Food writing was evolving before COVID. It was becoming more inclusive, more environmental, less about food, and more about food’s people and implications. Then the pandemic struck, wrenching an already-changing game. The next months saw writing about openings, minor doings, and how things taste take a back seat to weightier issues at the foundations of food culture or shaking them — stories about adaptation, sustainability, deep foodways, and supply chains.
Here are our 10 favorites of the year, half picked by food critic Chris Malloy and half by editor Lauren Cusimano.
'Growing Up — Urban Farms Have the Potential to Transform Phoenix'By Chris Malloy
The Urban Farm’s Greg Peterson estimates there are 2,000 urban farms in greater Phoenix. And while that seems like a cool figure, there’s still lots of (yard) work to be done. “We have 4.8 million people in the Valley,” Peterson told Chris Malloy in the spring. “We’re going to need thousands of farms.”
Peterson thinks the solution to our planet’s food problem is growing food in the cities, which several groups in the Valley are already doing. Malloy visited multiple urban farms (pre-COVID) throughout greater Phoenix for an in-depth look and discussion with these farmers who saw the need and started them — and the many volunteers who tend to them. — Lauren Cusimano
'First Look: Mesa Welcomes Asian Grocery Chain H Mart to Arizona'By Kris Vera-Phillips
With her first words on a shopper helplessly rifling groceries into a cart, Kris Vera-Phillips drops us into the happy chaos of H-Mart’s opening weekend in Mesa. The first day, Vera-Phillips writes, the line “wrapped around the block by opening time” and was “still there 90 minutes later.”
Rather than go macro, Vera-Phillips goes micro, conveying key scenic details while asking shoppers why they shop at H-Mart. “We liked the quality of the produce,” one says. Another agrees, citing bok choy and bulgogi. “You can’t get that stuff at Safeway.”
Reading, you feel like you’re browsing the long aisles for a sambal jar or genmaicha sleeve, or perhaps even sidling up to the “fresh lychee section.” Through this piece, you, too, can revel in the kinetic, joyful, fully masked opening. — Chris Malloy
'How to Be a Courteous Restaurant Guest During COVID, According to Phoenix-Area Servers'By Allison Young
This has been a tumultuous year for the restaurant industry — we’re open, we’re closed, we voluntarily closed, we were ordered to shut down. Not to mention layoffs, layers of PPE, and many extra steps in the sanitization process. All of this responsibility has been placed squarely on the shoulders of restaurant and bar owners and employees.
How can we as customers alleviate the strain of these new duties? Allison Young interviewed one barista and three servers this summer to get their side. Young constructed a guide for customers dining in or even grabbing takeout in our new restaurant landscape. Some tips are obvious, like, for one, tips, being patient, and masking up. But some may be news to your average customer, like leaving politics talk at the door and not whipping your credit card out of your bra.
In short, as one server puts it, "Tip your servers appropriately and don’t be an asshole.” — Lauren Cusimano
'A Simple, Straightforward, Inexpensive Wing Recipe'By Lauren Cusimano
Lauren Cusimano is more obsessed with wings than anybody I’ve ever met. Here, she shares her go-to recipe. Instructions come loaded with smart tips, like snipping the corner of a bag to drain unwanted chicken juice, and free of bullshit. To begin, you “slam the wings into the sink” to let them thaw. The recipe calls for a whole stick of butter. You blast the wings under the broiler in the end.
I bought my first bottle of Valentina and made these wings the Sunday after the story ran. They rocked, tasting like simple, no-nonsense hot wings from a spot celebrated for old-school bar food. The parenthetical asides give a few nice personal windows into this wing lover’s mind. — Chris Malloy
'Cafe Review: Journeying Through Phoenix’s Thriving Black Barbecue Scene'By Chris Malloy
For a stretch of 2020, there was no visiting a single eatery for our restaurant reviews. Instead, food critic Chris Malloy was creating a monthly medley of Phoenix’s different and diverse food scene. In July, Malloy covered the Valley’s Black barbecue scene by first interviewing “the Soul Food Scholar” and author Adrian Miller. The food historian said he was impressed with the exclusively Black-owned barbecue restaurants.
