RAISING AWARENESS ABOUT native desert foods isn't simply a question of informing the general public; for the folks at Native Seeds/SEARCH, it's a matter of life and death.
The non-profit organization dedicates its efforts to preserving the crops, seeds and farming methods traditionally used by the native people of the Southwest. The result is a diverse body of agriculture that benefits the health and well being of all people, particularly the indigenous populations of this region.
"We want people to know that native foods are healthy foods," says Shannon Scott of Native Seeds/SEARCH. "They're low in fat, high in protein and they help to maintain blood sugar. We want to get the word out."
On Sunday, March 19, Native Seeds/SEARCH will do just that when the second annual Flavors of the Desert food festival overtakes St. Philip's Plaza. Besides the delicious array of desert foods, the Native Seeds/SEARCH fundraiser features music from the San Xavier Fiddle Band, demonstrations by the Tohono O'odham Basketweavers, and Yoeme storytelling by Felipe Molina.
Contributing even more regional flair to this year's celebration is the cooperative endeavor by Native Seeds/SEARCH and Tucson Originals, an association of locally owned and operated restaurants who have come together in an effort to preserve Southwestern cuisine in their kitchens. The eight Tucson Originals restaurants preparing desert delicacies for the event are Pastiche, Café Terra Cotta, Jonathan's Tucson Cork, Tohono Chul Tea Room, Daniel's, Fuego, Capriccio and Magpie's Gourmet Pizza.
With dishes being specially prepared for the event, the menu is still being fine-tuned, but among the gastronomic highlights are chicken with a mesquite-meal crust and bean and squash calabacitas from Jonathan's Tucson Cork; white corn posole accompanied by red corn bread from Café Terra Cotta; grilled fish topped with a zesty prickly pear barbecue sauce from Fuego; blue and white swirled polenta topped with beans, chiles and smoked pork from Capriccio; and pizza topped with nopalitos and strips of chipotle-dusted chicken from Magpie's Gourmet Pizza.
Each restaurant is donating its contribution, allowing 100 percent of the proceeds to fund Native Seeds/SEARCH and its programs.
According to Scott, event coordinator for the food festival, a majority of the proceeds will go toward the continued development of the organization's farm near Patagonia.
"We've had great success at the farm growing seeds from our seed bank," she says. "We just need to continue to grow out these seeds. We have about 1,800 different varieties of seeds in our seed bank, so there's still a lot to do. The support we get from this event will allow us to continue this important growing."
The organization is also developing a diabetic outreach program, involving teaching and research among Native American communities. As diabetic outreach coordinator for Native Seeds/SEARCH, Felipe Molina travels throughout the region meeting with people affected by the disease. At the event, Molina, a Yoeme storyteller, will be on hand to answer questions about his work in between tales.
In addition to the food, music, storytelling and basket artistry, all of the products and ingredients used in the desert dishes will be available for purchase at the festival. Among the items are red and blue corn meal, several varieties of beans and chiles, prickly pear nectar, mesquite meal, nopalitos and squash. To further encourage the use of these products in the home kitchen, a recipe booklet featuring the day's dishes, as well as others provided by Native Seeds/SEARCH staff members, will be included in the cost of admission.
There's much to enjoy about living in the Southwest, and Native Seeds/SEARCH has gathered many of them together for Flavors of the Desert. Delicious desert foods, live music, ancient tales and native basketry come together for one afternoon a year. Take advantage of it -- the experience will do your soul -- and your body -- good.
The second annual Flavors of the Desert food festival is from noon to 4 p.m. Sunday, March 19, at St. Philip's Plaza (Campbell Avenue and River Road). Tickets are $35 ($30 for NS/S members, and $5 for children under 10) at the door and in advance from Native Seeds/SEARCH, 526 N. Fourth Ave. For reservations and information, call 622-5561. Event proceeds benefit Native Seeds/SEARCH and its programs.