Where Local and Global Appetites Collide

Desert Locavore: Eating Locally in Tucson, AZ

Plucky writer dances with herbs and eats copious amounts of squash for seven days…

Practice blatant localism.

I saw those words on a bumper sticker and its meaning haunted me. I already eat in locally-owned restaurants; use a naturopath and acupuncturist to heal me instead of bureaucratic Blue Cross and Walgreen’s prescription counter and buy from independent book and second-hand clothing stores.

After a stroll through the farmers market, I decided to practice being a desert locavore by eating only locally grown foods for a week. Popularized by Animal, Vegetable, Miracle:  A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver’s book encourages buying local food or growing your own for more nutritional offerings and to reduce environmental and financial costs from fuel transportation.  Nourishment would come from people’s gardens, farmers markets and Native American products. My green goddess friends — Chris, Catherine, Christina and Trudy contributed garden goodies.

On Saturday, I met Oracle Anne in Catalina at Our Garden where proprietors Rebecca and Jesse provided a tour proudly pointing to rows of shaded garlic and a not yet ripe peach tree orchard. Anne brought vegetables from the Florence Garden and Oracle Farmers Market including delicious goat cheese from Quentin’s Huerta. 

I went to St. Philip’s farmers market on Sunday to buy the bulk of local bounty. Beyond more vegetables, additions included emmer, a grain from River Organica in Cascabel and a dense emmer roll, grass fed beef from Double Check Ranch, honey from Three Points, Rainbow Valley herbed cow’s milk cheese, Five Star beef jerky made from UA meat lab cows and olive oil from Queen Creek, Ariz. 

On the previous Friday I purchased heirloom tomatoes and a dozen free-range eggs from the chicken ladies at Plants for the Southwest.  

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants,” says Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food.  I accepted his challenge.

The inside of my refrigerator took on a whole new landscape. Vases of various sizes held fresh herbs and vegetables. Just opening the door flooded me with waves of aromatherapy. One of the most amazing things about just harvested vegetables is they actually smell good unlike vegetables dulled from traveling many miles to a grocery store. 

The experiment started with Sunday lunch:  part of emmer roll spread with cow’s cheese, tomato, drizzled with olive oil plus sweet carrots and grapefruit.

Dinner beheld a salad of lettuces, arugula, purple bell pepper, heirloom tomatoes, society garlic (in the chive family), cheese and oregano drizzled with olive oil plus two potatoes.  Tip: When the purple potato overcooks, it turns blue-gray; no food should ever be this hue. 

Monday:  I ate half a grapefruit then made a two-egg omelet with herbs and vegetables. Yum!  Although coffee is not locally grown, it’s locally roasted from Arbuckle. Still pretty satiated, I nibbled on the emmer roll spread with goat cheese and tomato, more carrots and beef jerky. I marinated rib eye steak in garlic, herbs and olive oil. The steak was large enough to divide into three portions. Also on my plate were steamed beet greens and gray squash. Again, gray should never be associated with food. Later I hand squeezed grapefruit juice over ice and muddled mint.

Tuesday: Breakfast was grapefruit, another omelet and for lunch, another salad with diced leftover steak. I made a pitcher of tea by pouring boiled water over fresh mint.  I went out to dinner at Zona 78 and ordered fish, usually a staple in my diet but almost impossible to come by in the desert unless you’re near the Salt River.

I also made brown tepary beans which have sustained the Tohono O’odham Indians for generations. The beans lingered in a crock pot with sautéed onions and garlic.  

Wednesday: Tiring of omelets, I ate a small bowl of tepary beans and finished the emmer roll. For a snack, ate two hard boiled eggs and for lunch more tepary beans, carrots and beef jerky. I went to Cuvee Bistro’s happy hour for a bowl of fragrant mussels and a glass of wine.

I found no directions on the Web for how to prepare this half pound of emmer purchased at shockingly, $50 per pound. I was instructed to soak the emmer in a pan with water and after 12 hours it would sprout; after 16 hours, no sprouts but the emmer was soft enough to eat and use like rice.

