Tucson ethnobotanist & author Gary Paul Nabhan wins James Beard award

Tucson ethnobotanist and author Gary Paul Nabhan won a James Beard award for his book “Agave Spirits: The Past, Present, and Future of Mezcals,” co-authored with restauranteur David Suro Piñera.

“Whenever I get an award, I tend to deflect attention,” Nabhan said. “But, to me, awards — they connect me to the people I love. It’s like that Beatles song, ‘I get by with a little help from my friends.”

“Agave Spirits” explores the production of mezcal and how the tradition has evolved through the years and generations of mezcaleros who undertake the craft. 

Part of the book’s narrative is insightful details from interviews with distillers in eight Mexican states as well as the authors’ own work with the plant. 

Nabhan said Tucson has a long history with the agave, with scientists and other specialists studying it and working with it since the 1930s. 

Piñera, who was born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico, migrated to Philadelphia in the mid-1980s. He opened Tequilas Restaurant in 1986 as “Philadelphia’s furst upscale Mexican eatery.” He is also the owner of Siembra Azul, his small batch tequila, which he then followed by expanding into Siembra Spirits by making two other distillations: Siembra Metl, which is a mezcal, and Siembra Valler, which is lowland tequila.

“We’re the city that really showcases agave in the landscape more than any other cities, I would say, in the United States,” Nabhan said. “There is prehistoric tradition with the agave. And it’s a water-conserving plant. It’s heat-tolerant and it sequesters a lot of carbon dioxide, which helps protect against climate change.”

For Nabhan, the wonders of the agave plant doesn’t end in its biology. He is also fond of its spiritual mystique.

“They are shaped like a mandala,” Nabhan said. “They’re shaped in what’s called a Golden Spiral. I have a contemplative garden in Patagonia and I have about 55 kinds of agave in the garden. And every morning, I go out there without listening to the radio or anything. I just go there and I meditate, and it’s what keeps me sane.”

He said he is working on a project regarding recovering sacred plants, including the agave, which has been used as a ceremonial plant in Mexico. Nabhan’s work extends over the connections of food, drink and nature. 

He has been working around Tucson since the 1970’s – “which makes me ancient,” Nabhan said. His collaboration with food archaeologist and director of the Tucson City of Gastronomy Jonathan Mabry led to Tucson being designated a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy.

“All my projects are collaborative, which is why I’m shy about awards,” Nabhan said. “Because I work in a community. This award really helps me celebrate with the friends I’ve made.”

Nabhan is not the only Tucson author who has won a James Beard award. Journalist and author Mort Rosenblum was recognized by the national culinary awards program for his 1997 book “Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit.”

On October 2024, Nabhan and food writer Beth Dooley are releasing a cookbook titled “Chile, Clove and Cardamom: A Gastronomic Journey Into the Fragrances and Flavors of Desert Cuisines.” 

And for those who are thirsting for more mezcal, the co-authors of “Agave Spirits” have a website, Mezcal Mankind Mutualism, where people can go on and learn more about the sacred and essential desert plant.