Voices: Culinary Traditions

What culinary traditions, innovations, ingredients, celebrations, or institutions make Tucson worthy of being designated a UNESCO City of Gastronomy?

January 1, 2014

Issue 4: January/February 2014Voices
Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, City of Tucson

Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, City of Tucson

With a history going back at least 4,000 years, Tucson is one of the oldest continuously-inhabited cities in the United States. At one time part of Mexico, we have a rich tradition of Tohono O’Odham, Yaqui, Spanish and Anglo influences, which can be seen in our architecture and food. Tucson has a strong “locovore” movement – a preference for locally-grown, locally-prepared food and drink. With ingredients ranging from pinto beans to cactus buds, Tucson cuisine is unique and deserving to be included in UNESCO’s World Cities of Gastronomy.

–Mayor Jonathan Rothschid, City of Tucson


Jaime de Zubeldia, Owner, ReZoNation Farm

Jaime de Zubeldia, Owner, ReZoNation Farm

“When talking about access to Good food several things emerge, but mostly it’s the stories about the challenges of reintroducing flavors that are no longer commonplace. Because of these stories we can now map a tour of the farms, ranches, orchards, and sacred places – both environmental and cultural – that make this regional heritage alliance worthy of the highest world class UNESCO designation. Metropolitan Tucson spends $4.9 billion per year on food grown mostly elsewhere, and that’s a missed economic development opportunity. To take this to the next level we need to buy more from nearby family farms and ranches, from the markets that stock what they grow, and from the culinary magicians that make a point of cooking with their products.”

–Jaime de Zubeldia


Carolyn Niethammer, author and food blogger

Carolyn Niethammer, author and food blogger

Take cumin, coriander, garlic and cilantro, grind it up and add beef that spent its life munching desert grass and jojoba leaves. When tender, pile on a tortilla and sprinkle with a crushed chiltepin. There you have the original Southwest cuisine – a mélange of flavors uniquely our own. Serve with a Tucson micro-brew. Buen provecho.

–Carolyn Niethammer


Derrick Widmark, Owner, Diablo Burger

Derrick Widmark, Owner, Diablo Burger

The Old Pueblo — authentic, layered, complex and un-quaint — is at the center of a centuries-old agricultural basin which, like close to 50% of the earth’s terrain, is categorized as arid landscapes. So when we eat local we are not only supporting the long-term sustainability of our region’s family ranches and farms, we are modeling arid-landscape agricultural production methods with truly global ramifications — we are doing good by eating well.

–Derrick Widmark


Vanessa Bechtol, Executive Director Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance

Vanessa Bechtol, Executive Director
Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance

Tucson is located in the Santa Cruz River Valley, one of the longest continually cultivated region in the United States, with an agricultural heritage extending back more than 4,000 years. Over that long timespan it has also been a corridor for the cultural diffusion and exchange of foods and culinary traditions. This reciprocal exchange of Old World and native foods resulted in a uniquely blended cuisine that is worthy of the City of Gastronomy title.

–Vanessa Bechtol, Executive Director
 Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance


Don Luria, founding president of the Tucson Originals and the Tucson Culinary Festival, and chair, Slow Food Southern Arizona

Don Luria, founding president of the Tucson Originals and the
Tucson Culinary Festival, and chair, Slow Food Southern Arizona

Historically, Tucson has been the focal point for the integration of Native American, Hispanic and early settler culinary traditions. During the past 30 years Tucson has experienced the remarkable rise in local farms, ranches, wineries, and farmer’s markets. They bring fresh local products to our home tables and local restaurants. More and more if we raise these products in Tucson, we savor them in Tucson.

–Don Luria, Founding President of the Tucson Originals, the Tucson Culinary Festival & Chair, Slow Food Southern Arizona


Janos Wilder, Chef and Owner, Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails

Janos Wilder, Chef and Owner, Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails

In my kitchen I cook with foods that both grow wild here, including cholla buds, nopalitos, saquaro blossoms, chilitepins, prickly pear fruit and verdologas, as well as with cultivars—beans, corns, squash, chilies, and herbs, as well as a staggering variety of other foods that make this one of the most biodiverse regions of the country. Over the years, as I’ve cooked with these foods, I’ve contemplated their role in the rich culinary mash-up which informs the gastronomic history of the region. I began to see many of the dishes we eat here as the cultural culinary icons of the region. These are the dishes like chiles rellenos, burritos and the local version, the chimichanga, tacos, autumn’s green corn tamales, sizzling marinated meats a la parilla, and the simple, flour tortilla, first developed here with Sonoran white wheat. These dishes, in themselves, symbolize our gastronomic heritage. The most amazing part of this, when you consider the rugged vastness of the Sonoran dessert and the drought conditions in which we often find ourselves, is that these foods exist at all. That they do is a testament to their victory in the struggle to survive and tribute to man’s ability to create not only sustenance, but to coax great flavor from what at first appears so meager.

–Janos Wilder


Jim Griffith, co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself, former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the UA, columnist, and author

Jim Griffith, co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself, former director
of the Southwest Folklore Center at the UA, columnist, and author

Ever since the introduction of corn about 4000 years ago, Tucson has been absorbing new foods, new crops, and new techniques. By now, we pretty much have it all. If you’re looking for cuisine, we have lots of talented, innovative professional chefs, many of whom work with local ingredients. And if it’s food you’re after, there’s the Sonoran hot dog and the wonderful O’odham combination of fiery chile colorado and potato salad. What more could you ask?

–Jim Griffith, co-founder of Tucson Meet Yourself, former director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the UA, columnist, and author


Carlotta Flores, Owner, El Charro Café

Carlotta Flores, Owner, El Charro Café

One of my favorite culinary traditions in Tucson is the season and tradition of fresh green corn tamales, which brings together families, community, food, and best of all, deliciousness! Green corn tamale production involves the whole family, starting with the buying of the white corn, to laying out fresh husks, charring green chili, and preparing masa. Everyone that is part of a tamalada, after sharing the meal, is sent home with a few dozen fresh green corn tamales to enjoy later.

–Carlotta Flores, Owner, El Charro Café


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