Steller: Mealtimes with Tucson's hungriest foodie

2013-11-01T00:00:00Z 2013-11-01T10:52:20Z Steller: Mealtimes with Tucson's hungriest foodieTim Steller Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
November 01, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Other people might find Jared McKinley’s background interesting — his previous affiliations with the Flam Chen dance troupe, the Arizona Native Plant Society, his production of downtown underwear parties and now, of Edible Baja Arizona magazine.

What amazed me was his appetite.

Plate after plate, meal after meal, McKinley expressed his love for local food on Facebook. From a homemade breakfast of community-supported agriculture eggs, veggies and bacon, to the Bayou Bowl at Mother Hubbard’s, to pork belly at Proper, he always seemed hungry.

He appeared to confirm this Oct. 4, with an online warning: “I am so hungry right now, if you come near me, I might tear meat off from your body.”

So, for public safety as much as anything else, I did the only thing I could think of: I asked him to eat out, not for a bite, but for breakfast, lunch and dinner in one day. Truth be told, though, in the end I didn’t have the stomach for all of it.

For breakfast, McKinley, 40, chose a longtime local favorite, Cup Café at Hotel Congress. It may not be an avant garde place, but it serves McKinley’s favorite morning dish: Cast Iron Baked Eggs. That’s two eggs, ham, leeks and Gruyere cheese, baked in cream with herbs, potatoes and toast. Not light fare.

“It is my favorite breakfast,” McKinley told me. “It’s the perfect amount of fat and protein.”

Perfect for him, I should add: He’s a skinny guy with a fast-burning engine. To add to that, he no longer drives a car and gets around town on a bike. The boy gets hungry. I got stuffed with Cup’s huevos rancheros, my standard breakfast out.

While in recent years McKinley has become a true Tucson “foodie,” he said that didn’t come from his upbringing, as a poor kid in New York state’s lower Hudson River valley. It emerged from growing tomatoes in Tucson, where he’s lived more than 20 years, harvesting way more than he knew what to do with, and then experimenting. He canned them, sun-dried them, fermented them.

“Now I’m a total foodie,” he said.

In that, he’s not alone. Southern Arizona has a burgeoning local-food scene, from farms to vineyards to breweries, bakeries and restaurants.

It’s the reason he and Doug Biggers, founder of the Tucson Weekly, joined forces to start Edible Baja Arizona, a food magazine that comes out every two months. The third issue is at the printer’s now, McKinley said.

When he wasn’t putting on themed parties for Powhaus Productions, McKinley had been blogging about gardening and food in Tucson, and Biggers was considering starting a new publication. Gary Nabhan, the well-known Southern Arizona ethnobotanist, meanwhile, had signed up to create a local version of the Edible publications, joining an independent group of locally focused food magazines produced nationwide. For example, there’s an Edible Orlando, an Edible Toronto and dozens more.

They got together and created Edible Baja Arizona.

In part because of his job as associate publisher of the magazine, McKinley wanted to try a new restaurant for lunch, Food for Ascension Café, at 330 E. Seventh St., just off North Fourth Avenue. It’s mostly a vegan restaurant, which goes against McKinley’s voraciously omnivorous tendency, but it’s also intended to be locally sourced and therefore natural material for the Edible crowd.

We brought along Kenyan journalist Patrick Nzokia, who is visiting the Star for a month, and McKinley’s co-worker, Megan Kimble. McKinley’s choice: Pumpkin ginger soup, a rather light meal for him. I had polenta and lentils, just for the alliteration.

McKinley and others argue Southern Arizona’s potential for producing food is underappreciated — while water can be scarce, the relative lack of frost and the local soil’s mineral content are big benefits. He, Kimble and others hope that knowledge is spreading, not just in the sophisticated — and sometimes wealthy — foodie culture but also in poorer neighborhoods around Southern Arizona.

“I think the conversation is broader than we think it is,” he said.

I intended to continue our conversation over dinner but frankly was stuffed. Still, before Wednesday evening’s lecture on the science of happiness at the Fox Theatre, I ended up with my wife and in-laws at Elliott’s on Congress downtown.

Unable to eat, I got a beer and picked a local one, Red Cat Amber ale, by Barrio Brewing. McKinley? Well, via Facebook he sent this account of dinner without me:

“Homemade pozole, the pork was from a heritage Hereford that I butchered with a friend. Most of the greens were from various farmers markets and Tucson CSA. And it included a huge dollop of crème fraîche, fresh cilantro and chilies piled on top of the soup. It was so good I ate it again for breakfast.”

Contact columnist Tim Steller at tsteller@azstarnet.com or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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