Like the potato of Northern Europe or the yam of Western Africa, the agave plant fits a crucial culinary and cultural niche in the Sonoran Desert. For centuries, locals have harvested the plant's broad jutting leaves to make food, create art and black out on tequila. Now, Tucson is once again paying homage to the plant of centuries with the 10th annual Agave Heritage Festival.
This is way more than a food fest. It constitutes over a week's worth of events, including lectures, art, seminars, film screenings, trade shows, music and, yes, food and drink tastings. The events spread all throughout the Tucson area, from April 27 to May 6.
"It's grown to be a citywide thing," said festival director Todd Hanley. "It's such a unique plant and such a great representation of our region. It has near-limitless roles, which is why we can make an entire festival celebrating it."
The 19th-century historian William Prescott said of the agave plant: "Surely, never did Nature enclose in so compact a form so many of the elements of human comfort and civilization!" And with the dozens of upcoming events surrounding the desert plant, we're inclined to agree.
It all begins April 27 with a tour of the native Hohokam agave fields on the slopes of the Tortolita Mountains north of Tucson. Professors of anthropology Paul Fish and Suzanne Fish will lead the tour groups and discuss agave cultivation in the ancient southwest.
"This is exciting because it's celebrating the entire region, not just the plant." Hanley said. "The festival has tripled in size since it started, and we've added so many cultural and culinary events."
For those less interested in the history, or who learn better through experience, the Agave Roasting Pit at Mission Garden might just be the place to go. The official opening happens April 28, where Jesus Garcia of the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum will open the earthen oven to reveal agave roasted in the classic indigenous style. Exo Roast will also be in attendance, distributing liquors crafted from the spiny plant.
Later that night, perhaps the centerpoint of the entire festival takes place at Hotel Congress, with the Agave Fiesta. This signature event contains all things agave: Live music, agave spirits and cocktails, agave arts and crafts, and an "Agave 101" seminar.
Or, if you're only interested in the liquid version of agave, check out the MEZCrawl a few days later, on May 3. All throughout downtown Tucson, bars and lounges will serve up sweet offerings of blue and gold. The stroll begins at Borderlands Brewery, and proceeds through the tequila-infused evening to hotspots like Crooked Tooth Brewing Co., Good Oak Bar, Tough Luck Club, El Charro and more.
"This creates an opportunity for mezcaliers to come to Tucson and share their crafts," Hanley said. "It's a show for the whole borderlands region."
You may have noticed the Agave Heritage Festival runs straight through Cinco de Mayo. Don't think they forgot (or that it wasn't intentional). Hotel Congress is the hub for all agave and Tucsonan culture that night: Live music, dancing and, of course, liquors made from agave. And if you can't handle the straight stuff—or simply prefer not to—HoCo is planning to serve up plenty of tequila- and mezcal-infused cocktails.
There are even art shows about the desert plant. Hotel Congress will feature the unveiling of local artist Diane Bombshelter's agave-inspired paintings. Galleries from as far as Mexico, Miami, Colorado and LA have all featured Bombshelter's work, and now you have an opportunity to mingle.
Carrie Mae Rose's art will also be featured. She crafts angel wings and jewelry out of dried agave, in a show of barbed and pointed stalks fusing with sweet agave centers.
Other art showcases involve the screenings of two documentaries at The Loft Cinema: Agave is Life and Mesoamerican Diet. The movies feature a post-screening panel/discussion with professors from the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. The films and panels focus on pre-colonial Sonoran diets, how they influenced the modern diet, food traditions, cultural history, and general cuisine of the local desert.
For those who want it all, check out the Agave Hotel Package at Hotel Congress. It's a comprehensive weekend special that includes empanadas, commemorative souvenirs, access to the Agave Heritage Festival events at Hotel Congress and plenty of sweet, salty and spicy Mexican candy.
"We're creating a festival unlike any else." Hanley said. "The people involved are just so excited about the plant in all its versions. It goes to show why agave is called 'the buffalo of the plant world.'"
Originally starting as a small Cinco de Mayo celebration of tequila, the Agave Heritage Festival has grown to a 10-day, 25-event spectacular with partners from the businesses of downtown Tucson all the way up to the farmers of Marana. And like the agave plant itself, the Festival is thriving in this sunny valley.
For more information, visit AgaveHeritageFestival.com or call the hotel at 622-8848.