Books & Cooks: Behind the scenes at the Food Court of the Tucson Festival of Books


March 1, 2023
By Edie Jarolim

“Eating and reading are two pleasures that combine admirably,” said C. S. Lewis. We agree. And just as there are books to satisfy every type of reader at the 2023 Tucson Festival of Books (TFOB), March 4-5, the event’s food court caters to all culinary tastes. 

(Photo courtesy of Tucson Festival of Books on Facebook)

Sure, there’s the typical fair fare, including lemonade, cotton candy, kettle corn, and pizza (though no humongous fried turkey legs). But you’ll also find an array of snacks that’s as distinctive and eclectic as Tucson’s food scene. Among the sweet treats are Hawaiian shaved ice, berry kabobs, and churros. Chickpea pesto sandwiches and falafel are vegan-friendly, while carnivores can chow down on everything from barbecue to spam musubi. 

The focus on local businesses has been part of the plan from the beginning, as was the diversity of food options. Stephen Ochoa, the festival’s Food Committee Chair, explained, “Typically what we do is we have an open invitation and then narrow down the applicants. We don’t like to have competing vendors, so we only have one sandwich place, one barbecue place, one Mexican place, Indian place, etc.”

As co-founder of Frost Gelato, Ochoa joined the TFOB as a vendor from its first year on; Beyond Bread and Tucson Tamale were also festival originals. That means Ochoa knows the ins and outs of the mechanisms that make food booths run smoothly.  

Marble Black Cherry and Chocolate gelato at Frost Gelato (Credit: Chelsey Wade)
Marble Black Cherry and Chocolate gelato at Frost Gelato (Credit: Chelsey Wade)

He pointed out, “Food vendors are unique. Author committees prepare far in advance but food vendors are always finalizing things the week of or the week before. We have to anticipate the weather. We buy all the food ahead of time and if it’s raining, we don’t sell it.”

Ochoa gives a lot of credit to the host venue, the University of Arizona, for the success of the food court — and everything else. “It’s probably the most professional festival that I’ve been a part of, in terms of the different groups they put together for entertainment and for literature. Chris Kopach [Facilities Management Director at the U of A] and his team do a wonderful job making sure that food tents are set up correctly, and other details taken care of,” Ochoa said. 

The festival’s many volunteers also help make grazing the food court — a major debris generator — a surprisingly tidy experience.

(Credit: Beyond Bread on Facebook)
(Credit: Beyond Bread on Facebook)

If an army of bibliophiles marches on its stomach, it’s an army of volunteers — some 1,200 in total — that helps to clean up after them. Mystery writer par excellence and regular festival attendee J. A. Jance wrote in her love letter to the festival, “Twas the Month Before the TFOB”

I’m a U of A alum, and I more or less expected that the mall would turn into a trash heap. I’m happy to report that didn’t happen — not during the first TFOB and not during any of the subsequent ones, either. The festival runs on an army of volunteers, and some of those, the ones on the trash detail, make sure those boxes are emptied and the bags hauled away LONG before they overflow. 

Participating Food & Beverage Vendors

Beyond Bread

  • 1/2 Turkey Sandwich with side choice ($8)
  • 1/2 Chicken Pesto Sandwich with side choice ($8)
  • 1/2 Ham Sandwich with side choice ($8)
  • Pretzels ($3)
  • Muffins, scones, and cookies ($3)
  • Drinks ($2)

BrushFire BBQ

  • Pulled Pork Sandwich ($13)
  • Shredded Chicken Sandwich ($12)
  • Smoked Brisket Sandwich ($14)
  • Messy Mac & Cheese ($13)
  • Housemade Creamy Coleslaw ($5)
  • Smoked Baked Beans ($5)
  • Chili ($6)
  • Chili Fritos ($8)
  • Mac and Cheese ($5)
  • Bottle Soda ($4)

