If the plethora of bite-sized meals, refreshing libations and live performances are any indication, our region’s culture is in good hands after another sold-out SAVOR Southern Arizona Food & Wine Festival at the Tucson Botanical Gardens.

A collaborative effort between the Southern Arizona Arts and Cultural Alliance, Local First Arizona and the botanical gardens, the festival brings together dozens of the finest chefs, breweries, wineries and restaurateurs in the region that offer a glimpse (or bite) into what the local food culture is all about.

Those moments of culinary adventure were supplied by more than two dozen restaurants such as Boca Tacos Y Tequila, Dominick’s Real Italian, The Parish and El Cisne. Not the be outdone by their culinary brethren, wineries like Caduceus Cellars, Merkin Vineyards and Sand-Reckoner Vineyards were also on-hand. Spirits were also provided by companies like 3 Amigos Tequila, Hamilton Distillers and Adventurous Stills. Filling out the libations were several breweries—both local and from across Arizona—like Dragoon Brewing Co. Barrio Brewing Co. and Mother Road Brewing Company.

There were plenty of places on the Southern Arizona food map to visit in the span of a few hours, offering an opportunity to better understand the region’s food culture, an ever-evolving scene with deep roots in Hispanic and Native American foods and a growing interest in local sourcing.

While waiting for their next tasty morsel or refreshing sip, attendees were treated to live music and painting demonstrations by local artists. There was even plenty of opportunity for those looking for an education in the food world and the various ways to improve Southern Arizona’s local economy, thanks to the University of Arizona’s Compost Cats and the Food Conspiracy Co-Op. 

The mixing of cultural offerings, both edible and otherwise, was all part of the plan, according to SAACA Marketing Coordinator David Seeber, who said the organization’s goal is to branch out into the community and show the importance of the arts in its many forms.

Art is a kind of “bridging language,” Seeber said, which allows different people to understand one another through mutual or shared expression. As he put it: “Art is something that can traverse across all cultures.”

And while not everyone can enjoy a painting or appreciate a song, everyone can appreciate a good meal. Seeber sees food as something that everyone can connect to, something that people put a lot of pride into, something that everyone connects with throughout their lives. So why not share it with the world?

One of the people sharing their culinary creations with the world at SAVOR was Renee Kreager of Renee’s Organic Oven, a spot focusing on local food and natural ingredients.

Between handing out samples and pouring drinks for attendees, Kreager told me that she loved how interested everyone seemed in the local food scene.

“They’re starting to become more and more interested in what restaurants are doing,” she said. “You can see the great sense of community, and I think restaurants bring a benefit to a lot of these things because we’re bringing the food—but in return we get this great experience with the guests getting to know us more.”

Even though she was busy feeding people, Kreager said she also enjoyed seeing what other local restaurants were up to, and what people may be interested in eating in the future.

“I think it’s a beautiful thing—we can see what can be grown here, and what we can collaborate on,” she said.

Turning the lens on collaboration is all part of the mission for Local First Arizona, a nonprofit working to benefit independent, locally owned businesses in the Greater Tucson Metro Area.

Regardless of the industry, LFA Southern Arizona Director Michael Peel said the organization works to highlight the region by shining the light on businesses and unique “place-making” institutions that give Southern Arizona its charm—and to educate residents on how they can make a difference and improve the region.

“It’s not just about highlighting all the restaurants and the amazing food and drink, but particularly the educational components about what make a strong local food system,” Peel said.

That means strengthening the ties between local sources and the consumer, and keeping more dollars in locally owned businesses. Peel said that with all of the locally sourced food on display and the gastronomic offerings of Southern Arizona at the forefront, SAVOR was a perfect opportunity to further the local first mission.

“This is a robust food scene, and we’re emphasizing local ingredients, local partners and local collaborations,” he said.

While an event like the food and wine festival goes a long way to show off Southern Arizona’s increasingly influential culinary scene, SAACA is busy using the money raised through the events to supply even more art to the region.

Whether its reintroducing music to Alzheimer’s patients or hosting art therapy programs for veterans, the money raised by hungry foodies and lovers of art goes back into improving Southern Arizona for everyone.

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