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Arizona's Good Food Rennaissance

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By James Geneau

View of the Estrella Mountains from the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa.

Across the globe, cities have been struggling to define their "local" cuisine. London has Gastropubs and Paris has well, the simple fact they are French. Toronto has been looking for their local cuisine inside a global community of cultures for years and Los Angeles is simply a melting pot for anything you can fuse with something else and charge $80 for. In Arizona, something magical is happening. Maybe it is the dry air, the lack of water, or the housing crisis - but something delicious and responsible has been brewing in this state over the past few years and the results are pure genius. The state could have simply claimed the title as the capital of Southwest flavor and left it at that. But then they would have to compete with Texas and New Mexico. Instead, they have opted for something much more profound.

It all started in Tucson 25 years ago when a group of foodies and agro-activists started an organization dedicated to preserving the seeds of the native peoples of Arizona. Native Seed SEARCH started up when Native Americans on the Tohono O'odham reservation near Tucson wished to grow traditional crops, but could not locate seeds. This not-for-profit group was formed with a mission to collect, grow, and preserve the seeds of the native people for future use. Since 1983, they have done just that. As a result, they have become a major regional seed bank and a leader in the heirloom seed movement. Their seed bank includes over 1,800 varieties of arid-land adapted agricultural crops, many being rare or endangered.

Native Seed SEARCH led the way in the development of several native cooperatives. Now that they had access to the seeds of their ancestors, they could preserve the traditions and share the legacy of their people as responsible and innovative farmers. And so, across Arizona, bubbling up from Tucson came a new wave of special cooperatives designed to bring the valuable farming traditions of the native people back to the reservations. This was initially done to preserve and protect tradition but soon became a valuable source of revenue for the native people of Arizona.

One such group, the Tohono O'odham Community Action (TOCA) is a community-based organization dedicated to creating a healthy, sustainable and culturally vital community on the Tohono O'odham Nation. Until the second half of the 20th century, the Tohono O'odham were almost entirely food self-sufficient utilizing agricultural practices dating back as far as one thousand years. Up until the 1920's, the community cultivated over 20,000 acres in the floodplain of the Sonoran lowlands using traditional methods. The introduction of easily accessible processed foods through US Federal food programs and commercial outlets resulted in the altering of the diets of the Tohono O'odham. This was one of many factors which lead to a decrease in the amount of traditional foods consumed and by 1949, less than 2,500 acres were reserved for growing local and indigenous foods sacred to the Tohono O'odham nation. Today that number is certainly less than 10 acres.

As part of their mandate, TOCA has developed a food growing program where traditional methods are used to grow food native to the indigenous people of the Sonoran Desert. Today, the organization produces several varieties of beans, gourds, and cacti which are then sold for use in cooking on and off the reservation. The goal is to bring back local, healthy, and traditional ingredients to the native people. As a result of changes to their diets from processed foods, the native people of Arizona have seen a dramatic rise in Diabetes and other ailments associated with diet. The issue has become a tragedy for the people and TOCA is focused on changing the health of their people by going back to traditional methods and ingredients. What is most profound about this program is that the message of good health through traditional methods has had an impact on both the reservation and across the state.

Today, several chefs have heard the call and seen the importance of incorporating responsible ingredients into their cuisine. Let's face it; everywhere you look a chef is trying to lure people into their restaurant with organic ingredients. But in Arizona, the focus isn't simply about the food being organic certified. Rather, it is about the food being responsible. What is the difference? In Arizona it means that the food is not just a combination of good healthy ingredients - it is a celebration of the people and methods that matter.

On a recent visit to Arizona, I had the opportunity to meet with Executive Chef Michael O'Dowd of Kai at the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa. Here, just south of Phoenix, the traditional methods and ingredients of the native people are being celebrated with a goal of not just creating innovative cuisine, but being responsible for the success of the native people of the Gila River Nation. Six years ago, it started in a triple-wide trailer while the hotel was being built. While he had cooked in some of the world's most celebrated culinary cities, he had never experienced Native American cuisine and the methods and ingredients were hard to research. "It was not like you could go to a library and get a cookbook and hit the road cooking", commented Chef Michael.

As a tool, he went to the homes of the elders and asked if he could interview them about the food they ate growing up. Many doors were shut in his face. However, those who did invite him in provided valuable insight. Since nothing had been written down, he had to learn about native food from the source. They shared their memories of what they ate as a child. Did they like it? Not really. But the stories and recipes shared allowed Chef Michael to understand the traditional foods and the importance they played. "Paying homage to the past and respecting the basics of what the food was about then tricking it out for the future is what we do today" commented Chef Michael. "We are making it special for today."