Country Lemonade

  • Lemonade ($6 – $7)
  • Limeade ($6 – $7)
  • Orangeade ($6 – $7)
  • Arnold Palmer ($6 – $7)
  • Prickly Pear Cactus Lemonade ($6 – $7)

Café at the J

  • Menu TBD

Dante’s Fire

  • Bacon Wrapped Meatballs ($12)
  • Smoked Chicken Tacos (three) Pickled Onions, Lettuce, Chipotle Aioli, Queso, Salsa ($15)
  • Sonoran Pork Sanwhich Ancho Agave Chili Barbecue Sauce with a side of Cole Slaw ($15)
  • Chicken Alfredo Mac and Cheese ($16)
  • Cajun Fries ($7)
  • Bottled Soda and Water ($2)

Flora’s Market Run/Prep & Pastry/Commoner & Co.

  • Turkey Cubano, Chips, and Drink ($15)
  • Grilled Cheese, Tomato Soup, and Drink ($15)
  • Prep Breakfast Sammie ($13)
  • Flora’s Animal Style Burger, Chips, and Drink ($20)
  • Chickpea Pesto Sandwich (vegan), Chips, and Drink ($15)

Frost Gelato – A Gelato Shoppe

  • Piccolo Gelato ($6)
  • Medio Gelato ($7)
  • Grande Gelato ($8)
  • Gelato Bar ($6)

Hawaiian Shave Ice

  • Shaved Ice ($5)
  • Prepackaged Snacks ($1)
  • Water ($2)

Hot Bamboo

  • Steamed Buns: Cha-Siu, Teriyaki Chicken, Vegan Tofu ($10)
  • Rice Bowls: Pineapple Teriyaki Chicken, Spicy Shredded Pork, Vegan Teriyaki Tofu ($14)
  • Pot Stickers ($7)
  • Spam Musubi ($5)

Hot Pops Kettle Corn

  • Kettle Corn ($8)

Jake’s Lemonade

  • Lemonade ($7)
  • Refills ($4)

Just Churros LLC

  • Bag of Churros (eight) ($12)
  • Dipping Sauce ($3)

Kabob Shack LLC

  • Berry Kabob ($8)
  • Frozen Cheesecake ($8)
  • Apple Blossom ($8)

Lemons on the Loose

  • Lemonade ($5)
  • Strawberry Lemonade ($8)
  • Prickly Pear Lemonade ($6)
  • Pomegranate Lemonade ($8)
  • Limeade ($10)

New Delhi Palace Cuisine of India

  • Menu TBD

Renee’s Tucson

  • Slice of Pizza (Pepperoni and Cheese) ($5)
  • Slice of Pizza (Cheese) ($8)
  • Hummus Tostada ($8)
  • Greek Salad ($8)
  • Chips ($2)

SpunLight Cotton Candy

  • Fresh Spun Cotton Candy on a Stick ($6)
  • Fresh Spun Cotton Candy in a Bag ($7)
  • Water ($2)

Tucson Tamale Company

  • One Tamale with Basmati Rice ($9)
  • Two Tamales with Basmati Rice ($12)
  • Tamale Salad and One Tamale ($9)
  • Beverages ($3)
  • Brownie ($4)
  • Single Tamale ($7)
  • Two-for-One Tamale ($7)
  • Big Salad ($7)

The Tucson Festival of Books takes place at the University of Arizona. For additional details on the participating businesses and their locations, see Food Vendors at the 2023 Festival.

To learn more about the food-focused authors at the festival, read our article, “Tucson Festival of Books: A Reading Feast.”

Also, for a schedule of who’s presenting on this year’s Culinary Stage, read our article, “Tucson Festival of Books: What’s Cooking on the Culinary Stage.”

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Article By

Edie Jarolim has worn many hats, including a sombrero on a one-too-many-margaritas night. She earned a Ph.D. in American literature from New York University and was a guidebook editor at Fodor’s (Random House) and Frommer’s (Simon & Schuster) in New...

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