by Jessy Swisher

In May, 2022, I visited several iconic sites that are part of the heritage grain revolution in Tucson, Arizona, a UNESCO designated “City of Gastronomy”. While there, I volunteered at the Native Seed/SEARCH Conservation Garden, bought bread from Don Guerra’s Barrio Bread, and attended the first Pueblos del Maíz Festival.

Native Seeds/SEARCH is a nonprofit seed conservation organization that formed in 1983. Their seed bank houses nearly 2,000 varieties of arid-adapted crops from 50 indigenous communities, Spanish missionaries, and Mormon settlers. While at their Conservation Garden site in Tucson, I helped plant heirloom tobacco and laid out irrigation lines with other volunteers, while others dug trenches to establish water catchment and filtration basins. When I toured their seed house I saw a home-made air separator for winnowing amaranth; an inspiration for my own backyard amaranth growing adventures!

We were thrilled to discover the Mission Garden and the Pueblos del Maiz Festival, a four-day celebration that was established in partnership with three other sister cities in the U.S. and Mexico. Mission Garden is heralded as Tucson’s agricultural heritage museum. Located on land of the Tohono O’odham Nation and managed by the Friends of Tucson’s Birthplace, the garden showcases a diverse display of cultures and crops that are part of Tucson’s agricultural legacy, including the pre- and post-colonial O’odham Garden, the Spanish Orchard and field crops, the Mexican Garden, and the Chinese Garden.

We were also fortunate to attend the event on Sonoran Desert Corn Traditions. The O’odham people who demonstrated the corn planting and milling talked about their 60-day corn (60 days to maturity), and shared O’odham words, like machud (hand grinding stone), and stories about changing traditions of corn in their upbringing and culture.

Chef Cody Manuel, from the Ajo Center for Sustainable Agriculture, led the cooking demo and was joined by the three founders of the Flowers and Bullets Collective – Tito Romero, Jacob Robles, and Dora Martinez, who reflected on the similarities and differences between their different indigenous and Mexican ancestries. Delicious samples of a roasted corn stew (ga’iwsa in O’odham) and corn tortillas were shared.

Sterling Johnson, Farm Manager of the Ajo CSA, who had led the corn planting demo, mentioned that the O’odham people had switched from corn to wheat tortillas some time ago. He was scheduled to lead another event, called O’odham Perspective on Wheat, at Mission Garden on May 21st of that year.

My visit to Tucson was a wonderful experience of culinary tourism. I learned from many of the people and organizations working with heritage grains in the space of food, sustainable agriculture, community development, and historical and cultural preservation.