Native Flavor

Local heritage foods are making a well-deserved—and delicious—comeback

Before writing about the heritage and traditional foods of Southern Arizona, I decided to first try my hand at making some of these foods—to savor the flavors and experience the smells firsthand.

I already have some knowledge from my experiences as a foodie, food writer and chef in Tucson restaurants, where I was fortunate to work under many different chefs who utilized and understood the importance of these ingredients.

I started out my journey by heading down to the Native Seeds/SEARCH store on Fourth Avenue. I picked up some tepary beans ($4 per pound) and agave nectar ($5.75 for an 11.75-ounce bottle). Then I walked down the street to the Food Conspiracy Co-op for mesquite flour ($19.99 per pound) and found some dried Tohono O'odham peas ($4.79 per pound). In my pantry, I had some native chiles from the Tucson CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) group from which I get my produce each week; in my freezer, I had some jackrabbit from a family member's hunt.

I crushed up the chiles in a molcajete and used them as seasoning on the rabbit, which I dry-seared in a big-cast iron pot. I cooked the beans and peas, added the seared rabbit and then reduced the leftover water, letting it all cook down to a chili-like consistency. I combined the mesquite flour with rendered animal fat, agave nectar and water, and then formed the mixture into flat cakes before baking them, as a sweet accompaniment.

The chili turned out to be hearty, savory and incredibly filling. The beans and peas were creamy and mild; the rabbit was tender and rich but not gamy; and the chiles lent a deep, subtle savory flavor with just a touch of heat. The mesquite biscuits had a distinct, sweet, gingerbread-molasses flavor to them and were a great complement to the slight heat of the chili.

I was a little surprised at how easy the ingredients were to come by—although, with the exception of the rabbit, they were not exactly inexpensive.

Of course, there are cheaper ways to get heritage foods. One is to grow them, just as people have been doing for generations. They require little to no water beyond rainfall, and they are genetically suited to survive in this sometimes-harsh desert environment—they will certainly do better than non-native plants, which can also be invasive and threatening to native plants. There's also hunting and harvesting, which are inexpensive, but should always be done in a responsible and sustainable manner.

The heritage-foods movement has been slowly gaining momentum over the last decade or so, along with the more highly publicized organic and locavore movements. Southern Arizona happens to be the perfect breeding ground for the heritage-foods movement, as it affects our people, cultures and arid desert environment in a particularly unique way.

There are several organizations in Southern Arizona dedicated to preserving and utilizing these native plants and foods, including Native Seeds/SEARCH; the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance; Desert Harvesters; the Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society (TCSS); Sabores Sin Fronteras/Flavors Without Borders; and Tohono O'odham Community Action (TOCA). We also are lucky to have an abundance of chefs who use these special foods in different types of cuisine.

Southern Arizona's heritage foods are defined as "locally produced foods tied to the region's history and cultural identity," according to the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance. These foods include tepary beans; mesquite pods; cactus fruit, buds and pads; chiltepin peppers; various species of drought-resistant corn, peas, squash and melons; javelina; jackrabbit; and various native birds.

Janos Wilder, chef and owner of Janos and J-BAR in Tucson, has been a supporter of using local and heritage foods for years. His menus often feature the flavors of cholla buds (when in season), which taste to some like mild asparagus (though to me, they taste more like fresh caper-flower buds); nopales (pads of the prickly pear cactus), which have a distinctly mucilaginous texture and a mild, fresh flavor, almost like a bell pepper; chiltepin peppers, a fiery-hot pearl-sized pepper; quail; and many other heritage ingredients.

"From a culinary standpoint, you have foods with a sense of place," Wilder says. "When cooking them, you are speaking about where you come from and where you are."

Wilder's menus feature traditional foods prepared in unique, modern, nontraditional ways. "To use traditional foods and cook them with an eye to the future, we're using food to talk about what's possible. It's an optimistic sort of thing."

But he is also quick to point out that the foods cannot stand alone: They are inextricably intertwined with the culture, the history and the traditions of the people they came from.

"You (can) lose important things, not only food, but the culture and traditions that revolve around the planting, the harvesting and the eating of the foods," Wilder says. "If we stop cooking with the foods, then we start losing the culture. And who knows which came first: Are we losing the culture because we're not cooking the foods, or are we losing the foods because we start losing the culture?"

Native Seeds/SEARCH, an organization that Wilder has worked closely with through the years, is dedicated to conserving the heritage seeds of Northern Mexico and the Southwestern United States, many of which are edible or food-bearing. Their secondary mission is promoting the use of the plants.

"The whole idea is biodiversity," says Suzanne Nelson, Native Seeds/SEARCH's director of conservation. "Cultures were able to survive here for thousands of years, because they had crops that were suited to the extreme environment."

