Seeking the Desert’s Edible Heirlooms

Just outside of Tucson, a tasting tour of the desert’s heritage foods awaits the historically inclined food lover.

November 1, 2013

Fork in the RoadIssue 3: November/December 2013

Take a day and fill it with scenic spots, informative ideas, and creative cuisine topped off by local wine. Call it a heritage foods tour of the desert borderlands, a day trip for those gastronomes wanting to know more about southern Arizona heritage foods and the farms that produce them.

“Tucson has one of the oldest food traditions in all of North America,” said tour organizer Rafael de Grenade. “Our regional identity is tied up with the foods native to this area, edibles introduced by explorers and migratory peoples that help form the food culture we have today.”

De Grenade organized the tour as a prototype for others to emulate, as a sort of guide for those interested in learning more about the preservation of our unique natural and cultural heritage.

Starting at the Mission Garden in downtown Tucson on a warm August morning, the tour followed the Santa Cruz River south toward the border with a visit to the Tohono O’odham San Xavier Coop Farm, on to the Tumacacori Mission Orchard and adjacent Santa Cruz Chili and Spice Company and a magnificent garden-fresh spread at Avalon Organic Gardens. A visit to the Native Seeds/SEARCH Conservation Farm in Patagonia filled the afternoon before the tour ended with a heritage food spread at Overland Trout, a new restaurant in Sonoita.

“Heritage tourism offers a very real way to know the unique character and flavors of a place,” said de Grenade. “The mere act of seeing these foods grown can be an effective strategy that fosters revitalization of local and regional foodways. Traditional foods hold more than the genetic history of a lineage adapted over time. One bite of a taco with freshly-made nixtamal and carne asada, sprinkled with crushed chiltepines, wild oregano, and queso asadero; or a tepary bean burrito wrapped in a giant tortilla—[these foods] connect us with a food source that reaches back through generations.”

Highlighted along the path of our trip were heritage foods such as mission grapes, mission figs, quinces, sweet limes, pomegranates, tepary and Pima lima beans, White Sonora wheat, and mission grape wine.

The Mission Garden is a re-creation of the Spanish Colonial walled garden originally part of the San Agustín Mission, a site that interprets Tucson’s 4,000-year history of continuous agriculture. Roger Pfeuffer, vice-chair of Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace, says the plan is to re-plant and re-grow what flourished in that riparian oasis in the late 1700s and early 1800s. The four-acre garden holds more than 100 fruit tree varieties, direct genetic descendants of those first introduced by Padre Kino and billed as the oldest surviving heirloom fruit trees in Baja Arizona.

“When people move, they tend to take something familiar with them to their new home and that’s what the missionaries did. We’re growing genetically identical trees to the ones brought here by Old World missionaries,” he said.

A short jaunt down I-19 is the O’odham Coop Farm, where members of the Tohono O’odham nation grow 60 heirloom food varieties across their 160-acres of cultivated land. Propagation manager Ci’ena Schlaefli walked us around the site where workers were busy cutting and bailing the tribe’s main crop, alfalfa, while racks of red chiles and mesquite beans dried under the sun, and freshly cut field corn was being shucked and roasted to be ground into meal.

Early farming efforts in the arid borderlands involved basic survival sustenance, growing enough crops to keep the desert peoples alive. Now, the farm finds itself with a surplus, so these certified-naturally-grown traditional foodstuffs—everything from tepary beans and O’odham peas to squash (H:al), Kuribaso melons, I’toi onions, and yellow watermelon—are sold in the San Xavier Cooperative Association farm store.

At the Tumacacori National Park, guide Vicki Wolfe led the tour of the mission and its five-acre orchard where missionaries and colonists once planted all manner of trees: apple and peach, apricot and orange, pomegranate and fig. To re-create the Spanish Mission-era orchard and garden, cultivars (fruit tree stocks) of the original trees from the Old World, the Mediterranean region, Asia, and other parts of the world are being propagated by horticulturists to replicate the orchard in a historically-appropriate fashion.

Across the street and up the road, Bob and Jean Neubauer led a tour through the Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Company. If you’ve never visited this place, prepare yourself for an aromatic sensory experience because your nostrils will start ululating the moment you walk through the door.

“If you stay in one place long enough and provide quality product, you become famous,” said Jean Neubauer, the company’s owner and CEO, whose father started turning chiles into chili powder in the early 1940s. “There’s a huge interest in food flavors now and our niche market variety of powders, pastes, and salsas grown in Willcox represent chiles of many varieties.”

The morning-long hands-on encounter with corn, cucumbers, and chiles brought on a case of the hungries as we pulled through the gate of Tumacacori’s Avalon Organic Gardens & EcoVillage, an all-volunteer community that, among many other projects, cultivates 165-acres using principles of permaculture and dryland farming. The farmland along the Santa Cruz River was inhabited by indigenous tribes for centuries before being settled by Father Kino, who built large grazing fields and gardens to feed the hungry. Since 2007, Avalon Organic Gardens has revived this mission, providing fresh vegetables, fruits, herbs, meat, and dairy products for the community.

Master gardener Tarenta Baldeschi said, “We want to change the world and inspire others to live sustainably and in harmony with the earth. If love goes into the soil, it makes the food taste better.”

The Native Seeds/SEARCH Conservation Farm in Patagonia was next on the itinerary; Evan Sofro welcomed us to the 65-acre plot growing out a large diversity of foodstuffs. “Desert dwellers don’t realize the amazing varieties of edibles there are in the natural ecology around them, regionally-adapted consumables that have been around for thousands of years,” he said.

Gary Paul Nabhan, one of the founders of Native Seeds/SEARCH, was on hand to offer his thoughts on heritage foodstuffs. “Availability of heirloom fruits and veggie varieties has blossomed since I got on board in 1985,” he said. “Back then, there were less than 5,000 items to be found in the marketplace. Today there are upwards of 2,200 varieties of vegetables, fruits, grains, and legumes thanks to the kind of work done by Native Seeds/SEARCH and Seed Savers Exchange. This diversity can make a difference in our overall health.”

At Sonoita’s newest eatery, Overland Trout, chef Greg LaPrad synthesized the lessons of the heritage food tour into a bountiful buffet: a hominy stew made from Tohono O’odham corn, lime-marinated grass-fed beef, a summer salad featuring Querencia Farms Sun Gold tomatoes, Native Seeds beets escabeche, and organic cucumbers with chiltepines. And, of course, mission grape wine from Sonoita Vineyards and White Sonora wheat bread baked at Barrio Breads. ✜

See for yourself how the heritage foods that once sustained area residents may soon do so again. To create your own Heritage Foods of the Borderlands excursion, contact:

Mission Garden, 927 W. Mission Lane. 520.591 0478.

San Xavier Cooperative Association and Farm, 8100 S. Oidak Wog. 520.295.3774.

Tumacacori National Historic Park, 1891 East Frontage Road, Tumacacori. 520.398.2341.

Santa Cruz Chili & Spice Co., 1868 E. Frontage Road, Tumacacori. 520.398.2591.

Avalon Organic Gardens, 2074 Pendleton Drive, Tumacacori. 520.603.9932.

Native Seeds/SEARCH Conservation Farm, 45 San Antonio Road, Patagonia. 520.394.0227.

Overland Trout Restaurant, 3266 Arizona 82, Sonoita. 520.455.9316.

Lee Allen likes to see what’s growing in other people’s gardens.

Photography by Photovitamina.

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