Interview by Edie Jarolim
Arcadia Publishing, 2015
Full disclosure: I have shared many a meal with the Lost Restaurants of Tucson author Rita Connelly—though not, I’m pretty sure, at any of the now-shuttered spots that are the subject of her new book. But it’s with only a slight bit of favoritism that I declare this book a must-read for those who have lived and dined in Tucson as well as for newcomers who want a taste of the town’s culinary history.
How did this book come about?
Editors at the History Press had seen my food writing in the Tucson Weekly and, early in 2015, asked if I would contribute to their “Lost” series. I moved to Tucson in the early 1970s and worked in many restaurants that no longer exist, so I jumped at the chance.
This book preserves specific family stories as well as general trends in the way people dined and operated restaurants. Do you think things have changed dramatically or are the people and stories just variations on a universal theme?
Both. One thing that’s really changed is the loss of family restaurants. We’ve got lots of great young chefs, but restaurants today are more about individuals or teams—the cocktail team, the pastry chef team …
Most of the stories in the book are about immigrants who came to Tucson from other countries or moved here from bigger cities. Even at the higher-end restaurants like Palomino, everyone in the Gekas family got involved; the mother was at the front of the house, the kids worked every station so they could fill in if someone didn’t show up. I don’t know if that kind of involvement is going to be part of the way we eat anymore. Parents are no longer pressuring their kids to go into the family business, and the kids aren’t interested. I love what’s going on now, the passion, but I sort of miss the family feeling.
One thing that’s the same, or at least that has come around again: A lot of the chefs would go to the market in the morning; they were into fresh and local before that was a thing.
I’m interested in the balance of library research versus interviews and anecdotal research. How did you spend most of your time?
It was about evenly divided. I spent a lot of time at the Arizona Historical Society, which has a great library and well-organized restaurant files, but I really loved the personal touch that you got from the interviews. I heard a lot of stories you would never find in a newspaper.
What was the restaurant you felt saddest about when it was gone and why?
Araneta’s Mexico Inn. I worked there five days a week for lunch and dinner—and ate both those meals there—and I knew the family. It’s the restaurant I measure all Mexican food by. Their enchilada sauce was outstanding and their green corn tamales were better than any I’ve had since. They were wonderful to the staff; they treated us like daughters.
There’s a continuity from the past in lots of places. Doug Levy of Feast, for example, still has recipes from Boccata and The Dish, and Cosmo Ali of DaVinci’s still does the pastry for his daughter’s restaurant, Trattoria Pina. With Araneta’s, the daughters didn’t want to open a restaurant. When it went, all the recipes went with it.
What was the biggest surprise your research uncovered for you?
One was how gorgeous many of the menus were, like Rossi’s menu from around 1890. It was huge—it had separate sections for pork, chicken, beef, fish, you name it—and it was illustrated. You learn a lot from the menus, how society ate; it was amazing what you could get for a quarter. Now, with menus changing daily, monthly, or seasonally, you can’t have that kind of menu.
The other [surprise] was sadder. Very often when families sold their restaurants … it would go out of business within two years. The new owners bought it as a money making proposition, but they didn’t know how to run it and they weren’t attached to it. What made the original restaurants was their soul. You can’t buy that.
Edie Jarolim is a freelance writer who is completing a Kickstarter-funded memoir, Getting Naked For Money: An Accidental Travel Writer Reveals All.
By Sarah Bowen
University of California Press, 2015
No one knows for sure whether the first mezcals were poured before or after Spanish colonization of Mexico, but the drink has been around for centuries. Mezcal, a Mexican spirit, is made from roasted agaves. The agaves can be anywhere from eight years to multiple decades in age. Made from many species of agaves, in many communities, using a variety of methods, containers, and recipes, mezcals vary in their flavors, colors, and qualities. Tequila is just one kind of mezcal, named after its region of origin: Tequila, Mexico.
Sarah Bowen spent more than 10 years researching tequila production, and Divided Spirits reflects the thoroughness of her work. This is an academic work, not a first-person nonfiction adventure story, but if someone were to write a first-person nonfiction adventure story about working to understand the politics of tequila production, she would do well to start with Bowen’s book.
The first half of Divided Spirits details a top-down approach by the Mexican government to regulating tequila production using Denominations of Origin. DOs were created to protect regional food traditions in globalizing markets. Bowen’s example of DOs done right is French cheesemaking. But tequila producers in Mexico use DOs essentially to preserve their production monopolies. Meanwhile, shady labeling laws can mislead—that Cuervo you’re mixing might already be mixto, or made with only 51 percent agave sugars (the rest would be other sugars). According to Bowen, DOs in Mexico are about market growth above all else—regardless of local economics, cultural preservation, or environmental protection.