Clearly, these foods were important for more than the unique, delicious flavors they can impart. A 2003 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Research Innovation and Development Grants in Economics Project found that these heritage foods play an important role in the genetic makeup of the people who traditionally consumed these foods.

Their study focused on the Tohono O'odham Nation, just west of Tucson. Researchers found that the tribe had, at that time, the highest rate of diabetes among Native American tribes, with 50 percent of the adults having adult-onset diabetes. (The rate of adult-onset diabetes in the overall U.S. population in 2003 was 4 to 6 percent.) The study concluded that heritage foods, including tepary beans, cholla-cactus buds and wild greens, traditionally kept the Tohono O'odham people healthier.

"These traditional foods help to regulate blood-sugar levels, prevent diabetes and reduce diabetes in the community," says Tristan Reader, co-director of Tohono O'odham Community Action. "In the 1960s, (diabetes) was virtually unknown in this community."

In 2007, TOCA opened the Desert Rain Café in Sells, about a two hour drive southwest of Tucson. Each dish includes at least one heritage food—sometimes prepared in a traditional manner, and sometimes introduced into a more-modern dish or preparation. The café uses agave syrup as a sweetener and mesquite flour in baked goods. The food is fantastic and flavorful, as well as affordable, with prices on the current menu ranging from $1.95 to $7.95.

"It's a great place for people to come and try these things that they may have seen growing in the desert," Reader says. "It's a culinary experience."

Heritage foods are not only a culinary experience; they're also an important cultural and economic part of life. The Tohono O'odham culture is deeply tied to both culinary traditions and Mother Nature, says Reader. For instance, traditional rain ceremonies and songs start the monsoon season, which brings the rain to grow crops.

The café is also bringing jobs to the community—all of the workers at the Desert Rain Café were unemployed prior to the café's opening, says Reader.

"It's very much about health: These are the foods that keep us healthy," he says. "It's also about culture: These are the foods that are tied to our traditions, and it's about economic opportunity as well."

The economics of heritage food is a topic that greatly interests Gary Nabhan, a self-described writer, lecturer, food and farming advocate, rural-lifeways folklorist and conservationist. He works with Sabores Sin Fronteras/Flavors Without Borders, a joint venture of the University of Arizona's Southwest Center and the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance.

"Like it or not, we are nourished by a binational food system: Most of what is eaten in Tucson in the winter comes from south of the border," says Nabhan. "The question being asked by the Flavors Without Borders food alliance is this: How can our buying power support the right kind of sustainable agriculture that keeps farmers, farm workers and the land on both sides of the borderline healthier than it has been in the past?"

Nabhan has spent his career working with and studying heritage foods, and he says that across the continent, farmers and ranchers make up just 1 1/2 percent of the population, compared with about 50 percent in the past. Fewer farms and fewer lands are being dedicated to diverse crops, which has led to the loss of nearly 1,200 types of fruit, vegetables, grains and meats; this can only be reversed if urban consumers are willing to support ranchers and farmers who grow a greater diversity of crops.

"If anyone is to make a living off growing heritage foods, first, it should be those in the original communities of stewards who have kept them alive all along," he says. "And because many (of these foods) are nutritious, they should be used to support the nutritional well-being and food security of at-risk communities now vulnerable to rising food prices and advertising of junk foods."

Sabores Sin Fronteras' mission is to document, celebrate and conserve farming and food folkways along the U.S./Mexico border.

"Some heritage foods have multicultural legacies, like prickly pear or mission figs, while others have been unique to a single community, culture or region," Nabhan says. "The Southwest borderlands have both, but each should be treated appropriately."

Many of these heritage foods grow in abundance here, without any help from people, and are free for the taking (with permission, of course). For example, the Santa Cruz River Valley is one of the longest continually cultivated and most diverse agricultural areas in the United States, with an agricultural history dating back nearly 4,000 years.

The area is diverse because the seeds have to adapt to the harsh and changing climates, Wilder says.

"Rather than change the environment to adapt to the seeds, which is what Monsanto does, or change the seeds to adapt to the environment, which is what we're doing with genetic modification, the way that nature works is through Darwinian selection: (The plants) adapt to the environment they're in, and in that way are stronger and resistant to disease, naturally," Wilder says.

Nabhan explains that maintaining biological diversity is important, especially in a culture where, if a farmer can't figure out how to market, say, 120 kinds of apples, he will eventually only grow the few types that sell.

"That's where early adopters like Chef Janos Wilder come in," Nabhan says, "to help farmers figure out the distinctive uses of some of their apples or vegetables that can't be matched by conventional varieties."