Thursday:  Another omelet, more tepary beans mixed with emmer which was very filling. I noshed on jerky, ate more carrots and grapefruit.

On Thursdays from 4 to 7 p.m. (summer hours), the Santa Cruz River farmers market sponsored by the Community Food Bank offers garden grown, on consignment and local farmers foods at extremely reasonable prices. Cash, credit cards, food stamps and WIC farmer market vouchers are accepted. I bought only things I had not yet found – peaches, apricots, apples, green beans, sweet potatoes and a monster zucchini.

While standing over the sink, the peak ripeness of the apricots and peaches drove me into fruit frenzy as I greedily gobbled several to the point of satiation. Flashbacks of when my brother and I would wait impatiently for my grandmother’s peach trees to ripen before being allowed to eat any and then doing so to the point of sickness, crossed my mind. I put the fruit away, ate the remaining piece of steak and steamed green beans.

Lots of people dislike fruits and vegetables. Maybe if they ate locally grown produce picked at their peak instead of ripening during the journey from farm to grocery bin, tastes would change.

Friday:  another omelet and grapefruit. Fry’s had Arizona-grown Hami melons and Eurofresh greenhouse-grown tomatoes on the vine from Willcox. I ate a light lunch of tomatoes, basil, cucumber and goat cheese drizzled with olive oil.  Dinner was inspired by my dad’s “icebox treat” when he would clean out the refrigerator, chopping everything, and sautéing with leftover scraps of meat doused with ketchup. I did the same with ground beef, herbs, various vegetables, sweet potato and emmer topped with Arizona’s Finest poblano hot sauce. 

Saturday or day 7, I repeated previous days’ menus for breakfast and lunch.  Amazingly, there was hardly any waste – no cans, no packaging and if I gardened, the rest composted.

For dinner, Nick came over bearing Budweiser (What, no Nimbus?) and hamburger buns. I sautéed onions and made burgers from the remaining ground beef. Determined to clean out my refrigerator I steamed zucchini, carrots, beets and beet greens, patty pan squash and boiled potatoes. Patty pan squash is white and looks like a vegetarian dreidel with scalloped edges; it even twirled across the counter. This very veggie platter popped with bright colors. While Nick raved about his burgers, I finished Friday’s leftovers which tasted fabulously after spending a night comingling flavors in the refrigerator. All this chewing made me fuller faster.  Dinner ended with melon and mint frescas made in the blender.

Obviously my week was a bit extreme but I thought about what small changes were doable to be a desert locavore:  Join community supported agriculture (CSA), shop at farmers markets, demand chain grocery stores sell more local produce or start a garden.

On day 8, I had lost three pounds so indulged on caramelized banana pancakes at Bobo’s.

Published in the summer 2008 YUM! issue of Tucson Weekly

  1. I just finished the dynamic duo of The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollen on audiobook and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle on good old fashion paperback and it’s changed my life.

    We are starting our first bout with CSA this summer.

    My family and are are going to take our locavore journey in steps here in Tucson.

    I am thankful that there are other people finding local foods to enjoy here.

  2. Love what you’re doing with your blog. We are transplants from Tucson to 10 acres of desert near Cochise Stronghold. Built a straw bale house and have a small orchard and big garden. We recently started a website – http://www.grow-cook-eat-beans.com The theme is Healthy Body, Healthy Budget, Healthy Planet. Love to hear the voices of like-minded people.

  3. Really great to think I am not alone and the whole foods thing is way beyond sustainable.. Very important to meet more of the same way of thinking. I know main stream is so far off the path very difficult sometimes to carry on a rational conversation with someone thats all tense and afraid to admit the whole food system is wack job.. I like to suggest a simple example, the English Chef stirred up the Los Angels schools lunch program he proved buying locally fresh food is order of magnitude cheaper than the existing Corporate prepared foods with added benefits actual nutrient value to children diets Corporate American does not want you eating healthy I enclose the google search link http://www.google.com/search?client=qsb-win&rlz=1R3GGHP_enUS350US350&hl=en&q=English+Chef+changes+LA+schools+food+program.. Thanks sharing your time resources.. We are only as strong as the weakest link!

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