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Desert Terroir: Exploring the Unique Flavors and Sundry Places of the Borderlands (Ellen and Edward Randall Series) Hardcover – March 1, 2012
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"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)
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.
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As readers of his books will know, Nabhan is an American of Lebanese (and ultimately Omani) origin, making connections with the American and Middle Eastern deserts. He describes grass-grown cattle and traces their origin to Mexico, the Canary Islands, Spain and Morocco. In a little place in Baja, he sees traces of Moorish and Sephardic Jewish culture. And of course, terroir because all the stories center on food.
He intermixes history as well. The first chapter discusses Mostafa al-Azemmouri, a Moroccan Muslim, converted to Christianity as a slave, better known as Esteban with the four survivors of Cabeza de Vaca's expedition, told through how Mostafa/ Esteban would have found similarities with the African desert he knew. Then there's the chapter, somewhat wry, about camel chorizo, which tells of eating camel, and also much about Hadji Ali, the chief cameleer (if that's a word) for the US Army, which brought camels and Hadji Ali to Texas in the late 1850s. Both stories, please note, along with his own, show people of Arab and Muslim background to be part of American history.
In Desert Terroir, he focuses on the flavors of the US/Mexico borderlands. He details the tastes and traditions of foods like mesquite, fish, and camels. There is a good bit of history in this book, including an extremely interesting section on some shipwrecked Moroccons and Spaniards who traveled across the Southwest in the 1500s.
Nabhan is a talented storyteller, and he is able to describe sensory details so well that you almost feel like you have already experienced what he is writing about. I'd also like to mention that the illustrations (done by Paul Mirocha) are a perfect fit for the book and really add more depth to the whole story.