Food vendors benefit from Tucson Meet Yourself, bringing in a combined $350,000 on average each year. Many cultural groups use their earnings to support education and service activities throughout the year. Over 56 food booths will be present at this year’s festival, representing Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Ecuador, Egypt, France, Greece, India, Jamaica, Japan, Laos, Mexico, Philippines, Poland, Peru, Russia, Somalia, Thailand, Turkey, Ukraine, Venezuela, Vietnam, Virgin Islands, Laos, as well as Hawaii, New England, the U.S. South, and the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui people, indigenous to the Sonoran Desert region. Eight new vendors join the festival and here we highlight three of them.
La Fondita Chilena: Chilean Food Returns to the Festival
Yamila El-Khayat remembers sitting in the back of the festival booth at Tucson Meet Yourself as a young girl. Her mother and aunt and other Chilean women prepared and sold Chilean food every year at the festival until the 1990s.
“They did most of the prep work at home, in advance,” El-Khayat said. “I remember getting picked up from school.and my mom would just smell like onions. When we’d get home to the kitchen, it was boring because we weren’t allowed to touch anything or help.”
This year El-Khayat and her husband, Sammy Castillo are bringing the booth back. They’re calling the booth “La Fondita Chilena,” after the fondas de 18 de septiembre, food booths that line the streets of Chile on September 18, the national independence day.
“The festival was a lot more intimate back then. You could hear what was happening on the stage from the booth.”
Though her mom worked in the booth, El-Khayat says most of what she learned about Chilean cooking she learned from her aunt Juanita in Santiago, Chile, where she goes every year to visit. She learned to make empanadas de queso, bread pockets filled with cheese and deep fried, and empanadas de pino, which are filled with beef, sautéed onions, salt, cumin, Chilean oregano, and paprika. “The beef empanadas are folded in a special way,” El-Khayat said. “Two folds at the sides and one at the top.”
They’ll also be serving humitas, made with corn masa and similar to a Mexican-style tamale, but with distinct flavor from the corn, basil, and paprika, she said.
For dessert, El-Khayat’s husband, Sammy Castillo, a Mexican who’s taken to Chilean food and culture, is preparing a Biscocho de Durazno, a peach cake, made with peaches, syrup, merengue, and manjar de leche, a caramel-like confection made from sweetened milk.
El-Khayat said she worries the old timers and the Chilean community might be critical of the food. “But we can’t do everything the same. We have hundreds of things to make.”
Plus, she said, the ingredients are slightly different than in Chile. Instead of a mixture of ground beef and beef strips, she’s only using ground beef in the empanadas, for instance. “But we did bring oregano from Chile,” she said. “It has to be that.”
To make sure they’re ready for the festival, they’ve purchased an industrial fryer and oven and plan to do a lot of the preparation work in advance. Her kitchen, El-Khayat said, will be filled with the smell of onions.
“My kids are into it, but I do have to tell them, ‘No touching.’ I’m becoming my mother!” she added, laughing.
El-Khayat’s mother, Argelia, will be working the cash register at the festival booth.
But that’s not the team’s only support. Since announcing plans for the booth, El-Khayat said the now adult children of those who once ran the booth have been contacting her offering well wishes and helping hands.
“We’ve reactivated all the chilenos,” said Castillo. “The Chilean population here, everyone feels part of this family.”
Indigenous Flavors: San Xavier Co-op Farm
Julie Ramon-Pierson grew up hearing stories about her great grandparents, farmers and ranchers south of San Xavier District of the Tohono O’odham Nation.
“My great grandmother would collect mesquite pods and store them in a gunny sack. In winter, she’d take them out and boil them to create a tea or sweet water. Then she’d then roast and grind up wheat berries and add that tea to make a pinole drink,” Ramon-Pierson said.
The drink, called pilkan cu’i, was often served with a sweet tortilla, and when her great grandfather would eat it, he’d say, We should eat this all the time. “My great grandmother would just stare at him,” Ramon-Pierson said. “Because that meal took a lot of work!”
This year, Tucson Meet Yourself festival-goers can try a version of pilkan cu’i, as cooks and farmers from the San Xavier Co-op Farm will be sharing traditional and indigenous O’odham foods.
While O’odham cooks and artists have participated in the festival since its inception, this year is the first for the Co-op Farm, which specializes in bringing back traditional crops such as such as tepary beans and squash, and wild foods such as cholla buds, mesquite, and prickly pear fruit.
“It’s important for us to say, as indigenous people, we are here, and that our food is just as good as food from across the ocean. We’re able to provide just a taste of what we have lived off from hundreds of years,” said Adam Andrews, administrative manager for the Co-op.
