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Tucson: A city recognized for its distinctive and creative culinary accomplishments

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Madison Beveridge | The Daily Wildcat

As a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization City of Gastronomy, Tucson is known for its approach to food and agricultural history. 

Tucson is known for many things, whether that be scorching temperatures or the University of Arizona campus life. Yet, what many may not consider is the city's food scene. From Sonoran hot dogs to street food to ingredients abundant and local to the land, Tucson is amongst one of two recognized U.S. cities of gastronomy.   

In December 2015, Tucson became the first U.S. city to join the list of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Cities of Gastronomy. Other cities of gastronomy are scattered throughout Europe, South America, Africa, Southern Asia and as far as Australia. 

As noted by UNESCO, gastronomy has to do with food history and how cities and restaurants utilize land, culture and food-related traditions when preparing meals. Food that is rich in history, meaning and tastes great is the embodiment of gastronomy.    

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But what makes Tucson a city of gastronomy? According to UNESCO, Tucson has the “longest agricultural history of any city in the United States.” In Tucson, the food comes with culture and a deep understanding of the land. With the use of orchards, vineyards and ranching, restaurants across Tucson aim to produce locally sourced meals with ingredients native to the Southern Arizona region. 

Laurel Bellante is the assistant director of the Center for Regional Food Studies and the director of the food studies degree program at the University of Arizona. Bellante touched on why she felt Tucson was among the cities recognized for their food. 

“Tucson was designated City of Gastronomy due to its 4,000+ year of agricultural history in the region, the confluence of cultures in the region, the huge breadth of food-related businesses, cultural celebrations, festivals, activism and research that exist here today,” Bellante said. 

According to UNESCO, Tucson actually stretches above and beyond culinary acknowledgment and is considered a “model of an economy based on gastronomy." This means that Tucson has integrated gastronomy into sustainable urban development, agriculture and food production. Tucson has the ability to source food in a way that mimics how it was done thousands of years ago, something that sets it apart from other cities in the U.S.  

Being on the City of Gastronomy list means that various restaurants across Tucson are recognized for their unique culinary approaches. As of 2021, there were 25 restaurants on this list, El Guero Canelo being one of them.  

El Guero Canelo began as a hot dog stand back in 1993 when owner Daniel Contreras initially moved to the U.S. Since its humble beginnings, El Guero Canelo transformed into a popular and eclectic restaurant with three locations across Tucson as well as a meat market. Serving up local delicacies such as Sonoran hot dogs, El Guero Canelo emulates what it means to be a UNESCO-recognized restaurant. 

Daniel Contreras' son, Gregorio Contreras, is the media coordinator at El Guero Canelo and when asked how he feels the restaurant plays the role of a gastronomic entity, he explained the importance the staff places on staying true to local ingredients and Sonoran traditions.     

“I think our unique approach to food comes from the owner's dedication to quality ingredients and all the possible influences from being so close to the border. Take, for example, our most recognized dish: the Sonoran-style hot dog, an item that is constructed from multiple different places that came together in Sonora,” Gregorio Contreras said. 

Maintaining recognition for gastronomy is no simple task and incorporating agriculture and locally sourced ingredients is vital, as mentioned by Gregorio Contreras. Aravaipa Farms Orchard and Inn is another example of this. 

Located an hour northeast of Tucson in the Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness Area, Aravaipa Farms offers a bed and breakfast experience with farm-to-table meals. As a Tucson City of Gastronomy Certified Restaurant, local ingredients mean everything to the business. 

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Kari Madden is the general manager at the farm and commented on how they serve their customers the freshest meals. 

“We are not a full service restaurant, but we do offer meals to guests of the inn and day visitors to our orchard. Everyone must reserve food at least one week in advance, since we are so remote and not a full service. We focus on local and farm-to-table meals as much as we can, and are a great stop for people who got permits to hike in Aravaipa Canyon Wilderness,” Madden said. 

Tucson’s appetite for creative food, coupled with its culinary roots continues to push the city and its restaurants into the world of gastronomy. With more and more restaurants adopting the traditions of the land, Tucson will only continue to grow in the realm of food and culinary art. A full list of Tucson City of Gastronomy Certified restaurants can be found at tucson.cityofgastronomy.org/about.


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