When Marana Mayor Ed Honea was a boy, he’d spend time wandering around his desert town, frequently discovering pottery sherds and arrowheads along the Santa Cruz riverbed and nearby slot canyons.
Unknowingly, he was retracing the footsteps that had originally left those items ever since humans started coming to the region back in 11,000 B.C. It was a cooler environment then, with the Ice Age coming to a close and clear streams bordered by grass-covered prairies bringing nomadic hunters in search of mammoth and bison.
Lots of changes have taken place during the intervening years with today’s bustling Marana moving forward with new ideas, while still celebrating its historic past.
It now bills itself as the Town of Gastronomy—in concert with Tucson being acknowledged as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy—focusing on 4,000 years of agriculture, “the longest agricultural history of any city in North America,” according to publicity that also touts the area has having North America’s oldest agricultural irrigation canal system.
Bottom line: Inhabitants in the area have foraged and farmed there for centuries and Discover Marana, the tourism and economic development arm of the town (in partnership with Gray Line Tours), has been capitalizing on that rich history with a series of Marana Gastronomy Tours.
The five-hour excursions cover both yesterday and today, from stops at ancient archaeological and agricultural sites and a foraging walkabout in the footsteps of indigenous inhabitants to tastings of ancient Sonoran wild foods creatively reimagined at Catalina Brewing Company, Bean Tree Farms and the Ritz-Carlton at Dove Mountain.
“In many ways, the story of agriculture starts here because you can forage more wild foods here than in any other desert in the world,” said Laura Cortelyou, Marana’s tourism and marketing manager. “We’re at a unique time when we get to taste where that story goes.”
And to prove it, regional herbalist and gourmet forager John Slattery, author of Southwest Foraging, acts as one of the tour guides.
“Prevalent in the spring desert are the flowers of the palo verde, ironwood, and ocotillo cactus along with the buds of the cholla cactus and wolfberries,” Slattery said as we wind through colorful blooming yellow palo verde trees. “Lots of culinary options to be derived from this desert legume—an edamame-like snack or a hummus-style dip. The beans are edible raw or after blanching can be pureed into a bean dip frozen, canned, brined, fermented, or eaten in salads. Mature seeds can be toasted and ground into flour for breads or bean burgers.”
Somewhere in the region at almost any time of the year, you’ll find wolfberries, a close relative of the goji berry, one of the Sonoran Desert’s more bountiful wild foods. Watch out for sharp thorny branch tips when picking. Wolfberries get even sweeter if sun dried, then added to trail mix, granolas, or breads. Slattery likes to fill a jar with fresh berries covered with honey, then let the mixture ferment for a few days before using it as a sweetener or a topping for pastries.
Another Sonoran sweetener is the ocotillo, with its edible flowers, nectar and seeds. Picking is a partner proposition, with one person carefully pulling down a spiny stem while the other snaps off the flower spike. The nectar is most plentiful after a day of full sun. Ocotillo flowers make great sun tea. Fill a gallon jar with flower spikes, set it in the midday sun for a few hours, strain and enjoy the sweetness of the clear nectar globules, Slattery told us.
Dr. Suzanne Fish, an expert on Hohokam foodways, is another of the tour’s excursion leaders who explains about early farming and harvesting with stops at agave pits and the Los Morteros bedrock mortars, one of the largest Hohokam settlements along the Santa Cruz, where Native women used to grind mesquite pods, acorns and the like.
Around the nearby cluster of platform mounds are agave fields, found in nearly half the 50-square-mile area.
While mountain canyon runoff promoted floodwater farming by the riverbed, much of the rest of the land was a more inhospitable environment where cactus and succulents were collected on the dry middle slope area. As more and more people moved in, they started growing agave there because it was a desert plant that didn’t need much water.
“During its lifetime, the agave stores carbohydrates and if harvested before it sends up its final flower stalk, and pit roasted, it becomes a sweet and fibrous food,” Fish said. “You can slice it up, dry it, keep it for a year or two, and then rehydrate it. People back then didn’t have a lot of sweet things to eat, so this was an edible prize.”
The tours are in hiatus now that triple digit temperatures have arrived, though Cortelyou said tour feedback on the initial dozen excursions was positive.
“People respond to learning about the thousands of years of history and culture here and to experience the chefs, brewers, bakers, and wild food crafters in the present who are keeping ancient knowledge alive, blending it with their own creativity,” she said.
And like the good environmentalist he is, Slattery advocates returning the largesse, giving back by through the practice of stewardship.
“Take a prickly pear pad from a cactus and re-plant it in a similar location or near your home, bringing the wild flavors of the desert to your backdoor,” he said. “By venturing into the desert, people can learn about what is out there, observe it, taste it…and remember to steward it.”
Tours will resume once the weather cooperates, probably sometime in mid-October. Head online to TownofGastronomy.org for schedule information. Call the Discover Marana Visitor Center at 639-8040.
Lee Allen is Tucson Local Media freelance reporter.