On February 20, 2016, ethnobotanist Martha Ames Burgess was the guest lecturer at one of a series held regularly at the Dusty Monk Pub in Tucson. Aptly named ‘Salon and Saloon’, Ms. Burgess talked about the plants that were used by Presidio soldiers, Native Americans and residents in the late 1700s. She tied the uses of the plants of the past to the present day.
According to Ms. Burgess, the depth of food heritage over this time period has played a big role in Tucson’s designation as a World City of Gastronomy.
The period discussed was from about 1775 to 1856. We have Native Seed Search to thank for many of the wonderful plants that are in Tucson as well as the families who knew the value of their heirloom plants and worked diligently to preserve and protect them for the future. The Elders of the native people here in Tucson have been conserving seeds for a very long time. At Mission Garden, you will find many plants that have a parent plant that was brought to the New World by the Spanish missionaries or the ‘padres’ as Ms. Burgess likes to call them.
Mission Garden provided most of the food that fed the soldiers at the Presidio. Many of the padres letters throughout this time period outline some level of frustration at the numbers that had to be fed.
Wheats that were brought here initially by the Spanish were of the Mediterranean variety. They were low gluten and made excellent flat breads. The padres used them mostly to bake the host. They knew how to roast the grain to just the precise level of sweetness.
Jesus Garcia was mentioned as instrumental in tracking down many original seeds that were brought here. He has traveled into some areas of Mexico to talk to families who have preserved their seeds and has brought them back here.
Barrio Bread uses white Sonoran wheat and somehow uses the fungal spores from the air in Tucson to create a unique type of sourdough bread.
Many different vegetables and fruits were grown here. Fava beans, which contain tons of protein, were once a staple in the diet. The tepary beans were a staple and were so important that the native people had a name for themselves that roughly translated meant ‘people of the bean’. The English peas did well here, as well as a variety of shallots. Quince, pomegranates, apricots and figs were grown and provided some sweetness to food.
Medicinal gardens were important during this time period when a doctor wasn’t readily available. Many families had to make do with developing their own cures and remedies for illness. The flower of the prickly pear made a medicinal tea. Certain types of bark were used for their analgesic properties.
Something that Ms. Burgess stressed was the integration of the knowledge of the Native people, the padres and the soldiers. They learned from each other, sometimes shared that knowledge as well as the different foods, and in effect, insured their ability to live and thrive in the desert climate.
The Salon and Saloon series is held at the Dusty Monk Pub. There is a cover fee of $5 and great brews and food are available for purchase. You can check the Presidio website at tucsonpresidio.com for further details.
To take a tour at the Presido, contact Jean Baxter, Education Director, at 837-8119.