By Gary Nabhan
This last week, I went out into the desert to find an old friend in her trailer-turned-artisanal kitchen. My friend is a Hispanic woman who lost her job after 9/11 in a borderlands community that lost thousands of more jobs during the mortgage fiasco two years ago and the more recent economic downturn. And yet, despite all the discouraging turns that have occurred in the Tucson, Arizona economy over the last decade, I did not hear discouraging words in Esperanza Arevalo’s kitchen. I heard words like flavor, prayer and miracle; and I smelled the savory, smoky fragrance of mesquite tortillas just off the griddle. Despite warnings that these are the worst of times to be starting a small business, her homemade mesquite tortillas are selling like hotcakes. Tortilleria Arevalo is having the best of times.
Esperanza—whose name means hope—is but one of several entrepreneurs in the border states who have recently convinced me that local, place-based heritage foods are not just for the elite, but that other, less fortunate folks have chosen to purchase them during some of the toughest times that the U.S. and Mexican economies have ever faced.
Eleven years ago, Esperanza, coached by her Sonoran-born father Javier, began to offer on Tucson street corners a unique sort of tortilla whose heritage goes back centuries, if not millennia. It is made of the flour of mesquite pods, the flour of ground, popped amaranth seeds, wheat flour and olive oil. It may sound simple, but balancing the flavor and texture of these tortillas took months of experimentation by Esperanza and Javier. I know, because I was their first customer! But within a year or so, Esperanza was making twenty dozen mesquite tortillas a week in her spare time, and Javier was helping her hustle them to prospective buyers , not only on street corners, but at a couple health food stores as well.