2016 Festival Celebrates Tucson as UNESCO City of Gastronomy

Tucson Meet Yourself Folklife Festival has been celebrating the intersections of food and culture since its inception 43 years ago. This year it adds a special stadium—complete with bleachers—to showcase those connections front and center. The City of Gastronomy Kitchen Stadium and Exhibit will highlight Tucson’s recent designation as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy featuring demonstrations, recipe sharing, food sampling, live music, and lectures throughout the three-day festival in downtown Tucson, October 7, 8, and 9. A public exhibit designed to answer the question “Why Tucson?” will complement the Stadium.

Ahead of the Curve. 

“Long before the current fascination with food rose to national attention, Tucson Meet Yourself was circulating words like ‘foodways’ and ‘culinary heritage’ among Tucsonans from all walks of life,” said Maribel Alvarez, executive director of the Festival and professor of folklore and anthropology at the University of Arizona.

While the festival has long had food demonstration arenas and cultural heritage performances, the Kitchen Stadium moves these expressions to a bigger area, offering educational programming for longer hours and for all three days of the festival. This upholds folklorist Jim Griffith’s vision to make food-sharing a vehicle for cross-cultural dialogue when he founded Tucson Meet Yourself in 1974, Alvarez said.

The City of Tucson Mayor’s Office has granted the official permission to use the City of Gastronomy logo to mark this as a City-sponsored celebration of the UNESCO designation.

Kitchen Education.

The new Kitchen Stadium will feature local producers and makers who together tell the stories of Tucson many foodways and help define a distinctly “Tucson cuisine,” said Liane Hernandez, Kitchen Stadium coordinator.

The Pima Community College Culinary program is providing the basic mobile kitchen, which will be the site of multiple demonstrations and conversations from such groups as Arizona’s wine and cheese producers, Mission Gardens, gleaners from Ishkashitaa, and more. Special contributions will also come from food justice organizations such the Community Food Bank and Flowers and Bullets. Other partners include the City of Tucson, Community Food Bank, Tucson Foodie, and Edible Baja, Hernandez said.

Why Tucson?

The City of Gastronomy exhibit, produced in partnership with the City of Tucson and UA/College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Center for Regional Food Studies, will offer visual displays and information about the many creative food initiatives that earned Tucson the UNESCO designation.

“Tucson is somewhat of an enigma to people outside the area when it comes to its reputation for food,” said Dena Cowan, curator of the exhibit. “The first image conjured up by the UNESCO honor is one of a city with dozens of five-star restaurants. While we do have some excellent Chefs and top-notch eating establishments, the real strength of our food system is found behind the scenes in water harvesting, arid lands crops, conservation, food journalism, innovation, micro-enterprises, diversity and food justice.”

Community partners contributing and supporting the exhibit include Watershed Management Group, the Community Food Bank, Mission Garden, Native Seeds/SEARCH, Edible Baja Arizona, Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, Desert Harvesters, UA Compost Cats, and UA School and Community Garden Program.

Come for the Food, Stay for the Culture.

The Festival draws 120,000 visitors each year, 35% who are there for the first time. While the festival has acquired the tongue-in-cheek designation “Tucson EAT Yourself,” in surveys conducted on site among festival attendees for 3 consecutive years, 65% of the public considered “culture and education” to be the most valuable part of the event.

“Year after year, nearly all of the food vendors at the Festival say the reason they come is to share their culture,” Alvarez said. “The role of food at the festival goes beyond, selling, sampling or satiating cultural curiosity,” she added.

Nonetheless, the event offers significant economic gains for participants. Collectively food vendors raise over $350,000 over the three-day Festival. Many share testimonies of using that revenue to support cultural activities such as travel, heritage workshops, scholarships and performances, some of which can be seen and experienced at the Festival.