Monthly Archives: January 2013

Food Heritage in Santa Cruz Valley

Today’s post is from Vanessa Bechtol, executive director of Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance, which was formed 10 years ago to connect people to the rich cultural and natural heritage of the region by working towards recognition of the Santa Cruz Valley as a National Heritage Area. Since inception, the Heritage Alliance has created a successful heritage tourism program and a popular heritage foods program. The aim is to increase community awareness of the region’s food traditions and agricultural heritage. Vanessa’s post highlights the heritage foods of the Santa Cruz River Valley which runs from the Arizona/Sonora border to north of Tucson.

Vanessa Bechtol

Vanessa Bechtol


By Vanessa Bechtol, Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance

The Santa Cruz Valley is perhaps the longest continually cultivated region on the United States, with an agricultural heritage extending back more than 4,000 years.  This agriculture heritage can still be experienced today through the local foods, farm products and livestock grown throughout the Santa Cruz Valley.  Through our Heritage Foods Program, the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance partners with other local organizations and businesses to increase community awareness of the region’s rich agricultural heritage and food traditions.       

Several traditional Native American foods are cultivated or gathered in the Santa Cruz Valley.  Chiltepin, the wild chile plant that is the ancestor of domesticated chile varieties, grows wild in the canyons near Tumacácori and is cultivated as a fiery condiment.  Other native crops include tepary beans, several types of squashes, a fast-growing, drought-resistant variety of corn, and “devil’s claw,” the fibers of which are used to make baskets.  Wild plant foods gathered from the desert include seed pods of mesquite trees, wild greens, and cactus fruits, buds, and pads.

Cholla appetizers from a Heritage workshop

Cholla appetizers from a Heritage workshop

Extensive orchards near Green Valley are the leading source of pecans in Arizona.  Red and white wines are made and bottled by several wineries in Sonoita and Elgin, where the climate and soils match those of Mediterranean countries.  Among the varieties grown in local vineyards is the Mission grape, introduced during the Spanish period.  The region also produces a unique dark honey made from the nectars of mesquite blossoms and native wildflowers.  Jellies, syrups, and candies made from cactus fruits are popular with tourists throughout Arizona.

Figs, apples, pomegranates, quinces, grapes, and other fruit stocks introduced during the Spanish period continue to be grown in private gardens and orchards throughout the Santa Cruz Valley.  Both Tumacacori National Historical Park and the Mission Garden in Tucson have re-established historic orchards with this fruits.

Cattle ranching is the major rural land use in the Santa Cruz Valley. While most ranches raise cattle to ship to feedlots in other states, many local ranches butcher their own beef.  Grass-fed, natural beef (raised on native forage, and using no hormones or antibiotics) is increasing in importance and popularity.  Some conservation breeders raise the Wilbur-Cruce Mission strain of colonial Spanish horses, called Spanish Barbs, descended from horses introduced to region by missionaries and ranchers during the late 1600s.   – VB

A Chance to Participate

For those of you living in Tucson or nearby, Tom Sheridan, author of “Arizona: A History” kicks off the Heritage Speaker Series with a history of the Santa Cruz Valley. Bring your own lunch to the Joel D. Valdez Main Library, 101 N. Stone Ave. and join in on January 29 from noon to 1 p.m.  Read more here.

White Sonora Wheat: A Heritage Grains Workshop for Arizona Bakers and Brewers.

If you are a baker, brewer, pastry chef, tortilla maker, or other food enthusiast and are interested in learning about the culinary characteristics of white Sonora wheat during a free 2-hour workshop, please email for workshop details.


Interesting in trying these desert foods?  Find delicious and easy recipes for 23 edible desert plants in my cookbook Cooking the Wild Southwest.  For all things prickly pear, both fruit and pads, check out The Prickly Pear Cookbook.  I teach you what to look for, when to harvest, and how to prepare and serve. Yum!


Tepary Beans – Perfect for the Cold


When the weather grows cold, as it has been in Arizona lately, a nice pot of beans sounds good. A good choice for beans is the native bean of the area, teparies. Teparies originally grew wild, but many generations ago the Tohono O’odham people domesticated them and grew them with the monsoon rains. They had many natural color variations, but when irrigation made possible the growing of pinto beans, farmers switched to the new crop and many of these varieties were lost.

