Felicia Campbell joins The Arizona Republic as Food and Dining Editor

I first visited Arizona as a kid in the 1980s after my grandparents moved to Sun City West. Culinary highlights included breakfast at Hole ‘n One and Grandma’s Oven Fried Chicken for lunch, after which we drove to Mesa to visit my perpetually tanned cousins. I was so jealous that they could live all year round in the land of endless summers and saguaros.

Years later, my mother and stepfather, and then my brother and sister-in-law, all migrated south from Colorado, giving me even more reason to return. The vast sky, swaying palms and jagged mountains have never lost their charm.

After moving to North Phoenix a few months ago from San Diego, I still feel like I’m on vacation. As a resident and new food, dining, and nightlife editor of The Arizona Republic, I also feel like a total newbie. That’s not a bad thing.

Throughout my career, being a curious outsider has given me the distance to appreciate things locals sometimes take for granted. Sharing stories from around the world as a culinary anthropologist, writer and editor of magazines and newspapers required feeling comfortable with being uncomfortable and sometimes leaning exclusively on the common language of food as an entry point.

How war meals sparked a lifelong passion for food

I learned to appreciate the intimate power of a shared meal when I was a soldier in the Iraq War in 2003. The hospitality of a local shopkeeper and cups of sweet black tea transformed my view of the world emitted by the army and changed the trajectory of my life. As a civilian, my new urges led to a brief stint in gastronomy, then to graduate school at New York University, where the food studies program confirmed my belief that cooking was more than a means of survival or pleasure, and makes it a tangible embodiment. of culture and history.

When I moved from academics to the media, I learned to read menus as if they were secret coded messages and used every meal as an opportunity to ask questions about people’s lives. Then, while working at Saveur magazine in New York, I landed a book deal to write “The Food of Oman.” The process that followed was the most embarrassing, humiliating and incredible experience of my life as I crossed the country asking strangers (in a combination of awkward Arabic and apologetic English) in mountain villages, desert camps and fishing ports if they wanted to teach me the foods they grew up on.

Phoenix is ​​full of opportunities for culinary adventures that push the boundaries with its history of mass migration. According to a University of Washington study, the majority of Arizonans were born elsewhere, and always have been, beginning with the Hohokam tribe, who saw enough potential here to create the first complex system of irrigation, and continuing with refugees, of which Phoenix is ​​one of the largest recipients in the country, from places like Bosnia, Cambodia, Sudan, Myanmar and Iraq. In recent years, the state has also welcomed newcomers, like me, from across the United States at the rate of nearly 250 people a day.

It all adds up to an incredible array of diverse flavors that make Phoenix one of the best and most underrated foodie towns in the country.

Why I’m glad to be back in Arizona

My journey here has been long and winding. After finishing my book, I left New York for Muscat where I spent two years training new journalists, traveling and feasting on freshly caught prawns and dates so tender they melted in my fingers. I met and married my husband, Mehdi, who introduced me to Persian cuisine with ghormeh sabzi and crispy tahdig rice.

Our departure from Oman in 2017 was abrupt and unexpected. Instead of returning to New York, we decided to join my family in Arizona, on a side of the country where I hadn’t lived since childhood. The culture shock took me completely by surprise. Using food as a compass, I drove and drove, marveling at the sheer size and diversity of Metro Phoenix, exploring Thai and Korean markets in Mesa, frying Sonoran bread and taco stands and an array of cool mid-century and turn-of-the-century haunts. At Caspian Market in Scottsdale, 7,500 miles from Tehran, I had better access to Persian ingredients than in Muscat, just 200 miles from Iran.

After six months we moved to California with much of the valley unexplored. Four years later, I’m thrilled to be back and honored to have the opportunity to help articulate our complex and ever-changing food culture and celebrate the people, places and dishes that make our city. I hope our coverage inspires longtime residents to see Metro Phoenix in a new light and fall in love with it all over again, and that we can help direct newcomers and visitors to tables where, wouldn’t for a meal, they can feel like they are at home.

Contact the Food, Dining & Nightlife Editor at [email protected] Follow her on @hungryfi Twitter and Instagram.