Road Trip

I admit to being a bit of an ostrich but there are times when I’d really prefer to turn off the bad news. And, I’d rather bring about wider acknowledgement of the good. I’m fortunate in that I’m able to travel to some remarkable places each year and now, I’m going to try to focus on the amazing individuals and projects in those places.

Over the weekend, I took a road trip to Ajo (pronounce AH HO) in Southern AZ. Apparently, because the Papago Indian word au’auho (“paint”) and the Spanish word ajo (“garlic”) are so similar, there has been some misunderstanding concerning the origin of the name. The Papago decorated themselves with red paint but Mexican miners pronounced it without the “au'”. This, added to the fact that the Ajo lily (the root of which looks and tastes similar to a spring onion) grows wild in this area, caused the belief that the locale was named Ajo because of wild lilies.

Ajo is built around an open-pit copper mine that closed down in 1985. It is one of the poorest communities in southern Arizona and the greatest poverty is among Native Americans and Hispanics. There is little prospect of reopening the mine or of other industry arriving to the area. I originally planned this trip in order to see the traveling Smithsonian Exhibit sponsored by the AZ Humanities Council, Key Ingredients – America by Food.

The International Sonoran Desert Alliance is hosting Key Ingredients at it’s beautifully renovated Curley School. While the exhibit is well done and enjoyable, the manner in which the ISDA used the exhibit to showcase one of their other programs was spectacular. Their program is called Ajo Cooks! and it is designed as a micro-enterprise economic development program. Ajo Cooks actually starts in a kitchen where a small group of women (and the occasional man) gather for conversation surrounding favorite recipes, food traditions and stories. They call this the  “cafecita” – a method for encouraging community dialogue and discourse. After the cafecita, backyard tastings are held which are like focus groups for some of the different food items and recipes that they’ve discussed.

As the backyard tastings zero in on favorite flavors, informal workshops occur to sort through cost details and to begin thinking about marketing. What happens at that point is only limited by creativity. One person may become interesting in catering, while another finds a vending cart in the plaza the proper venue for their food product. Ajo has a beautiful town plaza where over a million tourists pass by each year. Ajo Plaza

The beauty of Ajo Cooks! is that it is a local solution to economic development that relies on the expertise and interests of the community. And it’s likely that not everyone will develop a food product but that some may find an interest in helping to produce, package and market the new products. This concept clearly contributes to a vibrant local food industry. The International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA) has a number of programs like Ajo Cooks! They are working diligently to bring the arts and economic vitality to Ajo. And, I’m sure you’ve guessed that they’re the local drop-off location for the Community Supported Agriculture program.

Where in your community could a cafecita lead to a larger benefit?

Burrito de Carne con Chile Verde
Courtesy of Yolanda Walls of Ajo, AZ
Serves 12
  • 2 lbs cooked roast or pork to make 4 cups
  • 1 and 1/4 cup broth
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 cup diced green chiles, roasted and peeled
  • 1 fresh tomato, chopped
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp black pepper
  • 1/8 tsp garlic powder
  • 12 tortillas, 10 – 12 inches in diameter

Place diced meat in a saucepan. Add all the remaining ingredients and mix well. Heat and simmer for simmer for 15 minutes, stirring frequently. Set aside to cool. Spoon 4 Tbs. of filling down the center of the tortilla. Roll the tortilla into a tube, with one end folded up to keep the filling inside. (I would actually replace the carne with beans in this recipe)

Remember that this is someone’s food tradition!

Leave a comment


  1. I do have an affection for the past American culture. I can’t cook a lick, but I would like to see the Ajo Plaza. My dream for life and death is to see everything and then write it.

  2. Very interesting, and quite similar to programs instituted in and around many of the Appalachian areas where I have lived. Developing self-sustaining industries around the local food traditions. One I know of started out as a community kitchen that offered facilities for canning your own food. Out of that grew a sort of cafecita group, that developed into a small company that prepared, packaged and sold different condiments. I love creative solutions to deal with the problems of poverty. Often they turn out to be the sorts of things that were phased out years ago as too “old fashioned,” or whatever. What goes around. . .

    I was sort of surprised to see that there are no chilies in the chili verde recipe!

