Tucson: The Gastronomic City

Daddy always told me about being born in Miami.

Yet it took me years to realize he wasn’t talking about Miami, Florida.

Rather, he meant Miami, Arizona, near Globe, where my grandmother Winnie Gibson grew up, where she lived among Native Americans, miners, ranchers. Where all sorts of drifters came and went. Where one such such drifter named Starr Daley murdered her brother James Roy Gibson in 1917, along the Apache Trail, five years after Arizona ceased being a Territory and became the 48th state. On Valentine’s Day.

With my great-uncle’s murder, Arizona reinstated the death penalty, abolished years before.

Arizona, or the idea of it, occupied some space in my head because of this family history. As a child, I’d thumbed through the tattered issues of Arizona Highways I found in boxes shoved to the back of a closet in my parents’ bedroom. And I listened to my grandmother’s amazing stories as we sat side by side in the tiny closet-like bedroom in San Diego where my father slept as a child, where a tall dresser stood against the wall, its drawers and shelves filled with hundreds of faded, sepia-tinted photographs, illustrations as it were for my grandmother’s stories. Which seemed like something out of a dream. Or at least a film.

I remember the coziness of sitting so close to her, so close I could hear her soft voice better, but also to inhale the wondrous aroma of the talcum powder she used after her baths in the enormous clawfoot tub in the bathroom, its paws like a lion’s, gripping the floor carpeted with small black-and-white ceramic tiles.

My first visit to Arizona, just a quick drive across state lines from Nevada, fizzled out because of serious brush fires that year. But it took another trip before I fell fully in love with a place I only knew through hearsay and the veneer of vintage photographs.

Thanks to one of my sisters-in-law, a snowbird from Wisconsin, who nested in Tucson’s Catalina Foothills every February, I rediscovered the allure of the desert in Tucson.

Desert. From ecclesiastical Latin. Dēsertum. “Abandoned place.”

The word conjures up images of vast sand dunes, fading footsteps leading to the top, erased by swift hot winds. There, some poor soul lies prostrate, skin parched and blistered from the ray guns of a merciless sun.

Lands of little rain, uninhabited, lifeless. That, I must admit, defined my initial thinking about deserts.

Yet there are deserts and then there are deserts. I’ve lived in a few. Or at least close enough:

  • The semi-arid Sacramento Valley.
  • The Channeled Scablands of eastern Washington state.
  • The Tehuacan Desert surrounding Puebla, Mexico.
  • The high desert of Laramie, Wyoming.
  • The manmade desert now covering most of Haiti.
  • The Sahara Desert, lapping at the coastal city of Rabat, Morocco.
  • The endless Sahara enveloping Burkina Faso, in West Africa.

Seeking cobwebby memories of those bygone days, I thought a lot about that past.

When I learned that UNESCO designated Tucson as the first City of Gastronomy in the entire United States in 2015, I asked myself “Why?”

Why Tucson? Why not New York? Chicago? Los Angeles?

It truly perplexed me. Despite living in, or near, deserts for much of my life, the food situation always seemed fraught, one of scarcity, never abundance.

Not until I got my hands on veteran cookbook author and desert-foods expert Carolyn Niethammer’s A Desert Feast: Celebrating Tucson’s Culinary Heritage. did I understand why Tucson is a City of Gastronomy. Niethammer maps out the application process taken by the city of Tucson as it applied for “City of Gastronomy” status. And one of the most important points was that Tucson boasts 4000 years of continuous agriculture, known because of archaeological evidence of irrigation canals dug by Native Americans at the foot of the “A” Mountain in southwest Tucson.

After I ate my first Sonoran hot dog at El Perro Loco, a food truck parked in southwest Tucson, in parking lot across from a busy, dusty thoroughfare, and swooned over the savory salsas at Tacos Giro on Grande Avenue in west Tucson, I knew I’d found a place where food adventures might well carry me through at least another decade of culinary exploration. I didn’t need to leave the country, I didn’t need to speak another language (although my Spanish language skills would come in handy), and I didn’t need to fear violent revolution, at least not in the foreseeable future.

Many before me retreated to the desert, too.

As Niethammer writes, “Newcomers to the desert surrounding Tucson, seeing nothing but cactus, thorny scrub brush, and bush-like trees, might ponder how the original inhabitants of the Tucson basin managed to feed themselves and survive for millennia.”

One thought on “Tucson: The Gastronomic City

  1. Gracias and merci, Cynthia. I too, ate great Mexican food in Tucson during one of my “foodie” runs years ago. I love that city, it reminds me of Marrakech. Cook on!

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