Let's Make it Official: Arizona Needs a State Food

You would think that after 100 years of statehood, Arizona would have gotten hungry enough to give itself an official food.

Nope.

Today, the only state symbol you might want to eat is the state fish, the Apache trout. But given its listing as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and limited fishing restrictions, it hardly seems a viable candidate.

The chimichanga
The chimichanga
PHOTO BY JAMIE PEACHEY; BODY PAINTER: JOCELYN CASDORPH; MODEL: ALLY SANDBERG

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Where do Valley chefs and restaurateurs weigh in when it comes to picking an official food for Arizona? Judging by the answers, it's all over the map.

Michael Monti (owner, Monti's La Casa Vieja): "We've had a long history with ostriches in the state for about 100 years. Originally, their feathers were used as plumage for women's hats when it was common in the fashion world. So let's bring ostrich and serve it up on the table — or nopalitos, or cactus — because we have a lot of it."

Jason Alford (chef, Roka Akor) and Eric Flatt (co-owner, Tonto Bar & Grill and Cartwright's Sonoran Ranch House): "Prickly pear."

Justin Beckett (chef/owner, Beckett's Table): "When we do figure it out, I hope it doesn't include prickly pear."

Josh Hebert (chef/owner, Posh): "Some kind of taco, but a hybrid taco mixing traditional with modern ingredients."

Justin Micatrotto (co-owner, Raising Cane's Chicken Fingers franchises): "The first thing that comes to mind is Tex-Mex, but coming from someone who's no stranger to a deep-fryer, we might want to get fried rattlesnake on board."

Christopher Nicosia (chef, Sassi): "It should have a smoky element to it and would have to be a street food. How about a smoky sausage (hot dog or other type) topped with green chile pork served wrapped in Indian fry bread with roasted corn and cactus relish, jalapeños, and crushed corn tortilla chips? I think I'm going to buy my food truck now."

Michael Stebner (chef, True Food): "Pecans."

Eddie Matney (chef/owner, Eddie's House): "I'd like to see a plate with an Arizona queso dip in the middle and foods from all over the world surrounding it."

Robert Morris (general manager/sommelier, Cork): "Maybe a chimichanga. I think it originated here."

Meggie Miller (marketing manager, Twin Peaks): "Do the 49ers count?"

Former Arizona legislator Ken Cheuvront, who served in the Arizona House of Representatives from 1995 to 2003 and the Arizona Senate from 2003 to 2011, doesn't recall a state food initiative during his 16 years in office (although he told me if it were to come to a vote today, he would pick the Sonoran enchilada).

And according to the State Library, Archives, and Public Records Office, there hasn't been a bill regarding a candidate for a state food in the past 15 years.

It isn't as if we haven't had the time to think about it. As early as 1980, several other states in the nation already were busily claiming their own Legislature-passed culinary fare: Georgia with its peaches, Maryland with its blue crabs, and Indiana with its Hoosier pie (Hoosier pie?). Even some of America's major cities were getting in on the act, albeit unofficially, with New Orleans becoming famous for its sweet beignets, Philadelphia for its hefty Philly cheesesteaks, and Chicago for its ketchup-less hot dog.

Arizona, however, seemed to be taking a less-homespun approach to securing its place in food history, one that haunts us today. In 1953, brothers Maurice and Richard ("Mac" and "Dick") McDonald began to franchise their successful restaurant, McDonald's, in Phoenix and, in 1975, the city of Sierra Vista became the first home of a McDonald's drive-thru.

Not a great start to state culinary pride. And today, given the state's multitude of chain restaurants, most Arizonans might have preferred snagging fry bread before South Carolina did in 2005 rather than carrying on a tradition of standardization.

Several months ago, local Mexican restaurant chain Macayo's started a petition (packaged as an advertising campaign, and complete with coupon) to vote for the deep-fried burrito known as the chimichanga as Arizona's state food. Which got me thinking . . .

