’ve kind of graduated from Jell-O. The first years they gave us the old recipes, but we have gotten more sophisticated. The first Farmer’s Wife class we had in here three and a half years ago, I was expecting 10 or 12 people. Thirty came. Now we hold it in the church and have dinners with as many as 100 people. Because they all want to hear these agricultural stories. There is a connection between the chef, the farmer, and the consumer.
What are some recipes from farmers’ wives that have surprised you?
Perhaps the greatest recipes have been the broccoli salads. Some of the best in the world that I’ve had. But they are not low calorie. Lots of cheese, sometimes corn flakes. Cauliflower, broccoli, cabbage, bacon, red onion, beets. This is a really hardy, interesting salad. Yuma is a niche area with some of the greatest produce in the world, some of the most beautiful farm fields. And our restaurants are starting to get it. People are looking for more healthful foods. What’s more beautiful than romaine, broccoli, broccolini, that grows right down the road from you?
You guide tours in the Yuma Territorial Prison Museum. What did the prisoners eat?
The prisoners ate very well. Jose Maria Redondo, who opened the prison in Yuma, was a cattle rancher. So the prisoners had beef hash for breakfast, beef stew for lunch, and roast beef for dinner. And guess who was selling them the beef? ✜
Tina’s Cocina at St. Paul’s Cultural Center. 45 S. Second Ave., Yuma. StPaulsCulturalCenter.com/cocina.html.