Every day, tens of thousands of cars barrel down Interstate 10, a highway that hugs the western edge of Tucson, Arizona. Many of these drivers may not realize that they are driving past a region with one of the longest food heritages on the continent.
Often considered the birthplace of Tucson itself, this swath of Sonoran Desert nestled at the base of the Tucson Mountains is where the O’odham people settled, planting crops of maize, tepary beans and other produce amid a landscape punctuated by prickly pear cacti and sagebrush.
One might wonder whether any twenty-first-century preoccupation with agrarian values, agrarian ecology, and agrarian ideals comes as too little, too late. Less than 2 percent of the North American public lives in rural areas outside towns, cities, and suburbs, and less than half of the world’s population now lives outside cities.
But the New Agrarianism, which is emerging globally, is not restricted to the rural domain, nor is it necessarily a romantic desire to reenact social behaviors and mores associated with rural populaces in bygone eras.
From agricultural sciences to folklore, cutting-edge nutrition to ancient food systems, UA researchers have a long history of researching, documenting and promoting the borderland culinary heritage that makes Tucson a distinct food city.
To coincide with Tucson’s designation as the newest UNESCO City of Gastronomy, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the Southwest Center have established the University of Arizona Center for Regional Food Studies.
We’ve known it—those of us who eat here have tasted it. We’ve felt it in the soil under our fingernails. We’ve seen it in the magenta stain of prickly pear. We’ve heard it in the hammer mill grinding sweet speckled mesquite; smelled it in the exhale of steam from a crowded pot of tamales.
Tucson has always been a city of gastronomy. Today, it was designated a World City of Gastronomy by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), becoming the first city in the United States to receive such a designation.