In 2015, when Tucson was designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy, Marana tourism manager Laura Cortelyou knew that Marana had a role to play in supporting the recognition of Baja Arizona’s foodways. Cortelyou said that Marana grows and harvests heritage foods “in greater concentration, diversity, and total acreage than any other area” in Baja Arizona. As a way to share Marana’s 13,000 years of habitation, 4,000 years of formal agriculture, and 300 years of orchards and livestock ranching, Cortelyou partnered with Gray Line Tours Tucson to create the Marana Gastronomy Tour.
As the first tour to be approved by the Tucson City of Gastronomy—the nonprofit organization that manages the designation—the Marana Gastronomy Tour is “the newest tradition in this area’s 4,000-year-old history of engaging with food,” said Cortelyou. The Marana Gastronomy Tour, a mixture of history lessons and food tastings, aims to educate the public about the area’s long-established agricultural history while also introducing them to modern culinary uses of locally grown and native Sonoran Desert foods.
“Marana is situated on one of three places along the Santa Cruz River watershed that has supported the oldest agriculture systems in North America for more than 4,000 years,” Cortelyou said. To demonstrate these ancient agriculture systems, the tour begins at Los Morteros Conservation Area, located at the northeast end of the Tucson Mountains. This is where the Hohokam built the head of their agricultural canals more than 1,000 years ago, said University of Arizona Professor of Anthropology and Arizona State Museum Curator Suzanne Fish. Fish, who serves as the Marana Gastronomy Tour anthropology guide, uses the stop at Los Morteros to identify large slabs of volcanic rock indented with smooth mortars where Hohokam women gathered with their pestles to process mesquite as “a social kind of activity.”
The Marana Gastronomy Tour continues at Catalina Brewing Company, where brewer Hank Rowe crafts beers with local ingredients like agave, chiltepins, and BKW Farms wheat. “I’m a native Tucsonan, my mom is a native Tucsonan, and we love prickly pear,” Rowe said, as he poured tasting glasses of La Rosa—a creamy ale with prickly pear.
After enjoying a few good beers and thoughtfully prepared snacks, including native-ingredient salsas, sauces, and chutneys prepared by Barbara Rose of Bean Tree Farm, guests are driven to a Hohokam agricultural field that dates back to 1200 A.D. The former agricultural field, which spans 1,200 acres, was used by the Hohokam to farm a species of agave known as Agave murpheyi. After explaining the importance of agave to the Hohokam diet and culture, Fish teaches the group how to identify former agave growing and roasting areas, which are disguised as piles of rock and dust.
The last stop on the tour is not a dusty field—it’s the Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain. Seasonal dishes made with cholla buds, tepary beans, and white Sonoran wheat demonstrate how local chefs like Dove Mountain’s Robert Ziehr are using native and heritage ingredients in innovative ways.
After an afternoon of hands-on history, exquisite tastings, and gorgeous landscapes, guests of the Marana Gastronomy Tour are sure to feel full—and further connected with Marana’s food culture.