Longform

Carol Steele Is the Godmother of the Phoenix Culinary Scene

The drive to Aravaipa Canyon isn't long, as far as road trips go. Ninety minutes, and you're in another world.

From Phoenix, head east on the 60. Take a right at the old ice cream stand in Superior onto Highway 177, pass the giant open pit of the Ray Mine, then hang another right at the Shell station in Winkelman. One more left, and you're on a dirt road.

This is sacred land, near the site of one of the worst Native American massacres in Arizona history — in the mid-1800s, a group of soldiers attacked a camp of Apaches (mostly women and children), scalping and killing almost all of them. There are no markers of the incident, and today it's peaceful, expansive, beautiful land with spectacular hiking at the federally protected Aravaipa Canyon and much nicer homes than what you typically see in rural Arizona.

It helps to have four-wheel drive for this trip, if only for the giant dip you'll hit at the entrance to your destination, Aravaipa Farms, a flat hunk near the creek, beneath a mountain, marked only by a small, hand-painted sign. This is fertile land; you'll pass an orchard packed with Meyer lemon, pecan, peach, apricot, and Asian pear trees. This is where you'll find Carol Steele.

If you lived in metro Phoenix between the mid-'70s and early '90s — particularly if you ever lunched in Scottsdale — the name should sound familiar, though you might know her best as C. Steele, proprietor of C. Steele & Co. and a number of other ventures, all related to gourmet food in one way or another. Steele left almost two decades ago, but her influence still is felt in the Valley — whether it's through food cooked by the chefs who trained with Steele or via the produce and jams her disciples drive three hours round-trip to fetch for their restaurants.

Steele is widely considered the godmother of the local food scene in Phoenix — part mafiosa, part fairy. Long before we were inundated with terms like "organic," "locavore," and "slow food," she was refusing to compromise on quality, celebrating farm-grown produce and artisanal foods.

For nearly 20 years she's put her considerable talents to work here at Aravaipa Farms, an orchard and bed and breakfast. For anyone who remembers Steele's stores and restaurants, a trip to Aravaipa is a trip down memory lane — the place is tightly packed with collections (everything from rocks to drawings, including several portraits of Carol by various artist friends), cookbooks, photographs, terra cotta pots of red geraniums, and most of all, Steele's own brightly colored, quirky folk art — paintings on tiles and plates, handmade bird houses, jewelry (all for sale). With every bit of it, you get a sense of the Southwest — but without the howling coyotes.

At 75, Steele runs the place with minimal assistance, providing not only breakfast (rooms are stocked with fresh fruit, granola, yogurt, and more) but also lunch (a picnic packed in a basket) and a sit-down dinner as well. Depending on the season, you can take a canning class (Steele puts up her own preserves), check out the greenhouse and the chicken coop, or take a swim in the sparkly blue pool.

Best of all, you get Carol herself — teaching classes, holding court on the porch at cocktail hour, presiding at the dinner table in her signature peacock blue eyeliner, bright red lipstick, jeans, and Crocs.

Nothing is fancy or ordered at Aravaipa Farms. The place lacks the pretense that's crept into even the Phoenix/Scottsdale food scene. Steele proudly pours "two-buck Chuck," and the trail mix in your picnic basket isn't homemade. But her carrot cake is; the lettuce in her salad came from her garden; and months later, you'll still find yourself wondering what she put in that spicy Thai sauce on the fish at dinner.

As her former employee Chrysa Robertson puts it, Steele arrived "post-Julia Child, pre-Martha Stewart." She came of age, culinarily speaking, in a time of gourmet cheese and caviar. A time of excess, Robertson observes, that's given way to the local- and slow-food movements under way at restaurants like Robertson's own Rancho Pinot in Scottsdale. Another Steele fan, Chris Bianco, is perhaps the best-known chef in Phoenix these days. He calls Steele "an incredibly wise woman" and "a fucking great pioneer."

Bianco's constantly one-upping himself in the "local" department — one of his latest obsessions is flour ground from wheat grown in Arizona and processed behind his sandwich shop, Pane Bianco. For her part, Steele raises chickens, maintains a greenhouse, and preserves fruit grown in her orchard. If you hurry, you can pick up a few of her Asian pears at Bodega, the gourmet market in Scottsdale run by chef Charleen Badman.

Like Carol Steele herself, Aravaipa Farms is a true Arizona treasure, her longest-running venture. She bought smart — 300 acres, including water rights.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.