Tucson and three other UNESCO food heritage cities in the U.S. and Mexico are collaborating for a second year to celebrate a staple that unites them.
The monthlong Pueblos del Maíz (cities of corn) kicks off with a four-day festival in Tucson Thursday, May 4, through Sunday, May 7, before moving onto Mérida, Mexico, the following weekend, then San Antonio, Texas, and Puebla, Mexico, the last two weekends in May.
Tucson, San Antonio and Mérida are designated UNESCO Cities of Gastronomy while Puebla is part of Délice Network. Tucson also is part of Délice, which works with cities worldwide “that consider food and gastronomy as a boost for urban economic development and city attractiveness,” according to the Délice website.
All four festivals will focus on maíz, aka corn, a key staple in their shared culinary and cultural histories.
“It is one of the primary ingredients from the region,” said James Beard Award-winning Tucson chef Janos Wilder. “Corn has been grown here 5,000 years. When you want to cook with the flavors and ingredients of the region, corn has to take a major focus. From tamales to tortillas to sauces and street food, it’s everywhere.”
Wilder was known to incorporate corn in dishes at all of his award-winning restaurants throughout his 40-year career, including his namesake French-inspired bistro and his last restaurant, Downtown Kitchen + Cocktails, that he shuttered during the pandemic after 10 years.
Wilder will helm a team of chefs including Si Charro executive chef Gary Hickey, Bata/Reilly’s Craft Pizza and Drink chef-owner Tyler Fenton, and chefs from San Antonio and Mérida, for the six-course “Noche de Maíz Dinner” at the Carriage House, 125 S. Arizona Ave., downtown.
Wilder said each chef will take a course and apply their own interpretation and celebration of corn. Wilder last week did not have the set menu; he said it was still a work in progress.
The dinner, which will run from 7 to 10 p.m. Thursday, is a collaboration of the Tucson City of Gastronomy and Gastronomic Union of Tucson (GUT) and The Carriage House, which Si Charro took over from Wilder a couple years ago. Tickets are $200 a person.
Doors will open at 6 p.m. so guests can see a new photography exhibit by Puebla award-winning photographer and journalist Andrés Lobato that documents some of the living traditions and ceremonies celebrating the important role of maíz in the Puebla region, where it was first cultivated eight millennia ago, according to event organizers. Lobato will be on hand at the exhibit.
Other events on Thursday include a free Popul Vuh and Maya storytelling event at 5 p.m. at the Tucson Museum of Art, 140 N. Main Ave.; tours of Native Seeds/SEARCH, 3584 E. River Road ($15 through nativeseeds.org), which also will be available Friday; and happy hour at Borderlands Brewing, 119 E. Toole Ave., from 4-6 p.m., where you can sample a special brew made for Pueblos del Maíz using 60-day Tohono O’odham corn grown at the San Xavier Co-op Farm.
Ethnobiologist Cesar Ojeda Linares will lead a free discussion on the culinary legacy of fermented corn beverages in Mexico at 6 p.m. Friday at the Tucson Museum of Art’s Stonewall Community Room, 175 N. Meyer Ave.
TMA also will be the setting at 7 p.m. Friday for the Bocadito Dinner Experience featuring Tucson chefs, restaurateurs and food artisans including Wendy Garcia (Tumerico and La Chaiteria), Analy Guzman (El Antojo Poblano), Juan Alamanza (El Taco Rustico), Devon Sanner (Zio Peppe), Tyler Fleming (The Coronet), Ahydée Almazán (Dolce Pastello), and Mary Steiger and Susan Fulton (Gourmet Girls Gluten Free). The chefs will create small plates and the cost is $75 per person, which includes 10 small plates and Borderlands Brewer’s Pueblos del Maíz beer created for the festival.
On Saturday, the festival moves to Kennedy Park for the Maiz Fiesta, featuring live music by Los Apson, Gertie & the TO Boyz, Los Hermanos Cuatro and Mariapaula Mazon, and DJ G and MC Raul Aguirre.
“It’s just a giant celebration,” Wilder said.
In addition to live music, the fiesta will include cooking demonstrations, kids events hosted by Pima County Public Library and a dozen mostly minority-owned vendors.
The festival wraps up Sunday with a concert with La Sonora Dinamita at Rialto Theatre presented by Pueblos del Maíz, the Agave Heritage Festival and the Tucson International Mariachi Festival. Doors at the Rialto, 318 E. Congress St., open at 7 for the all-ages show and tickets are $30.50 through pueblosdelmaiz.com.