Why does food taste better when you know where it comes from? Because history—ecological, cultural, even personal—flavors every bite we eat. Whether it’s the volatile chemical compounds that a plant absorbs from the soil or the stories and memories of places that are evoked by taste, layers of flavor await those willing to delve into the roots of real food. In this landmark book, Gary Paul Nabhan takes us on a personal trip into the southwestern borderlands to discover the terroir—the “taste of the place”—that makes this desert so delicious.
To savor the terroir of the borderlands, Nabhan presents a cornucopia of local foods—Mexican oregano, mesquite-flour tortillas, grass-fed beef, the popular Mexican dessert capirotada, and corvina (croaker or drum fish) among them—as well as food experiences that range from the foraging of Cabeza de Vaca and his shipwrecked companions to a modern-day camping expedition on the Rio Grande. Nabhan explores everything from the biochemical agents that create taste in these foods to their history and dispersion around the world. Through his field adventures and humorous stories, we learn why Mexican oregano is most potent when gathered at the most arid margins of its range—and why foods found in the remote regions of the borderlands have surprising connections to foods found by his ancestors in the deserts of the Mediterranean and the Middle East. By the end of his movable feast, Nabhan convinces us that the roots of this fascinating terroir must be anchored in our imaginations as well as in our shifting soils.
About the Author
Gary Paul Nabhan is an internationally celebrated desert explorer, plant hunter, and storyteller of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, as well as a pioneer in the local foods movement. Nabhan is author or editor of twenty-four books, including Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail, The Desert Smells Like Rain, and Coming Home to Eat. This book reunites him with Paul Mirocha, the illustrator and co-conspirator of their award-winning Gathering the Desert. Nabhan has received a MacArthur “genius” fellowship and the Vavilov Medal, and he currently holds an endowed chair in sustainable food systems at the University of Arizona. At his home near the Mexican border, he tends an orchard of heirloom fruits and heritage crops.
One of Napa Valley’s most prestigious winemakers recently said that there is no such thing as terroir. He scoffed at the idea… that wine somehow captures the essence of place. A scientist by training, he insisted instead that wine is the result of chemical processes that can be analysed and controlled, nothing more. Gary Paul Nabhan’s new book, Desert Terroir: Exploring the unique flavors and sundry places of the borderlands, is an eloquent refutation of that assertion. Like other proponents of terroir, Nabhan argues that sunlight, wind, rain and minerals in the soil all affect the way a given food tastes. But for him there is more. Terroir is also an expression of the hands of the women who rhythmically pat out tortillas in the borderlands between the United States and Mexico, and of the labours of ranch hands who graze sturdy Corriente cattle. It is found, too, in the ancestry of both human and plants. If we attune ourselves to our own history, and to that of the natural world, we stand to gain a keen appreciation for our planet’s myriad distinctive tastes… Nabhan is a natural storyteller.
— Times Literary Supplement