The ability to dream is what makes cooking with these native ingredients so amazing. The way Chef Michael layers the different flavors together and how they cook is multi-directional. He can go on the resort's interpretation trail and pick ingredients native to the land. He has cooked potatoes in the dirt on the desert floor with some mesquite chips, using the heat from the desert soil to actually cook the potatoes using a native method. They can then be incorporated into a dish that evening. A technique used in the past to bring new flavors to a modern dish.

Chef Michael sources his ingredients from various native entities. He goes to local native hunters and gatherers, if you will, to access a variety of fresh ingredients. "People want to know where you got your fish. How was it killed, did it have any meaning to the people. Knowing the process and how an animal was brought to the table is incredibly important", commented Chef Michael. "The native people use techniques which are more responsible." Chef Michael can source rabbit, quail and eggs locally off the reservation, raised or hunted using traditional methods. The difference in taste is incredible but it is the tradition being preserved that is more important. One innovative thing they are doing is growing local lettuces with the elementary school children of the Gila River Nation. The program isn"t about having a niche. Instead, it is about sharing and teaching while also performing a leadership role to help young people learn about the importance of farming, cooking, and tradition - hopefully giving them something to aspire to. These children may one day be farmers, chefs, or more. It is helping to bring phenomenal food to the table while being responsible.

Chef Michael is not alone in his passion for preserving native ingredients and methods and celebrating them in his cuisine. In Tucson, Executive Chef Marc Ehrler blends his experience cooking with his French-Italian grandmother in Antibes, France with a fundamental Mediterranean cooking philosophy that cuisine should embody the best the Earth has to offer. At The Ventana Room inside the Loews Ventana Canyon Resort, he does just this. Chef Marc uses many of the native plants, fruits and vegetables that the Tohono O"odham people have cultivated for centuries. And where does he find such a bounty? From the Tohono O"odham Community Action (TOCA), of course. TOCA provides these desert ingredients, as well as the cultural uses of the foods. Chef Marc then uses his Mediterranean teachings to transform these traditional desert foods into contemporary haute cuisine. Here, traditional ingredients grown using traditional methods are celebrated and given new life on a global stage. Again, the theme is responsible eating. When you place your fork on the plate after savoring a course from the Desert Degustation tasting, you know that you supported something profound in a system of learning and preservation " right down to the seeds.

In Scottsdale, Chef James Porter is also taking a stand and looking at being responsible instead of organic. For him, his outrage over the system of food supply came to a pinnacle a few years back when he received a shipment of garlic from his food supply company. Garlic, which can be easily grown and flourishes in the southwest, is a staple for many dishes in local Arizona cuisine. When he was reviewing his order, he was stunned to see that his garlic had been shipped to him from China. "I threw it on the back porch of the restaurant, called my supplier, and told him to pick up the fucking crap from China", recalled Chef James.

Like O"dowd and Ehrler, Chef James is doing whatever he can to obtain his ingredients from a responsible source, not an organic one. "When you choose a responsible source, you are pretty much guaranteed to have a more organic one", commented Chef James. It makes sense. The organic garlic from China he threw out the back door travelled thousands of miles. For many restaurants, this would have been fine with the exception that a more responsible choice, like an ingredient grown by the local people of Arizona, would be more sensible. Chef James is focused on being responsible and sourcing his ingredients from the farmers and native people of the Phoenix area. He has even gone as far as creating a special "Locavore" evening every two months where he celebrates the seasonal bounty of Arizona. On this one night, everything comes from within 40 miles of his restaurant, Tapino Kitchen & Wine Bar. Heirloom tomatoes grown with heirloom seeds, local fresh beets, and artisan goat cheese from Arizona are combined into a lovely salad. Fresh Buffalo hunted in the plains, and lettuces grown using sustainable and traditional methods are used to create a fresh a delicious dinner where once again, being responsible is key.

So why here? Why Arizona? What could be so amazing about a landscape where many people would be shocked to know you could even grow anything to begin with? It is the desert after all. Well, it all comes down to the difference between being responsible and being healthy. Being healthy has been the mantra of many over the past 10 years as the baby boomers look for ways to live longer, happier lives. The brilliance of Arizona however is that the act of eating responsibly has become equally important, if not more. Here, the food isn"t just about the health value. Sure it is important but where it came from and the impact it has on the people, traditions, and methods is growing in terms of value for the people of Arizona. The state is rich in culture and while most global regions focus on the land or geography to create their culinary mark, the people of Arizona have taken a distinctively different approach. The culture, traditions, and betterment of the native people are the goal. As a result, the food scene here has taken a surprising new direction where responsible eating has created culinary experiences unlike any other. Are there lessons to be learned here? You bet.


Great article--lets hope this trend becomes a more wide spread one here in Ontario (It is catching on already but fingers crossed it grows)
Post Reply By Kathleen in TORONTO on 2/2/2009 3:03:46 PM

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