Why are teparies important in the bean world? They rank slightly higher in protein and niacin and quite a lot higher in calcium. They also have a low glycemic index, which protects people eating them from a dangerously rapid rise in blood glucose levels.  Today, interest in teparies is increasing and the market for them is growing as people learn of their sweet flavor and health aspects.

Ramona Sepia

Ramona Button and her husband of Ramona Farms south of Phoenix are growing teparies as well as other agricultural products.  I’ll let her tell her own story:

” My father, Francisco “Chiigo” Smith, an O’odham farmer, grew many traditional crops on my mother Margarita’s 10-acre allotment located near Sacaton on the Gila River Indian Reservation in Arizona.  My mother was an herbalist and traditional healer. Together they taught me the value of our traditional foods as being important to our daily nutrition and way of life.

My husband, Terry, and I began farming on that very same allotment in 1974.  Our first crops were barley and alfalfa.  After expanding a few years later by leasing land from my relatives and other community members, we added cotton, corn and wheat.

In the late 1970s, some community elders asked us to grow the Bafv (tepary bean), which had nearly become extinct. We discovered that my father had left a few seeds of the white and brown tepary beans in glass jars in a trunk in the old adobe house that I grew up in.  It became clear to us, especially with the urging of our community elders, that it was to become our mission to help bring the bafv back to the community.

 We now offer tepary beans in different colors and multiple package sizes.  We are also offering other wholesome American Indian grown traditional heirloom and non-traditional food products.” 

You can learn more about Ramona Farms on their website.   You can also taste some of Ramona’s delicious beans in traditional recipes this Saturday at the Heard Museum in Phoenix from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.  I’ll be appearing with Ramona and her helper Leslie and I’ll be offering some modern dishes using teparies — I’m considering tepary vegetarian pate and tepary brownies.  We’d love to talk to you and offer you some delicious tastes.

You can find these recipes and more in my latest cookbook Cooking the Wild Southwest.  The Heard Museum bookstore will have copies for sale or you can get a copy at your local independent bookstore or on-line.

Wild Mustard Greens — so soon?

Wild mustard greens

Wild mustard greens

In January, even the Sonoran Desert goes into winter mode – peaceful in tones of soft brown and gray.  The earliest green comes in wild mustard that seems Technicolor against the muted background. This year mustard seems to have appeared particularly early here on the low desert – probably because of the warm December and finally, rain.  Or maybe it is a sign of global climate change — just a few degrees uptick in the temperature brings it on.

Spicy mustard collapses to nothing when steamed, so eating it raw in salads is the way to go.

One of the raffle prizes at the Tucson Botanical Gardens Butterfly Affair last October was dinner for six at my house. The winner also received two of my cookbooks and the right to choose anything at all for dinner. Martin Eggers was the winner and he, his partner, and four guests are coming next Saturday. When asked what he was ordering for dinner, he said, “Everything looks delicious,” and left it to me to choose. So as I sat at my desk working out the menu, it seemed that wild mustard greens would be a good addition to the salad course. The flavor is too sharp to stand alone, so I’ll combine it with spinach and kale from my garden. This morning I did a trial run and it was terrific. (Husband Ford ate the experiment for lunch).

Garden kale

Garden kale

I had never eaten kale before it became the nutritional buzzword the last year or so.  I’ve learned that to eat it raw, it should be massaged. Tear it into little pieces, put it in a bowl with oil and salt and squeeze and rub until it becomes soft.  It also reduces by half.

Raw kale torn into pieces.

Raw kale torn into pieces.

Kale after an olive oil massage.

Kale after an olive oil massage.

To the spinach, kale and mustard, I added some thinly sliced sautéed nopalitos and some pepitas. A bit of local goat cheese from Fiore de Capra in tiny Pomerene, Arizona, (check out their Facebook page) will add the elegance a prize dinner requires. For a dressing, walnut oil mixed with  fruity vinegar and a dollop of Dijon mustard makes a delicious addition.




For inspiration and other recipes using wild mustard and other wild greens, take a look at my cookbook Cooking the Wild Southwest: Delicious Recipes for Desert Plants.  For directions on transforming cactus pads into delicious nopalitos, see complete directions in The Prickly Pear Cookbook.