I love the desert. I love the dry air and ground, the bright and blooming succulents, the sudden thunderstorms, the wide open space, the piercing blue sky, and the hot sun. So naturally I spent Memorial Day weekend eating, sweating, squinting, and climbing in Tucson, AZ. I went to visit a dear friend from college who is working on becoming a Philosopher King when he isn't climbing, eating tacos, or drinking freshly juiced grapefruits under the blazing sun. We spent most of the weekend playing outside and eating, not necessarily in that order.
Tucson is beautiful, although not necessarily what I had pictured. Frankly, I had imagined a city more like Santa Fe--cobbled squares, adobe everything, old wooden beams, bright colors, the usual Southwest charm. Most neighborhoods had plenty of that as well as brick, ranch style houses. The houses are low and squat, better to keep out the heat I would imagine. There are plenty of classic adobe dwellings, but they have a distinct style and are not the carbon copy of New Mexico style that I had pictured. Most people in Tucson aren't foolish enough to grow grass, and instead favor a gravel lawn filled with desert plants and flowering cactus. Many people are lucky enough to have a giant saguaro standing tall in their front yard.
Tucson is connected by gigantic, four to six lane boulevards and everything is in a strip mall. Everything. Bookstores, grocery stores, coffee shops, etc. (Ok, there are a few stretches, like 4th street by the University that are less strip mall-y). In Portland, there really are no strip malls and most of the restaurants and other establishments I frequent are in some charming house or small building in some cutesy little neighborhood that is just delightful to look at. And there is not a six lane roadway with fast moving cars whizzing by. Once I got over that shock, Tucson and I got along just fine.
We spent a good portion of our time driving through the desert and scrambling around on rocks in the Catalina Mountains. It is a short drive to some great hiking and climbing and it is much cooler up in the mountains than in the city. We played on some rocks and checked out the views. Ian scrambled to the top of a big boulder and I made it about one foot off the ground, but it was a good enough start for me. The next day we spent a few hours in the rock gym (since I didn't have the required gear for serious outdoor climbing). I was climbing with the seven years olds but it was still really fun. Man, are my forearms sore! I could barely grip a pen for the rest of the day.
We did a lot of eating in Tucson, naturally. Ian was one of my first cooking and eating buddies and certainly still one of my favorites. Back in the college days were roomies in a house (along with a surly Bulgarian) and ate and cooked well beyond our means. We splurged on fancy cheeses and $8 bottles of wine (gasp!) regularly. Back in those days Ian was vegetarian so we ate many a tasty stir fry creation, as well as bowls of oat meal every day for breakfast, beet stews and veggie pancakes for dinners. A lot of what I now about beans and grains I learned when we lived together. Now that he has his wits about him, he is a serious carnivore, which allowed us to broaden our culinary friendship.
We ate a few meals out and cooked a few in. For our Saturday night splurge we went to J bar, after watching a gorgeous desert sunset. J bar is the more casual half of a restaurant attached to some fancy spa up on the hills. The food is pretty classic Southwestern with some very Mexican touches. My spicy margarita was good, and our plate of nachos was good, but my entree was a bit disappointing. There was way too much of it, for one thing, and the beans were undercooked (!). I think the $5 fish tacos I had at Pico de Gallo in South Tucson the next day were better. Oh well.
There are some culinary gems in Tucson. One of them is Native Seed/S.E.A.R.C.H., a local non-profit organization that works to “conserve, distribute and document the adapted and diverse varieties of agricultural seed, their wild relatives and the role these seeds play in cultures of the American Southwest and northwest Mexico.” Lucky for me they have a retail store where they sell seeds, beans, flours, grains, chilies and chili powders, among other delicious goodies. I spent a few pennies there on the beans and grains pictured at top. I cooked up a little batch of the Rio Zape beans last night and oh, were they good. Creamy and flavorful and purple! I also bought a lovely hand carved spoon because I couldn't resist it. I had to leave quickly, before I drained my bank account.
My other amazing find was this signed (!) copy of Chez Panisse Vegetables by Alice Waters. We stopped by a used bookstore for a quick look around and I found it with used cookbooks. I agonized a little because of the price but decided that I would regret it forever if I didn’t buy it. Plus, all the press says that it’s a pretty stellar cookbook and I can never find used copies at Powell’s. Whoever had it before me clearly did not cook with it; the pages are pristine. Monetary value be damned, I will be cooking with it.
My last night in Tucson we grilled up some beef kabobs marinated in a mixture of plain yogurt, lime juice, garlic, salt, and chili powder. We had oily and spicy grilled potatoes as a side and I made a chocolate cake for desert. The meat and potatoes were great but my cake was just ok. I didn’t have quite the right kind of chocolate at my disposal so the cake was a bit too sweet and not bitter chocolatey enough. I was also using bits and pieces of different sticks of butter so I guess-timated a bit on that measurement. But for a cake using the wrong ingredients and inaccurate measurements, it was great!
Alas, neither of us took any pictures. I know, we suck. But I’m new to this taking pictures thing, and it’s hard for me to remember that I have a camera that can go places with me and take photos. Sorry. But really, it was kind of nice not to think about it, just to appreciate images and commit them to memory instead. I don’t think I’ll soon be forgetting the orange Tucson sunset.
*Thank you Barbara Kingsolver, wherever you may be, for letting me borrow the title of your book of amazing essays for my blog post.