17 Nov Arizona’s unique desert diet: Tucson becomes a first entry in UNESCO’s Creative Cities for gastronomy
Original Article Posted at The National Post
TORTILLA FLAT, Ariz. — It’s just a roadside burger joint, but it may have the most expensive wallpaper in America.
Every wall in this rural restaurant at a former stagecoach stop in Arizona’s Superstition Mountains is plastered with American bills. They range from $1 to $20 and new bills get stapled to the walls nearly every day.
Our waiter estimates there’s $350,000 on the walls of the Superstition Saloon Restaurant, where patrons at the bar sit on authentic horse saddles.
It’s a unique restaurant, but not unique enough for the United Nations.
However, nearby Tucson is. UNESCO has chosen Tucson — and its array of restaurants – America’s first entry in its network of Creative Cities for gastronomy. Tortilla Flat lies 204 kilometres north of Tucson near Canyon Lake and too far out in the desert to fall under Tucson’s UNESCO umbrella. The locals have been growing food here for 4,000 years.
It’s their innovative creations with those crops that earned Tucson its UNESCO honours — such as making beer and ice cream from the prickly pear cactus. It’s a dangerous and nasty plant with long, sharp needles and harvesting its delicious fruit requires a steady and knowledgeable hand. Long kitchen tongs are recommended.
Finding ways to avoid starving to death in the rocky, arid, Sonoran Desert has made the locals very clever at persuading the desert to surrender its nutrition secrets.
Indigenous peoples learned that dried up riverbeds that occasionally gush with floodwaters are one of nature’s most productive pantries.
And to save modern man from trudging through the desert to find food, Tucson has enacted by-laws that allow townsfolk to grow many of those desert foods in their back yards.
And the city’s wide variety of restaurants rely on those local backyards as well as area farms as their principal suppliers to their kitchens.
Restaurateur Janos Wilder, chef and owner at Tucson’s Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails — a James Beard award-winner as top chef in the Southwest in 2000 — told the Smithsonian he incorporates local ingredients like tepary beans, a drought-resistant legume native to the American southwest, into dishes like a cholla bud escabeche served alongside a green bean and tepary bean salad and drizzled with a jalapeño-orange vinaigrette.
Wilder harvests a lot of local ingredients from a garden at the nearby Children’s Museum of Phoenix, which is there to teach local children about the abundance of food sources out in the desert and how to turn those weird-looking plants into nutritious, delicious meals.
And to preserve those desert gifts Tucson’s Native Seeds/RESEARCH — a nonprofit seed bank — conserves and distributes heirloom seeds found across America’s southwest.
When summer heat reaches 38°C in Tucson, a lot of visitors don’t want to be wandering the streets discovering interesting restaurants. The city has a fleet of roofed golf carts flitting about the city’s core offering anyone free rides. The drivers aren’t paid, but get by nicely on tips.
Meanwhile, back in Tortilla Flat, the population has dwindled to only six souls since it was established in 1904. That’s when work crews lived here while building the Theodore Roosevelt Dam, which blocked the Salt River and Tonto Creek in order to stop destructive floods, bring electricity to Phoenix, and irrigation to the Sonora Desert. The workers were well-paid, but many blew their money, and by the end of the month they had only enough money to buy flour to make tortillas to eat. Thus the name — Tortilla Flat — or so the story goes.
The Roosevelt and other dams on the Salt River created beautiful deep lakes — such as Canyon Lake near Tortilla Flat — where sheer cliff walls rise nearly 305 metres (1,000 feet) out of the blue water. Bighorn sheep and bald eagles peer down from the walls at tourists plying the waters of Canyon Lake aboard the Dolly, a steam-powered tour boat on which the captain explains the fascinating geological and human history of the region.