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Place-based Foods of the Borderlands Weather the Economic Downturn

This last week, I went out into the desert to find an old friend in her trailer-turned-artisanal kitchen. My friend is an 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.

Then 9/11 hit, and she suddenly lost her job at an emergency lighting company in Tucson. Her father encouraged her to go out on her own big time; journalist Nathan Olivarez-Giles gave her first major news story in The Arizona Daily Star; and then several farmers’ market managers invited her to set up a booth to hawk her wares. Suddenly, her demand grew to three hundred dozen a week.

“Now I have to watch how many I do, or I’ll suffer from carpel tunnel,” she laughs. “But it’s going, it’s really going now.”

Esperanza cites the health value of her tortillas—they help lower blood sugars for diabetic sufferers—as well as the heritage or historic value of mesquite—it’s perhaps the oldest staple food in the desert borderlands. But I would argue that the love she puts into her tortilla-making is expressed in the flavor and texture. Rich people, poor people, Indians, Anglos and Hispanics all flock to buy her tortillas.

It would be easy to dismiss Esperanza’s success as a rare exception, with no relevance to the rest of us. But talk to John York and Joy Vargo, co-owners of Canela Café, a little bistro that opened in the ranch town of Sonoita, Arizona in September of 2005. Sonoita’s official population count hovers just around 846 folks, and yet they served over ninety folks for Mother’s Day brunch alone. Joy looked a bit weary when I spoke to her mid-afternoon on that day, but had served more exquisite tamales, chiles rellenos and locally-grown lamb than she ever imagined that Chef John could pump through their kitchen in one morning.

“We’ve never had a day this good,” she smiled, almost giddy. “I guess all of our work in this community over the last few years is paying off. Folks really seem to like what we’re doing.”

No wonder—they can taste the local harvests of their neighbors from both sides of the border—creatively prepared by two stellar graduates of the New England Culinary Institute.

If that were not enough, two other “local foods” restaurants opened in Arizona this spring, and both are flourishing. One of them, Diablo Burger on Flagstaff’s Heritage Square—revolves around local grass fed beef from Diablo Trust lands, one of the first rancher-environmentalist cooperatives in the Southwest. But it also features locally-produced vegetables, prickly pears pads and wines on its ever changing menu. Finally, I mused, a burger with a sense of place and a sense of taste.

From Dennis and Deb Moroney’s all-natural grassfed Sky Islands Brand beef from the 47 Ranch near Bisbee, Arizona, to Amy Schwemm’s Mano and Metate moles—gourmet sauces prepared with locally-harvested chiles and nuts from the Santa Cruz River Valley— local food producers are making it through the toughest of times. If such foods were just another fad for the elite, these businesses would be suffering. Instead, people are willing to invest a little more for flavor, health and history; they value has been more than worth the price.

Gary Nabhan is co-founder of Sabores Sin Fronteras and Renewing America’s Food Traditions.

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