Sonoran Arcana

Sonoran Arcana: Foraging Wild Food in the Paved Streets of Old Town Scottsdale

Chris Malloy
Mark Lewis, a botanist and urban forager, admiring tomato plants in an Old Town alley.
Welcome to Sonoran Arcana, a column seeking to probe the margins of Arizona cuisine and define a more specific, novel cuisine that has emerged in America's great Sonoran Desert, New Arizonan. Here, we will venture into the arid wilds and culinary unknown to spotlight the chefs and foragers, the millers and brewers, the miso masters and palo verde pod pickers who are pioneering New Arizonan cuisine, or simply rocking out the food of Arizona. So throw open the doors to your mind and enjoy.

In a northern sweep of a 120,000-square-mile desert, on asphalt sprayed with lines and cracked with time, under palm trees and faint sound waves flowing from distant saloons and the odd busker teasing an electric kora, a tented bazaar hums. It hums in the center of streets of western junk shops, clothing boutiques, hums on byways that swell at night with beautiful people in various stages of dress and intoxication, funneling to and from nightclubs. It hums, a warren of food vendors, a Rivendell of perfume lemons and bao buns jammed with chorizo, a tranquil nexus of sellers and buyers who eat well.

This bazaar, you may know, is the Old Town Scottsdale Farmers’ Market.

The rectangular, white-canopied market, which lives in a crook of Brown Avenue and First Street, has a brief weekly lifespan: Saturdays until 1 p.m. This season, the market is celebrating its tenth year. It has more than 100 vendors. Many rank among the most talented chefs, smokers, curers, jarrers, jammers, and growers in the Valley.

But one vendor, Mark Lewis, believes that some of the market’s best food comes not from vendors.

He believes that it grows wild, ripe for plucking from the ground.

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A tour crossing back in front of the Old Town market.
Chris Malloy
In dirt beds. In alleys. In seed clusters and tree pods. By steam pipes. Near car tires. Under timeworn adobe facades more than three feet thick. Food grows in Old Town, on streets we heedlessly walk: a universe of edible plants.

Mark Lewis’ stand is on the west end of the market, away from the hubbub. There, he hosts tastings of esoteric local foods, like mesquite-flour tortillas folded with peppery foraged leaves, like tea made with scarlet ocotillo flowers. Some days, he leads a tour of the edible plants that grow within two blocks of the market.

On a recent Saturday, Lewis, a botanist, a former ASU professor, a graying man with khakis, glasses, and Paipai blood, left his stand just after the appointed hour of 11 a.m. He crossed a curb and walked beyond the outer white canopies.

Gray pavement sprawled. Cold sun poured from a clear winter sky. The ice cream notes of an electric guitar sailed from a hidden amp, high, nimble licks that recalled Jerry Garcia. Lewis passed a coffee van ready to fill foam cups on the market’s margin. He made for tall green weeds in a deep crack along a cinderblock wall. The aroma of fresh coffee gusted.

And, of course, the weeds weren’t weeds.

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Wild amaranth growing in a downtown Scottsdale parking lot.
Chris Malloy
“Okay,” Lewis said, crouching in an empty parking space, gesturing at a two-foot plant, “So the area we’re at right now, probably you wouldn’t think too much about this being a place where you want to get your food. But if you look down at the wall here, you see this plant sticking out. That’s amaranth.”

Amaranth is a New World plant. It was a staple of indigenous Americans, from the Aztecs to Tohono O’odham; you can eat its seeds and greens. A guide by Native Seeds/SEARCH, a group that banks seeds and promotes Sonoran agriculture, reads: “Amaranth loves the heat and is one of the few greens that you can grow in the summer that won’t require an excessive amount of water and taste bitter.” Humans have grown it for at least five millennia. Lewis is highly aware of the past, plant and human. His market stand’s name is “Chmachyakyakya Kurikui: 8000-year Crops: Ancient-Future Foods Remembered.”

After noting amaranth plants, he looks to others sharing the crack. They are similar, with the same kind of thin, projecting extremity looking almost like a surreally narrow ear of corn. “This right here is the triangle leaf,” he says. “This is quinoa. This is the relative of the expensive plant that you get at the supermarket.”

Lewis drifts his party west, toward Scottsdale Road. In back of a row of buildings, in smooth soil the color of cream soda, leafy greens and grass proliferate in a low sylvan burst. A pipe with valves and dials runs into them. The grass is sedge, a highly common Sonoran plant used to make a variant of horchata, horchata de chufa. The greens? “Salad.”

Lewis rounds a cinderblock enclosure, turns down an alley. The music and clamor of the market still. He backpedals down the alley, points to plants growing from a dirt run beneath a green-painted wall streaked from rain. In an even tone, he speaks with the erudition of a man who eats a diet of more than 75 percent foraged food, with the wheeling, hard-chugging thought trains of a botanist who savors most of the Sonoran’s 2,000-plus edible plants, and is among the core 250. (Not all the edible plants he highlights can be eaten due to cadmium in nearby asphalt.)