One traditional native plant that's adapted well locally is the mesquite tree. There are several varieties that have pods that can be harvested and ground into sweet, nutty flour. The Community Food Bank recommends that you harvest the pods when they turn yellow or yellowish-red and are dry enough to snap. The mesquite-pod season typically begins in June and continues through October.

Desert Harvesters, a nonprofit, volunteer-run organization that facilitates the planting of native food-bearing shade trees, grinds the harvested mesquite pods into flour and has some great pointers on how to harvest and process mesquite pods on their Web site. They run a mobile hammer mill that allows people to grind their harvested mesquite beans for a nominal cost—only $3 to $5 for the first three gallons of pods, and $1 for every gallon after that, up to a 15-gallon maximum. The mill is driven around neighborhoods in Tucson during October and November—when the dew point and humidity are lower, so that the flour doesn't clog up the mill, says Brad Lancaster, co-founder of Desert Harvesters. He estimates that if you harvest, clean and dry your own mesquite pods, and then bring them to the mill, you can get several pounds of mesquite flour for just a few dollars per pound, compared to nearly $20 per pound in stores.

"Mesquite was a staple in the diet of all early Tucsonans—the Tohono O'odham people, the cowboys and ranchers," says Lancaster. "We realized the missing piece in modern-day Tucson is that people are choosing the convenient option rather than the local one. If we make the local food more convenient, it will be more of a priority."

Lancaster also points out that the importance of these heritage foods goes beyond just the culinary aspect.

"We are trying to re-instill in people an appreciation of the Sonoran Desert ecosystem," he says.

Mesquite-pod milling is just a small part of the picture—Lancaster says Desert Harvesters is trying to encourage people to plant native food-bearing trees and cacti in their backyards, neighborhoods, schools and along roadways. They not only provide healthy, sustainable, delicious food, he says; they also beautify our streets, neighborhoods and roadways, provide shade and prevent against flooding and erosion.

Mesquite pods, peanut-flavored ironwood-tree seeds, and the edible seeds and flowers of the blue and foothills palo verde trees aren't the only desert bounty out there for the picking, says Lancaster. There are, of course, other obvious choices for harvesting: prickly pear pads; saguaro and prickly pear fruit; and cholla buds. The Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society has a great tutorial for harvesting these goodies on their Web site, as well as a few delicious-looking prickly pear recipes. The group has been working to preserve and protect these spiny delicacies for 50 years.

The society, which now boasts more than 1,100 members, works with land developers and mines to legally, and carefully, remove valuable desert plants from the project sites. The plants are then relocated and sold at reasonable prices, with proceeds going to such causes as grants for K-12 education about cacti, succulents and the Sonoran Desert, says Dick Wiedhopf, the society's president.

"We have a new kind of people coming to Tucson," he says. "In the '60s, when people would retire and come here looking for a warm, cheap, beautiful place to live, they would bring their lawns, trees, grass and rosebushes. But the new people coming into Tucson are interested in the desert environment and are saying that we need to preserve the Sonoran Desert and protect these native plants."

Wiedhopf estimates that the society has rescued and relocated more than 45,000 plants since 1999. In the past, the society has organized trips to the Tohono O'odham Nation during the harvest season for saguaro fruit.

"We would take a group of about 20 each morning during the harvest season to watch and participate in harvesting the (saguaro) fruit," he says. "At first, it looks easy, but when you're standing right next to that 20-foot-tall saguaro, trying to maneuver a pole to gather the fruit, it's not quite so easy. It was a really great experience, working with the Tohono O'odham people and experiencing their tradition. It was an important memory for a lot of people."

(Remember that it is illegal to harvest fruit, seeds, plants and plant parts from public roadways, and federal, state, county, city and privately owned lands without written consent. Also, when harvesting, be considerate of the natural ecosystem, and the animals and insects that the plant may support. Don't strip the plant bare—be sure to leave some for the critters!)

According to the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 67 percent of non-institutionalized adults 20 years of age and older were overweight or obese in 2005-2006. Compare this to 44 percent in 1960-1962.

Along with the rise in obesity, we've seen a rise in diabetes and other diseases. The CDC reports that the number of Americans with diabetes tripled from 1980 to 2006, from 5.6 million to 16.8 million. This is, of course, due not only to changes in our diet, but also changes in our habits, environments and other factors.

Perhaps a small step backward in our eating habits—making a point to include healthy, regional and seasonal foods that our great-great-great-great-great grandparents would recognize—would be a step in the right direction.

For More Information

• Desert Harvesters:

• Native Seeds/SEARCH:

• Sabores Sin Fronteras/Flavors WithoutBorders:

• Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance:

• Tucson Cactus and Succulent Society:

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