Reading Divided Spirits, I found myself searching for a phrase to explain the phenomena that Bowen outlines. I wanted something along the lines of greenwashing—the idea of marketing a product to appear more environmentally friendly that it actually is—but from a social justice perspective. A phrase that signaled how the marketing of products like tequila make them seem more equitable—for every pair of hands that tended fields of agave plants or drove import trucks north—than they really are.
In the second part of Divided Spirits, Bowen contrasts Mexico’s tequila production with its growing mezcal market. She speaks to the desire of the conscious consumer hoping to change the world through shopping choices (as I scratch my head over organic pasta choices or recycled paper-towel brands). Mezcal is surging in the United States, and mezcal fans appreciate its artisanal roots. Here, Bowen poses uncomfortable questions about being a conscious consumer in a market of many untraceable links.
Bowen contends that making a difference in a national or international economy requires more than the correct type of shopping receipt. “While it is clear there is a market for justice,” Bowen writes, “the market is not just.” She points out how many farmers (though not all) are paid quite poorly for the agaves they grow, even while the idea of the humble mezcalero is used by American producers to sell mezcal. Bowen writes that many mezcaleros don’t understand the extent to which they are cheated because they cannot fathom the true worth of their mezcal to an American market. The owner of a Mexican mezcal bar tells her that some producers pay mezcaleros 30 pesos (about $1.74) per liter of mezcal that they sell for $200 per bottle.
When consumers vote with their dollars, their choices can be disquieting. Bowen’s work illustrates how the values of wealthy buyers don’t always match the values of struggling producers: Affluent consumers are willing to pay more for environmentally friendly products, but are not willing to pay more in order to address social injustice.
And yet the combined political efforts of the entire chain of mezcal production and consumption—from agave growers in Mexico to bartenders and consumers on both sides of the border—have helped small-scale mezcaleros resist pressure to industrialize and homogenize mezcal. In 2011, large-scale producers tried to ban producers outside the DO from using the word agave in mezcal labels (they already are banned from using the word mezcal). They also tried to legalize using up to 49 percent generic sugars (instead of agave) in mezcal production—while banning agave sugar percentage labels.
A massive political response that included American bartenders, retailers, and consumers along with Mexican producers, bartenders, retailers, and consumers killed those proposals and helped to protect small-scale Mexican producers, for now. Bowen writes that this international political action focused on the rights of the consumer.
In the long run, Bowen suggests real change calls for political action at the state governance level—in Mexico and for Mexico—not only purchase by purchase.
Maya L. Kapoor lives in Tucson and writes about the environment.
Edited by Eric Magrane and Christopher Cokinos
Illustrations by Paul Mirocha
UA Press, 2016
By Jeevan Narney
Come human, you half-angel, half-monkey,
Come gather, come grind, come saw,
Come dislocate that which you will relocate in elegy.
Come cut and gather what you will fail to return,
For I am not loved, but I am needed.
Sell my hard temple to make a chair out of me
So that you can sit and look out at the pink-eyed sky,
Thinking, wouldn’t it be nice to sit against me and
Listen to the arid dialogue of doves wishing
They were bulletproof in my branches, which is
A wish as public as the sky dropping seeds of light
Quietly on my branches growing pink clusters.
Habitat: “Almost always at desert washes where water is more available,” writes Stan Tekiela.
Description: Growing to about thirty feet, but perhaps more typically between fifteen and twenty-five feet, the ironwood divides near its base into many branches and has a “round irregular crown.” It has blue-gray-green leaves with curved thorns at their base. Flowers in late spring or early summer are lavender to pink to white. The bark is gray.
Life History: There’s a national monument named after this tree and for good reason. It is long-lived (up to a thousand years) and hefty—the wood is so dense that “one cubic foot weighs 66 pounds,” according to A Field Guide to the Plants of America. It “is one of the heaviest woods in the world.” So the name is apt. This gravitas means the ironwood (1) does not float on water; (2) makes long-burning firewood and coals; and (3) is used by the Seri to make figurines and tools and by knife-makers to craft handles. The seeds of the ironwood are not well coated, so they sprout as soon as it rains, carpeting its understory in green. The foliage is thick enough that it can be much cooler within the world of the ironwood, attracting species needing a break from the doldrums of summer. Bees and hummers love the flowers for the week or so when they are out. The tree is browsed by deer, cattle, and bighorn sheep. It is the only species in its genus. ✜