The San Xavier Co-op Farm upholds the legacy of agricultural traditions of the Tohono O’odham, who have been farming in the region for over 4,000 years. Established in 1971, the farm brought back agricultural practices that were halted when surface flow in the Santa Cruz River was compromised by groundwater pumping in the mid-20th century. In 1975, the Tohono O’odham Nation worked with the federal government to sue agribusinesses, copper mines, and the City of Tucson for water rights. The 1982 Southern Arizona Water Rights Settlement Act granted San Xavier 56,000 acre-feet of water annually via the Central Arizona Project. Today, in addition to traditional crops, the farm also produces alfalfa hay as a cash crop, said Ramon-Pierson, who serves as board member for the Co-op.
But the Co-op’s primary mission is to serve the O’odham community, reeducating people how to prepare traditional foods at home, said Andrews. It also offers surplus crops to elders in the community.
In addition to a pinole drink similar to that which Ramon-Pierson’s great grandmother made, the booth will offer fresh pico, salsa made with cholla buds; white and red tepary beans; tamales of cholla bud, green chile, and cheese; ga’iwsa, roasted corn soup; mesquite scones and cookies; and O’odham squash muffins.
Ramon-Pierson said O’odham cooks like Phyllis Valenzuela, who also works as events coordinator for the Co-op, have created recipes to show off the flavors and versatility of traditional crops and wild-harvested foods. “If young people are not used to eating these foods, we have to make them palatable,” she said. “That’s what Phyllis has done by making soup mixes, cholla buds salsa, and pickling.”
These foods hold value for the O’odham people in terms of nutrition and cultural practice, Andrews said. “Agriculture has always been that prayer, that communion of how the earth provides for our sustainability and sustenance. Doing that is how we maintain our tradition and culture.”
Editor’s note: It’s worth mentioning that the San Xavier Co-op Farm is a key partner of the UA Compost Cats, a student-run organization that collects food waste and scrap from local businesses, the University of Arizona, and Tucson Meet Yourself. The organic material is processed, turned, and nurtured on site at the farm, then sold as valuable compost throughout the community. Twenty percent of the finished compost goes to San Xavier Co-op Farm for use on their vegetable crops and seedling starts.
San Xavier Co-op Farm, 520.295.3774
Holy Mole! Traditional dishes from Oaxaca
José Toledo grew up in Espinal, Oaxaca, Mexico, watching his grandmother and mother make mole (pronounced MOH-lay), a traditional sauce made from blended chiles, nuts, and spices.
“Mole was a tradition for us on a birthday. Every birthday dish has to be the mole,” he said. In his town, that meant mole negro, or “black mole,” a sauce made dark because of the addition of chocolate.
Later Toledo learned about other moles, like mole rojo, mole verde, and mole dulce—red, green, and sweet moles. He’ll be serving up dishes made with the Oaxacan specialty at this year’s Tucson Meet Yourself.
Making mole from scratch is a time-consuming art, he said. “My wife and my kids love it because the whole house smells like roasted peppers and chocolate,” he said.
Toledo came to the United States in 2000 and got a job as a dishwasher at PF Chang’s in Tucson. He worked his way up to prep cook and after three months got a job next door at Bistro Zinn, where he “fell in love with the kitchen,” he says. “From there my mind was never stopping on creating dishes.”
When Fox Restaurant Concepts, which owns Bistro Zinn, opened an Italian restaurant “North,” on Tucson’s north side, he transferred there, where “I got all my skills for making pizza,” he said.
He later got hired as a banquet chef at Saddlebrook and then in the restaurant, The Preserve, where he worked for five years.
When he and his wife expanded their family, Toledo left his job to do childcare. To celebrate his two daughters’ birthday, he made wood-fired pizza. “Everybody who came was mind-blown by the flavors,” he said. The pizzas were “Mexican style,” he said. One was topped with green chile and corn, another with carne asada.
From there, his family and friends pushed him to start a catering business. Now Holy Toledo caters for private events like birthday parties, quinceañeras, and weddings, where he takes a pizza oven and makes pizzas “live” in front of the guests. “So it’s like a show for the people who attend,” he said.
When Toledo wanted to recreate the taste of home by making traditional moles, he called his mother in Oaxaca and asked her how. “She said, ‘Put a little bit of this a little of that.’ Mom, how much is a little bit? Tell me, ‘a cup’ or ‘a half a pound.’ ‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘A handful!”
The fact that Toledo now holds the recipes is somewhat unusual, given that mole recipes in most traditional Zapotec families are passed from grandmother to mother to daughter. “Back home it’s the woman that takes care of the kitchen. But here I was in Tucson with a culinary mind,” he said.
The first time he made mole negro, he burned it. “You have to be patient,” he says. “The second time I got it so that when you taste it and close your eyes and it takes you back home. I mean, all the way to your second birthday.”
Holy Toledo Catering: firstname.lastname@example.org, (520) 305-8617