Each year at this time I dive wholeheartedly into the shopping and chopping, baking and bingeing of the annual feeding frenzy. But last week I was able to step back from the Cuisinart and see the holiday within a different context: As we stock up on various exotic edibles, and spend so much energy preparing them, isn’t Thanksgiving a really great time to think about where all our food actually comes from? This year, our family met up for the holiday in Tucson, Arizona. And where better to think about where your food comes from than in the middle of the desert?
In the middle of the Arizona desert is a giant greenhouse devoted to studying such things: the three-acre sealed ecological system Biosphere 2 (the original Biosphere being the very Earth we inhabit). From 1991 to 1993, eight people lived inside of it in an experiment that was declared to be a huge disaster: after two years they were unable to grow enough food to sustain themselves or the thousands of animals sealed inside with them. You can see one of the inhabitants unconvincingly defend the project, but instead I’d recommend the 1997 film Bio-Dome—which we dutifully watched Thanksgiving night. As annoying as Pauly Shore was, it wasn’t too far from the truth.
On our tour, it was hilarious to see how far the creators went to recreate the “natural” world using slabs of concrete and strategically-placed misters. But even though the residents were “connected” to the land by cultivating their own corn and milking goats for cheese, they cooked in a full gourmet kitchen filled with microwave ovens and coffee makers. This “self-contained system” that was purportedly studying how humans could live on Mars was sucking boundless electricity off the grid! They still spend up to $2000 a day on power just to keep the thing on, although they are finally exploring solar power, after almost 20 years.
The ridiculousness did make me think about how we mindlessly gather and prepare our prescribed Thanksgiving foods each year, no matter where we actually live. It’s the equivalent to pretending we can just walk upstairs to our local Cranberry Bog.
I had the Biosphere (and a little bit of Pauly Shore) on the mind as we went into The Big Meal. Instead of spending the entire week cooking, we spent a few hours folding and wrapping tamales made by my brother (who among his many talents is also a Jedi in the kitchen). We gathered the rest of the feast based on regional specialties and immediate availability, not 400-year-old New England tradition.
We found lovingly handmade tortillas, chunky green and red salsas, tangy queso fresco, and the most amazing pumpkin empanadas, all made locally. In fact, we bought many of the ingredients for our Thanksgiving feast at Anita Street Market, a tiny taqueria that was symbolically located at the corner of Lord Street. I loved knowing what we spent was going right back into Tucson’s economy.
And we even got to go on a long hike Thanksgiving morning. Something that I, in my previously Gourmet-induced catatonic state, have never, ever been able to do.
Our Thanksgiving dinner was fresh, colorful, easy and totally delicious. Instead of turkey sandwich leftovers, we had breakfast tamales. And lunch tamales. And dinner tamales. There was no evidence of pilgrim palates at our table. Although we did end up getting a can of jellied cranberry sauce. But more as a decorative element to remind us of the menu we weren’t making.
Even our gelato—a required staple of any holiday meal!—was sourced and made locally. I found this fantastic gelato and sorbet from Berto’s, which is produced in Arizona. My favorite flavor was made almost exclusively from what’s pretty much the only edible thing found in that vast, desolate desert: the fruit of wild prickly pear cactus. And look at that color!
And instead of rolling out pie crust and popping open cans of pumpkin, as mandated by Martha Stewart, I stood in the shadow of the 300-year-old San Xavier Mission, and watched as a woman kneaded lard and flour into a ball the size of her fist, stretched it out like a pizza crust, and boiled it into a golden, bubbly frisbee of a dessert. I dismantled the frybread with honey and cinnamon-coated fingers in the warm desert sun. And I realized I’ve never really liked pumpkin pie.
More photos from Tucson.