Tucson’s 4,000-year-old food culture makes it the ultimate melting pot

America's first UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy

Tucson has reason to celebrate: it is a great food town, and part of what makes it such a unique culinary destination are the efforts taken to preserve its food culture as it has evolved. In 2015, Tucson became the first city in the U.S. to receive designation as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy.

The term "gastronomy" often calls to mind upscale restaurants, and Tucson has plenty of those, along with terrific bars, brew pubs, casual eateries and food trucks. But this UNESCO designation means much more than that.

Tucson is a historic food town, maybe even a prehistoric food town. Evidence of cultivation in this area dates back 4,000 years, long before conquistadors or founding fathers. What's more, the culture and foods of the area grew and changed continuously over the past several millennia, creating a rich culinary stew that is unique in both North America and the world.

According to James Beard Award-winning chef Janos Wilder, proprietor of DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails (and a board member of the Tucson City of Gastronomy nonprofit organization), "the Sonoran Desert, which encompasses southern Arizona and the state of Sonora in northern Mexico, is the most biodiverse region in North America.

"The Santa Cruz river [which flows through Tucson] is the longest continually cultivated area on the continent. There are over 700 types of corn and several hundred varieties of beans and squash, many of which have adapted over time to the arid desert climate."

These three foods – corn, beans and squash – are known in this area as the "three sisters," as they form the foundation of Sonoran cuisine, which also includes surprising bounty from cactus and other desert plants.

Civilization advanced over the centuries, with the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors and missionaries in the late 1600s, and with it, new foods were introduced to the local cuisine. The phrase "amber waves of grain" might not be the first image that comes to mind when you think of the Sonoran Desert, but wheat was first introduced to this area with the missionaries.

Wheat is now so entrenched in the local food chain that the Sonoran Desert is the only region (both north and south of the border) where flour tortillas are considered traditional to Mexican cuisine. Conquistadors also brought livestock; these early cowboys set the stage for a cattle industry that would form a pillar of both the cuisine and the economy of the region.

Throughout the past 200 years, the cuisine of Tucson has continued to grow and adapt, always building on the foundation of the "three sisters" and the Spanish/Mexican influence. With its UNESCO designation, Tucson is committed in keeping this unique food culture alive and thriving.

Here are 10 ways Tucson lives up to its UNESCO designation:

Maintaining a heritage seed bank: Native Seeds S.E.A.R.C.H.

  • A variety of beans and seeds indigenous to the Sonoran Desert — Photo courtesy of Native Seeds/SEARCH
  • 4,000 years of cultivation adds up to a lot history and variety, and Native Seeds/SEARCH makes it their mission to preserve and perpetuate that history. This nonprofit seed conservation organization maintains a seed bank of nearly 2,000 varieties of crops adapted to the arid landscapes of the southwest, many of which are rare or endangered.
  • Purchase many of these seeds, as well as locally sourced products, at their midtown shop, or attend one of their events, which range from gardening and beekeeping workshops to dinners featuring celebrity chefs and native food.

Education and cultivation of heritage fruits and vegetables: Mission Garden

  • Plants have survived and adapted to this desert climate for 4,000 years, providing foodstuffs for the native people here. This nonprofit organization has recreated a Spanish Colonial walled garden on the site of Tucson's historic San Agustin Mission to cultivate these heirloom fruits and vegetables.
  • Visit the Garden to get a sense of just how ancient Tucson's food culture really is.

Adapting traditional distilling methods to the desert: Whiskey Del Bac

  • What happens when you cross traditional Scottish distilling methods with ingredients native to the Sonoran Desert? You get Whiskey Del Bac, an American Single Malt. Borne of an idea to toast barley using native mesquite wood, Stephen and Elaine Paul created three unique whiskeys, which have been winning craft distilling awards around the country.
  • Tours are available, where you can taste all three varieties, including the Old Pueblo, a clear whiskey with notes of ancho chili. (You won't find that in Scotland!)

