Tucson’s Edible Inheritance
In December 2015, UNESCO added Tucson to its Creative Cities network as a “World City of Gastronomy,” making it the first City of Gastronomy in the United States. The question, “Why Tucson?” doesn’t have a single answer; its application lists innovations in dry-climate agriculture and various forms of cultural heritage, and UNESCO makes clear that the totality of a city’s food culture and history is being awarded. But the most unique aspect of Tucson’s food history is that it’s the oldest continually farmed landscape on the continent. When Spanish colonizers arrived in what is now Tucson, they found a self-sustaining agricultural society of Tohono O’odham native Americans, and a place that had already been inhabited for over 3,000 years.
The fact that North America’s oldest foodshed is in a desert is an achievement in contradiction; the harshness of the climate necessitated well adapted and nutrient-dense crops. For the O’odham, these were tepary beans.
Crops like tepary beans are emblematic of what Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste tries to recognize: traditional crops threatened by industrialization are both culturally valuable and practical. Crop biodiversity may be a saving grace of agriculture in an era of climate change. Here, Patti Marrs of the Orme School discusses what tepary beans mean to her students’ community.
As the industrial food system in America becomes increasingly homogenous, we are robbed of one of the main ways we connect to place. Fortunately, the Ark of Taste allows our youth to taste where they come from and know how that place sustains them. These are the lessons of an Ark of Taste garden.
As we selected our crops for the Orme School Garden in Arizona, it was natural for us to choose tepary beans. These little beans have sustained the Tohono O’odham people, native to the southwest deserts of Arizona, for countless generations. Tohono O’odham legends say that the Milky Way is made of tepary beans scattered across the sky. Tepary beans are one of the most heat- and drought-tolerant crops in the world. They are nutrient-dense, protein-packed little gifts and have a low glycemic index, ideal for anyone living in the desert southwest. Despite this history and importance, they cannot be found in most grocery stores, and are grown only by the Tohono O’odham and very few others. Now, though, they are experiencing a renaissance.
As our students from around the world prepare these beans in our school kitchen, we start a conversation. We share the origin and legend of tepary beans, and we also share the students’ cultures. This is the Ark of Taste at work from our garden into the kitchen.
These beans identify a people and a place. These people are our neighbors, this place is our place, and this is where we grow it, prepare it, eat it, and celebrate it. This is what the Ark of Taste brings to our table through the garden.