America's Greatest Food City Is... Tucson?

© David Sucsy / Getty Images

By Gillie Houston Posted August 24, 2016

It's the only place in the country to earn a prestigious international designation. Here's why.

When you think of America's food capitals, a few typical suspects come to mind: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago. How about Tuscon? Probably not.

Though the Arizonan city with a population of just 500,000 has often been outshined in the culinary department by neighbors like Phoenix and Santa Fe, the small community's dedication to local ingredients and diverse flavors recently earned Tucson a big foodie accolade. As The New York Times reports, the city was recently named an official City of Gastronomy by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco)—becoming the only place in the United States to earn that designation.

Unesco first created this label to acknowledge cities around the world that actively preserve and protect a culinary cultural heritage—from Parma, Italy; to Bergen, Norway; to Ensenada, Mexico. The cities on the list have also actively used food as a way to promote urban development, and could use a helping hand from Unesco in promoting their culinary culture to outsiders. As Jonathan Mabry, Tucson's officer for historical preservation who wrote the Unesco application, says: "They want towns where the designation will make a difference."

One of the highlights of the city's application was the fact that Tucson has the longest history of agriculture of anywhere in North America, a fact Mabry discovered in 2000 on an archaeological dig. Mabry and his team uncovered a deep layer of charred corn which was carbon dated back 4,000 years—revealing the country's earliest known farming village.

Members of the rich local food community, including Megan Kimble, editor of Edible Baja Arizona magazine, hope that the Unesco designation will help a city that has struggled with an influx of immigrants, surges in poverty, and a fluctuating population of college students and snowbirds. "It gives us a reason to have deeper discussions about food and what it means to everyone who lives here," Kimble tells the Times.

And while Tucson's desert climate isn't the most hospitable for growth, the food community has found inventive ways to incorporate the native plantlife. Wild peppers, cactus, agave, and mesquite are just a few of the ingredients unique to the region, which are used in a variety of local dishes. The city also contains a number of food-centric nonprofits, like the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona and the Mission Garden project, which traces agricultural practices through time in a new garden.

This dedication to community, locality, and preserving history are a few of the reasons Tucson earned the esteemed Unesco label, and its food makers couldn't be prouder. "It's like a new point of pride," says Don Guerra, owner of the community-supported Barrio Bread. "For so long we've been this poor cousin of Pheonix." Now, with some new culinary muscle, Tucson—and its chefs, restaurants, and growers—are hoping to flourish into an international food destination in their own right.

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