I had heard about the Desert Rain Café years ago. So, on my way through the Tohono O’odham reservation, I was determined to find the place. What I discovered was a lot more than a restaurant that specializes in the traditional food of the Tohono O’odham people.
Desert Rain is only one project of TOCA—the Tohono O’odham Community Action—an organization dedicated to nurturing traditional O’odham art and culture, to developing a sense of identity in the youth, and to introducing a healthier, more traditional food system. TOCA runs the café and an attached art gallery that features the work of traditional O’odham artists. Both are first rate.
Terrol Dew Johnson is TOCA’s co-director and the public face of the organization. He’s been doing this work for many years and is clearly very good at it. The day I spoke with him, he also seemed a trifle weary.
Ivalee Pablo is Desert Rain’s head chef. She returned to the tribe after a successful career as a chef at the chi-chi Arizona Inn because “I wanted to give back, to develop healthy recipes using traditional food.” The café uses only agave syrup as sweetening, and each dish features at least one traditional food item: cholla, agave, mesquite, prickly pear, tepary beans, saguaro fruit.
Healthy food is vitally important to the Tohono O’odham people who have some of the highest rates of adult-onset diabetes in the world, possibly from losing touch with their traditional foods in such a relatively short time.
The café is small but pleasant with an outdoor patio. I ordered the tepary bean stew, which came with a spicy cornbread muffin. I like beans, and this stew, featuring a staple of the O’odham diet, had a strong bean-y flavor that wasn’t overpowered by the bits of short rib. I also sampled the cholla bud salsa, which was fresh and piquant. The cholla buds were soft and mild, so they added texture but not much flavor.
Having dodged plenty of prickly cholla in the past weeks, I couldn’t imagine harvesting anything from that inhospitable plant, let alone eating it. But I guess that’s why we need to pay attention to our indigenous nations and their foods, languages, culture, and arts, because our world is so much richer with them.
After sampling these traditional dishes, I wondered why anyone would want to switch to McDonald’s.