Cultivating heritage grains: BKW Farms

  • This third-generation Chinese American family farm is an American Dream story on its own. The Wongs first came to Tucson in the early 1900s, and, after many years as grocers, began farming in 1939.
  • BKW Farms specializes in organic grains, including heritage Sonoran wheat, which was first introduced to the region by Missionary Padre Eusebio Francisco Kino in the late 1600s. Sample their organic goodness in the breads produced by Barrio Bread (below).

Baking with heritage grains: Barrio Bread

  • "Bread whisperer" Don Guerra not only bakes bread that is among the best in the country, he embraces the region's long culinary history by using heirloom grains in many of his loaves.
  • Try the Pan de Kino, Locavore or Heritage, all of which feature locally sourced and/or heirloom grains. With their crispy brown crusts and magnificent Arizona-inspired stencils, they are as beautiful as they are delicious. Bring on the butter.

Preserving the fruits of the desert: Cheri's Desert Harvest Foods

  • Former elementary school teacher Cheri Romanoski sought to educate her students and her own children about the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert. Citing how Native Americans survived on its bounty, she began making jellies and syrups out of prickly pear cactus and agave.
  • Soon her side gig became her full-time business and now we can all benefit. Drizzle some of that bright magenta prickly pear syrup over fruit (or in your next Margarita) and you'll see why people have thrived in this desert climate for thousands of years.

Sustaining the cattle industry culture: University of Arizona Meat Sales

  • Based in Tucson, the University of Arizona remains true to the state's 300+ year history of cattle ranching. Through its Food Products and Safety Lab (FPSL), the only one of its kind at a university in the Southwest, "the U" (as it's known in Tucson) makes available meat that's raised on the school's own ranch.
  • The FPSL operates a weekly meat market when school is in session, selling beef that's either 100% grass-fed, or grass-fed and finished on grain, all of which is either prime or choice grade. Snag some mesquite charcoal and grill up a piece of Arizona heritage.

Interpreting historic ingredients in a 21st-century kitchen: DOWNTOWN Kitchen + Cocktails

  • This upscale downtown restaurant has embraced the UNESCO City of Gastronomy designation. Chef Janos Wilder showcases local flavors and heritage ingredients on a "sense of place" menu that changes seasonally. Sample the aquachile (a raw fish prep similar to ceviche) seasoned with candied jalapenos, pickled cholla cactus buds and a prickly pear/jicama broth
  • Or try the "City of Gastronomy" porchetta, rubbed with habanero pepita pesto with chili Colorado, frijoles maneados (a style of refried beans infused with chorizo and cheese unique to the Sonoran Desert). No matter what you choose, you'll be sampling the region's history with 21st-century style.

Creating new craft brews using heritage grains: Dragoon Brewing

  • Craft breweries have proliferated throughout the U.S. in recent years, and Tucson is no exception, with several excellent spots to sample a home-brewed IPA or stout. Dragoon Brewing takes things to a City of Gastronomy level, where founder Bruce Greene and his brewing team incorporate local grains in some of their specialty and seasonal brews.
  • Try the OHAYGRRL, a spicy/tart German-style Gose that includes white Sonoran wheat in its ingredients.

Memorializing traditional Mexican Sonoran cuisine: El Charro Café

  • El Charro has been serving up classic Sonoran Mexican cuisine in downtown Tucson since it was established by female entrepreneur Monica Flin in 1922. If the menu at this historic downtown eatery looks familiar, it's because so many subsequent Mexican restaurants have followed their example, including adding chimichangas, which Flin invented.
  • Dining here is taking a step back in time, to when Tucson was a sleepy cow town, and dishes such as carne secca and albondigas (meatballs) weren't yet heritage dishes, they were Monica's grandniece, Carlotta Flores, carries on the woman-run tradition today; Flores has also embraced the cattle and seafood history of the region with two new downtown eateries, Charro Steak and Charro del Rey.