Being the 16th-most populous state in the United States is reason enough to demand our own fare, but being the stomping ground of some of the oldest food practices and most landscape- and weather-diverse eats from a variety of cultures in North America is a better one. So why does it seem like so many Arizonans take such an apathetic approach when it comes to celebrating the culinary influences of other cultures?

In her book Taste of the States: A Food History of America, author Hilde Gabriel Lee blames senior citizens. She says that until the middle of the 20th century, Mexican and Native American dishes in Arizona were predominant, but an influx of retirees moving into the state changed the food to "more all-American, with many Midwestern dishes prevailing."

And when it comes to our ignorance of indigenous plants, agricultural ecologist, ethnobotanist, and writer Gary Paul Nabhan not only encourages us, in his book Gathering the Desert, to get educated and eat them, but he makes a case for those used to consume such plants but no longer do:

"Because so many Native Americans and Mexican-Americans in the American Southwest now suffer from diabetes and other nutrition-related diseases, the demise of native plants in their diets has been tentatively related to the upswing of the incidence of certain diseases," Nabhan writes.

Both authors' viewpoints make an excellent case for Arizona's heritage foods — staples of the state's Native American tribes for centuries — as top candidates for our official state fare.

The blossom of the majestic saguaro, the tree-size cactus native to the Sonoran Desert, may be the state wildflower, but its sweet red fruit — long prized by the O'odham tribes — can be used to make syrup, candy, jam, and even barbecue sauce. Plus, as one of the more strenuous desert harvests (think summer heat and a fruit height of 15 feet and up), it gets an A for effort. Another thorny palate-pleaser, the prickly pear cactus, might best be known as the ingredient in Cactus Candy, the sugar-coated red squares inside the Phoenix-based company's classic yellow box with a smiling cartoon cactus, but its uses extend beyond the confectionery kind. Its pads and flowers can be had in the form of salsas, jellies, sorbet, fruit bars, and margaritas. And (bonus) there's even evidence that suggests it's a superb source of antioxidants and that eating the pads can lower cholesterol.

But why stop at cacti?

Wisconsin officially scammed corn as its state food in 1989, but it, along with squash and beans, was being grown some 4,000-plus year ago by the region's Native Americans. (Such tribes as the Hohokam grew all three in the same fields.) The Navajos obtained the Navajo-Churro sheep (the oldest surviving breed of sheep brought to North America in the 16th century, and used to feed the region's Spanish settlers) as part of their culture. And although not the flashiest of state food candidates, mesquite pod flour, rich in protein and naturally sweet, makes for tasty pancakes or a substitute for refined sugar in baked goods. It was a staple among indigenous peoples of the Southwest, not to mention a valued food for many Arizonans until around the 20th century.

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5 comments
burke.edwards
burke.edwards

According to a side panel article on The Weather Channel website: Lettuce. Yuma County, Arizona, calls itself America's winter vegetable capital. While it's too cold to grow warm-weather crops, such as lettuce, elsewhere in the country, The Grand Canyon state is bursting with farmed greens. Hey! Didn't you guys know that?!

Beefy
Beefy

I don't know what the official state food should be, but I know it should give you the hershey squirts after eating it.

Marshabarnhouse
Marshabarnhouse

I think our state food should be "asphalt fried eggs" : thanks for reading

Wnc
Wnc

I demand that the editor post a correction to this article. The Navajo did not obtain Navajo-Churro Sheep from spanish settlers. They developed the breed from sheep that may have come from Spanish stock brought to the Americas. Navajo-Churro sheep did not exist the 16th century. Our Navajo people bred them and developed this breed over centuries to be hardy for its environment. They are unique to the Colorado Plateau and are list as endangered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Please show respect to our Navajo people and make this correction! Contact Dine Be Iina in Shiprock for information about this breed and efforts to help Navajo breeders be successful with their sheep and fiber arts. Also check out Sheep Is Life Celbration the third week of June in Tsaile at the Dine Colloge.

Central Scrutinizer
Central Scrutinizer

On behalf of sheep enthusiasts everywhere, I thank you for this correction request.

 
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