Step on the Gastronomy

Marana food tour brings Tucson’s UNESCO designation to life—and to your plate

In 2015, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) added 47 locations to its "Creative Cities" network. Alongside Liverpool for music, Baghdad for literature and Budapest for design, Tucson was added for gastronomy.

While UNESCO did not offer an explicit description for adding Tucson, the application submitted described Tucson's deep and complex food culture, stretching from ancient times to the modern day. This is easy to see with any drive through the city: adobe panaderias mixed in with trendy craft breweries, burgeoning restaurants on dozens of street corners and, of course, the celebrated best 23 miles of Mexican food in the United States.

"We have so many creative food programs organically grown in our community," said Jonathan Mabry, president of the Tucson City of Gastronomy non-profit. "We have an unparalleled, deep agricultural history."

Mabry, the main author for Tucson's UNESCO creative city application, said he was not surprised at all about Tucson's designation. The city first applied in 2014 and was rejected. However, in UNESCO's response letter, they said Tucson had a strong application and should apply again with a few changes. UNESCO also offered this hopeful reminder: No city has received the designation with its first application.

Tucson applied the very next year and was awarded as the first designated gastronomic city in the United States.

"In researching for the application, we were surprised in how much was truly going on in the Tucson food scene," Mabry said.

This UNESCO label centered on Tucson, but extends throughout the Southern Arizona "foodshed."

"We consider all of Southern Arizona part of this designation," Mabry said.

Marana is part of this foodshed, with a particularly interesting food history. While Marana is already part of the city network awarded the gastronomic label, it possesses such a rich food culture, blending ancient flavors with contemporary techniques, that it was deserving of its own showcase.

This showcase comes in the form of the Marana Gastronomy Tour program, a five-hour ride with tastings of local wild foods, samples of craft beers and historical explorations.

"I've found that everything people use to describe Tucson's food describes Marana better," said Laura Cortelyou, tourism and marketing manager for the Town of Marana.

In development since December 2016, Marana's tour is the first food tour approved by a UNESCO creative city in the United States.

With a 4,000-year-old agricultural history (one of the oldest in North America) surrounding them, patrons of Marana's food tour will experience what few rarely do: visiting archaeological sites, learning about their food history and then going to modern restaurants where the same styles of dishes are made today. Some of the stops will include drinks at Catalina Brewing Company, wild food sampling at Bean Tree Farm and samples, cocktails and more at The Ritz-Carlton, Dove Mountain.

"The best part is that we're not setting up a fake tour to show the food," Cortelyou said. "These really are local foods we use all the time—prickly pear, nopales, Sonoran wheat, mesquite, tepary beans. You can forage more wild foods here than in any other desert in the world."

The tour runs twice a week, through April 2018, and promises to hold up to a worldwide UNESCO standard. To sign up, visit:

"I designed this so that anyone in the world who came to our city could understand our food culture," Cortelyou said. "The goal is to showcase the creativity of our brewers and bakers, and show how their food is inspired by the local flavors. The tour works because it's what we already do here. It all just fell into place." ■

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