Malloy explains how “Phoenix has become a city of widespread barbecue over the last decade, and many of the best new outposts are run by African Americans.” We hear from James Lewis of JL Smokehouse, Mark Smith of Honey Bear’s BBQ, Ron Childs of Rhema Soul Cuisine, and many more Black voices. — Lauren Cusimano
'Phoenix's Cash-Only Bar Culture Lives on in the COVID Era'By Lauren Cusimano
It’s been six months since I posted up in a bar, so I relished this vicarious trip to cash-only dive bars across the Valley. Cusimano captures the quirk and mojo of these bar owners clinging to anti-credit-card ways. “It’s like the Old West when you had to pull out your little money sack with your gold in it,” one says.
The sounds, sights, and viewpoints of this story almost feel like the last glimpses of a fading world. Though bar owners in the story acknowledged they were following CDC guidelines, we have since seen a renewed surge in Covid-19 cases. Plenty of dive bars will be closing for good, even those that adhere to guidelines faithfully. This snapshot of a proud culture in a brief moment before the rising of a second case wave feels like an important historical document of our beverage scene. — Chris Malloy
'A Guide to the Indigenous Food Scene in Greater Phoenix'By Chris Malloy
As you might have already noticed, metropolitan Phoenix doesn’t have as many places to eat Native foods as you would think. This is weird. Arizona is a quarter Native American land, “which of course was once 100 percent Native land” as Chris Malloy puts it.
In one of New Times' recent cover stories, Malloy talked Native foods with three major authorities in that scene — an imaginative Diné chef (Jaren Bates), an Akimel O’odham cook and educator (Alyssa Dixon), and a second-generation proprietor of a storied Tohono O’odham eatery (Sandra Miller).
Because Indigenous foods are found at Native American stands, trucks, trailers, roasteries, and restaurants creating some top-notch Indigenous food. That is, if you know where to look — which Malloy does and now, so do you. — Lauren Cusimano
'Table Scraps: A Gila Bend Shrimp Farm on the Cutting Edge of Sustainability'By Lauren Cusimano
Shrimp farming? In the desert? As Cusimano writes, “It’s the prawn of a new era.” (Actually, that line came from staff writer Benjamin Leatherman.) For this deep dive, she ships out to Gila Bend to put Arizona Desert Shrimp under a microscope, concluding that the recently rebooted operation is “on the absolute razor’s edge of sustainable shrimp farming.”
Over the story, we come to better know a farmed shrimp's life. We see how operators tinker with salt levels, how they've devised an aquaculture that wastes little water beyond evaporation. And that’s before Arizona Desert Shrimp ditches its current ponds and moves to an even more airtight method, a step soon to come. The farm’s operators even claim to be able to tweak shrimp color by tweaking lighting. CFO Michael Cunha says, “We can create any color you want.” — Chris Malloy
'When Did Online Recipes Become Mini-Memoirs?'By Robrt L. Pela
In May 2020, during the tremendous influx of at-home cooking at the beginning of quarantine, Pela posed an important question to me via email: “When the fucking fuck did recipes become an excuse for amateur writers to tell their fucking life stories?!”
For real. Pela penned his thoughts to paper (i.e. our food section) to express why, when “baking or cooking, I stick to my collection of grease-stained and spindled recipe cards, handed down for four generations, and to my well-loved and earmarked pile of vintage cookbooks.”
And before you say to yourself, “There’s usually a ‘skip to recipe’ button,” we are both fully aware. — Lauren Cusimano
'A Day in the Life of Urban Beekeeper and Honey Producer Joc Rawls of Bridle Path and Beyond'By Bahar Anooshahr
Stories that peek into the dark crevices of our local food culture are my favorites. In this piece that seems to anticipate and pre-answer every reader's question, Anooshahr lays out a day in the life of a backyard beekeeper. Esoteric wisdom abounds.
“Bees are like us,” says Rawls, the beekeeper, after signaling to them with billows-plumed smoke. “They have good days and bad days.”
“Looking at a hive is like looking at a living organism.”
Anooshahr gives us a sense of where, aside from the beekeepers’ yard, his are foraging. They travel far. We get details like that Rawls monitors the weight of his hives, and that together they produce hundreds of pounds of honey a year. Nicely, Anooshahr links bees to the concept of terroir — to the idea that Rawls’ urban honey contains something of the land, yours and mine, over which bees forage and fly. — Chris Malloy
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