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Lewis points out mustard greens, lamb's quarters, and purslane.
Chris Malloy
In the alley, Lewis identifies lamb’s quarters. (“All of our modern lettuces have been bred out of a plant like this.”)

He stoops to a growth of mustard greens. (“They’re perfectly edible.”)

With rising pride, he classifies a red-stemmed purslane that has adapted to the Sonoran with tiny leaves. (“You see this all over the Valley. More vitamin C than oranges right there.”)

Not all of these plants are Sonoran natives. Lewis isn’t eating as he goes. He forages in select urban spots, true, but mostly he gathers from wilder environments; his market tour is meant more for education. Nonetheless, when he shares a bite of sisymbrium, with its small yellow flower clusters like tiny popcorn fireworks, you taste earth and the tingle of heirloom radish, and a new world of plant flavor opens to you.

Lewis emerges from the alley, turns onto Second Street. A white sedan sloshes past, then a yellow sports car. He points out aloes and grasses. He talks about how this land all once belonged to Winfield Scott, the rancher who gives Scottsdale its name. (Scott’s olive trees still line part of the road.)

Left off the sidewalk, a horse stable passes. Lewis stops at the corner of Second Street and Brown Avenue.

There are no cars coming, but while we wait for the light to turn, he shares his take on Chinese nutrition, prompted by aloe’s link to heart health. As he gets going, two girls approach, crossing the street to the west. One is a tall blonde with sunglasses, wine-glass curves, camouflage yoga pants, and a T-shirt that reads, “Ready. Set. Champagne.”

“You are basically a doughnut,” Lewis says to his tour, speaking about how food sculpts health. “If you know a doughnut’s shape, you know the outside is the inside. Can you picture what I’m talking about? The inside of the hole of the doughnut is made up of the outside — well, that’s what you are."

The girls stroll right past, impervious to life in our dimension.

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Elephant food, a shrub with juicy leaves and a zap like sorrel.
Chris Malloy
Lewis crosses the street. He identifies yucca, rice grass, and a blue flower related to mint. Palmating from a pot outside of Los Olivos, an old Mexican restaurant, is the citrusy, succulent-like shrub called elephant food, which Kevin Binkley has used to garnish scallops on his $364 tasting menu.

Outside SMoCA, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art: prickly pear and cactus paddles for nopales. Turning north along Drinkwater Boulevard, before the rolling lawn of Scottsdale Mall: bougainvillea, used to make bracing drinks in Latin America.

The lawn and the area before it contain ironwood, palo verde, and an old, yellow-brown pecan tree. The pods and flowers on the first two are edible, and so, of course, are pecans. “Everybody from the east thinks the Sonoran is cactus and mesquite,” Lewis says, passing under the ancient pecan, “but the three things that characterize the desert are these three trees.”

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These pencil-thin palm trees have edible fruit.
Chris Malloy
Lewis orbits the lawn’s pond, noting palms (edible fruit) and a fig tree. He cuts back through the store-bordered bottleneck of the mall to First Avenue, closing a loop of the market, highlighting plants all the while.

He sights a lemon tree.

“A lot of people don’t realize it’s not just the fruit of the tree you want to be harvesting,” he says. “Where the leaf attaches to the stem, sometimes you find an area that kind of puffs out. That little point is called a phyllode. It has all the chemistry — just like the flower — of the zest of the fruit.”

He pivots, looks across the vacant avenue. There rises a shaggy guaje, a tree that has made a “beachhead” in metro Phoenix after migrating up from Mexico, through mostly people and birds. The gauje gives Oaxaca its name, Lewis says. Its ribbed pods are bundled and sold in some of the Valley’s Mexican markets this time of year.

Nearing the end of the tour, after whipsawing his listeners with Latin and Tohono plant names, Lewis walks north and turns into a wide alley. He has one more plant to showcase: tomatoes.

The Southwest has 22 kinds of wolfberries. The Sonoran Desert is home to more than 1,000 bee species. The mere sight of an arms-open saguaro or organ pipe cactus can poleax you. But nothing feels so sublime and purely wild as a great raft of ancient plant life thriving in a paved oasis that humans have perhaps foolishly laid in the desert.

Lewis stands still when he gets to the back of a restaurant, just freezes at the head of parking spot. Two white-painted walls meet in a shady corner. In the dust below, a hale, wild patch of green vines knots.

“There’s your ‘maters, right there,” Lewis says. He pauses for a beat, continues. “When you look at them, there’s flowers on them. Now later in the season, they’ll have fruit. Every year they have fruit. They’re beautiful little tomatoes.”

The unmistakable, spade-shaped leaves and starry yellow flowers tremble in light wind. Lewis just stares.

“So we’re surrounded by food,” he says, turning back to the market, tents now visible. “People say, ‘I don’t have room for a garden,' But plants don’t care what you have room for. They come right up.”