We’ve known it—those of us who eat here have tasted it. We’ve felt it in the soil under our fingernails. We’ve seen it in the magenta stain of prickly pear. We’ve heard it in the hammer mill grinding sweet speckled mesquite; smelled it in the exhale of steam from a crowded pot of tamales.
Tucson has always been a city of gastronomy. On Dec. 11, 2015, it was designated a City of Gastronomy by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), becoming the first city in the United States to receive such a designation.
The designation added Tucson to UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network, created in 2004 to promote cooperation among cities that have identified creativity as a strategic factor for sustainable urban development. Tucson joined 46 other cities added to the Creative Cities Network in 2015. The 116 cities in this network are intended to work together toward a common objective: placing creativity and cultural industries at the heart of their development plans at the local level and cooperating actively at the international level.
“The Tucson Basin deserves this honor not only for having some of the oldest continually farmed landscapes in North America but also for emerging as a global hotbed for ideas on relocalizing food economies and growing food in a hotter, drier climate,” says Gary Paul Nabhan, an ethnobotanist and professor at the University of Arizona’s Southwest Center. “From food banks, seed libraries, and farmers’ markets, to community gardens, community kitchens, and literary luminaries writing on food and culture, we are serving as a nursery grounds for new innovations, not merely for preserving our food heritage.” Nabhan helped initiate Tucson’s application to the Creative Cities Network, a joint effort of the University of Arizona and the City of Tucson, with support from many businesses and nonprofits.
Across 33 countries, UNESCO has designated Creative Cities in seven categories: Literature, Crafts, and Folk Art, Design, Music; Media Arts, Film, and Gastronomy. Including Tucson, there are 18 Cities of Gastronomy worldwide. In the United States, Tucson joins three existing Creative Cities: Iowa City—designated a City of Literature in 2008—and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Paducah, Kentucky, both Cities of Crafts and Folk Art. Two additional U.S. cities joined the network in 2015: Austin, for Media Arts, and Detroit, for Design.
What makes Tucson worthy? Like a Nobel Prize in Literature awarded for an author’s body of work rather than a single publication, there is no single reason for Tucson to earn the accolade.
There is what came before: Tucson has the longest agricultural history of any city in North America, extending back more than 4,000 years. Three thousand years after the first farmers of the Sonoran Desert settled in the Santa Cruz River valley, missionary Father Eusebio Francisco Kino traveled on horseback from Mexico to an O’odham village called Schookshon—meaning “below the black hill”—and found a community of 750 people thriving on cactus and mesquite, tepary beans and sunflowers, corn and squash. In 2000, archeologists dug below the surface of a decidedly modern city and “found evidence of habitation preserved in every layer, going back 4,000 years,” says Jonathan Mabry, the historic preservation officer for the City of Tucson, who researched and wrote much of the application to UNESCO.
Mission Garden Living Agricultural Museum
But it is not just our past—an uninterrupted lineage of food—that warrants attention. “With this designation, Tucson can affirm its place as an incubator for innovations in borderland cuisines,” says Nabhan.
And it’s just not just about gastronomy, says Mabry. “It’s about using our unique food culture as a means for economic development.”
Consider the work of the 30-year-old conservation nonprofit Native Seeds/SEARCH—which Nabhan co-founded—and their extensive collection of desert-adapted seeds, some of which exist nowhere else in the world. Think about the seeds planted in soil by tiny fingers in the dozens of school gardens that have sprouted around the city—kids who are now eating food grown in southern Arizona, thanks to work done by the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona to connect local producers with institutional markets, offering not only increased economic stability for our region’s farmers and ranchers, but also greater access to local, healthy food throughout our community.
Consider our fields of White Sonora wheat, pastures of rugged criollo cattle, and orchards heavy with Kino heritage fruit trees. More heritage foods listed on the Slow Food International Ark of Taste are grown within 100 miles of Tucson than any other city in North America. Volunteers at Mission Garden are collecting many of those foods into a garden planted on a plot of land that’s been producing food for 4,000 years.
We are serving as a nursery grounds for new innovations, not merely for preserving our food heritage.
Gary Paul Nabhan, ethnobotanist/professor, University of Arizona Southwest Center
Down the street from Mission Garden, in Tucson’s newly thriving downtown, are dozens of chefs—with a James Beard award winner—preparing many of these heritage foods in distinctly modern ways, such as cholla bud escabeche at Janos Wilder’s Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails.
“This designation puts Tucson and it's southern Arizona foodshed on the global map as the capital of Southwestern borderlands cuisine and a center of food system innovation,” says Mabry.
Indeed, much of the excitement surrounding this designation is outward facing. It offers Tucson the opportunity to be known internationally as a destination for culinary tourism. It facilitates collaboration and exchange with other members of the Creative Cities Network. Joining UNESCO’s Creative Cities Network “presents an opportunity for Tucson’s chefs, farmers, and ranchers, as well as our businesses, academic institutions, and nonprofits, to be represented on the world stage,” says Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild. “I’d like our tourism bureau to be able to tout this designation as yet another great reason to visit Tucson.”
But the designation also offers an opportunity for Tucson to look inward—to galvanize our community to action in addressing many of the challenges that still exist in our local food system. The designation can help direct public and private funds to support innovation in the food system, from small business incubators to nonprofit foundations. It can serve to focus and reframe efforts to alleviate poverty and food insecurity within our community. It can catalyze the development of a regional food brand to increase consumer awareness of locally produced foods. Mayor Rothschild recently established a City Commission on Food Security, Heritage, and Economy to address issues relating to food security, food heritage, and the food economy. “I know the participants, especially representatives from the University of Arizona, are excited at the prospect of working within UNESCO’s Creative Cities framework,” says Mayor Rothschild.
“Like any other honor or designation, it’s what we do with the City of Gastronomy award that matters,” says Nabhan. “If we want to use it to reduce food insecurity, obesity, and diabetes, let’s do it. If we want to use it to jump-start new food micro-enterprises, let’s go for it. What matters to me most about this designation is that it built a collaboration among the city and county governments, the University of Arizona, our grassroots alliance, nonprofits, and businesses—one that will now endure.”
In other words: It’s up us to decide how we will leverage our resources to fulfill our designation as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy—one that will now endure.
Megan Kimble served as the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona. This article appeared in Edible Baja’s November/December 2015 issue and is used with their permission.