Gary Paul Nabhan (Photo by Jonathan Mabry)

Local Author and Ethnobotanist Wins a James Beard Award


June 14, 2024
By Matt Sterner

The James Beard Foundation announced the winners of the 2024 James Beard Media Awards in Chicago on June 8.

The awards, often referred to as the “Oscars of the food world,” recognized top food authors, broadcast producers, hosts, journalists, podcasters, and social media content creators.

Among the winners in the Media category was Gary Paul Nabhan, an ethnobotanist and agave conservationist, well-known in southern Arizona for his creativity and numerous award-winning books. Nabhan, along with his co-author David Suro Piñera, a restauranteur, agave spirits innovator, and bat conservationist, accepted the award with pride.

The award recognized “AGAVE SPIRITS: The Past, Present, and Future of Mezcals” as the “best book without recipes that focus on beverages, such as cocktails, beer, wine, spirits, coffee, tea, or juices.”

(Photo courtesy of Gary Paul Nabhan)

Published as a hardback in 2023, and now available as a paperback, it was the first time a book on spirits native to the Americas received an award. Nabhan joked that while Suro is the real deal in the food and beverage industry — “like grass-fed beef” — his own role is more like a “hamburger helper.”

The writing team brought together a unique blend of expertise.

Nabhan, a resident of the Southern Arizona town of Patagonia, is an ethnobotanist with a focus on deep cultural relationships with iconic food and beverage plants. Suro, on the other hand, is a tequila producer advocating for best farming practices to conserve imperiled nectar-feeding bats that pollinate wild and cultivated agaves used in mezcals and tequilas.

Both authors have made significant contributions to the annual Agave Heritage Festival in Tucson. Nabhan’s collaboration with food archaeologist Jonathan Mabry, who also directs the nonprofit Tucson City of Gastronomy (TCOG), led to the successful two-year effort resulting in Tucson’s first-in the-U.S. designation as a UNESCO Creative City of Gastronomy.

Gary Paul Nabhan (Photo by Jonathan Mabry)

In his remarks in Chicago, Nabhan acknowledged that David Suro is beloved among his peers for both his generosity with agave farmers and harvesters, and also for his deep commitment to making the agave industry healthier. Nabhan then went on to encourage all chefs, distillers, and fermenters to play active roles as peacemakers in a war-torn world, bringing diverse peoples to
heal cultural and religious divides through the “sacrament” of sharing food and drink together.

He also announced the recent launch of the Sacred Plant Biocultural Recovery Initiative, which is aimed at restoring the connections between sacred food, incense, and ceremonial plants and their spiritual caretakers where they have been endangered in the Middle East and along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“As an ethnobotanist, author, and proponent of local and indigenous foods, Gary has always been an activist,” said Janos Wilder, James Beard Award winner and TCOG President. “David Suro also tirelessly spreads the word about mescal’s virtues and the fragility of the ecosystem surrounding its production.”

(Photo by Jonathan Mabry)

“In this book,” Wilder added. “They are a dream team of informed, passionate guides to the entire traditional process — from the harvesting of agave through its roasting and distillation in some of the most remote areas of Michoacan — while explaining the challenges to maintaining the unique qualities of this ancestral spirit in the face of industrial production and environmental uncertainty.”

Learn more about Tucson City of Gastronomy at tucson.cityofgastronomy.org.

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