  3. Or you could replace the meat with ajo. This recipe without the meat and with ajo would be a “sopa de ajo” a favorite of the Asturian province of Spain from which thousands of settlers to that part of the world came from.

    • As I recall, this is your second recommendation for me to up the ajo in a recipe. I may have to add some broth and an egg.

  4. I completely understand – at the moment, I wish I could be an ostrich about the devastation occurring in Queensland. If only I could cook this dinner of yours and send it over state borders to the now-homeless!

  5. Beautiful post, Tammy

    That’s the way to travel . . . to really absorb the flavor of the community and share is with others.


  6. Really nice. I never have been to Ajo. Probably should fix that.

    I share your ostrich impulse.

    • You really should go. It’s an amazing place for artists and the ISDA have made the curley school into artist residences. They have an amazing resource there.

  7. I’m going out on a limb here to say that I think you are doing the opposite of burying your head by getting out into the world and experiencing others’ lives and experiences. You are jumping right into the human experience, not avoiding it, and bravo to you. Another lovely read, another must-try recipe.

    • It’s odd Jane. I actually wrote that sentence about avoiding bad news and had a trip planned to Southern AZ before the shootings. Let me know how you like the recipe.

  8. A wonderful demonstration of people reaching out to each other to share and learn. A peerless and productive way to network! Once again, Tammy, I have learned something new by coming here today….thank you….

  9. I try not to pay too much attention to the news.

    I believe if we got back more to a “village” approach where we take care of our families and branch out from there, the world would be a better place.

  10. What a beautiful post, it sounds like you had an amazing experience, really shows in your writing this 🙂 And I love it!
    Thank you for sharing with us, I loved learning new things, and that recipe comes in handy for this weekend to try 😉

  11. Ajo Cooks! is such a cool idea! I haven’t heard of any programs like that before. And I am always in favor of anything having to do with local food traditions. Thank you for the recipe, too. My husband’s work used to take him to the Southwest frequently, so he has a fondness for green chilis. I can’t wait to try this!

  12. I can be an ostrich at times, too, Tammy. I am fascinated by local food traditions, too. And suddenly hungry. 🙂

  13. Now THAT recipe looks like it’s worth trying! 😀 Thanks!

  14. I would normally used minced meat and beans to fill a burrito. Leftover roast sounds like a delicious alternative

  15. Hi Tammy–I love the term “cafecita” people gathering and sharing about food, traditions, recipes–I’d love to see this as part of some of the teaching kitchens at our community centers. It’s a great tool for people to sort out marketing ideas, but it also would work in teaching people to cook. Has intergenerational possibilities, too.

  16. Good for that small community. I love hearing about communities recycling themselves after some huge economic impact. Congrats on all the influence you can bring to their success, Tammy.

    • I’m very excited by what I’ve seen and I’d love to see how we can spread the concept and perhaps add some resources to what they are doing there.

  17. I love travel blogs and you tie it in so well to the theme of the rest of your posts 🙂

  18. I love roadtrips. That recipe is yummy sounding. Burritos are scrummy.



  19. I agree, there are certainly days I’d prefer to not know what is going on beyond my own little world, but if you are going to venture out, I think you have the right idea, this trip sounds wonderful and the burritos just divine. Of course living in SF, I am fortunate in having mucho burritos, but I love the Southwestern twist.

  20. Great concept. Coming from Africa, I always appreciate programmes that encourage people to help themselves rather than just give handouts. I’d never heard of this area, so thanks for letting us know about it.

  21. Mimi Phillips

     /  February 3, 2011

    Thanks so much for sharing your good words about and experience in Ajo, Tammy! We, of course, love it here…..and we are happy when our guests have a wonderful experience, too! Over the years, many amazing folks have found their way here and have invested alot of their passion in “reinventing” Ajo…….in ways that preserve and celebrate its cultural history while creating economic opportunities for its families. We hope lots of you come our way and experience the beauty that surrounds us and the vitality that is us!

  22. I loved Your travel “report” with burrito receipt. That was interesting to read abou Ajo and ajo. I knew ajo, because I speak a little bit Spanish, but Ajo, that I did not knew.

    Thank You for this interesting report.


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