[published: May 20, 2009]
The only way to save some nearly lost breeds of livestock and strains of seed may be to eat them.
For lovers of good food, globalization has been both a blessing and a curse. It seems we can get our hands on almost anything, exotic fruits from distant lands, artisanal cheeses, foraged specialties, tomatoes 365 days a year! Yet the variety of foods accessible to the average consumer is actually quite limited. Globalization may have thrown the doors wide open in terms of potential access, but access has come accompanied by mass production and homogenization of the food system.
Most of the beef consumed in America, and indeed the world, comes from just a few breeds of cattle (Hereford, Angus and Simmental) The same goes for pork (Yorkshire), chicken (Cornish cross) and turkey (Broad-Breasted White). The same few varieties of tomatoes find a place in our refrigerators, the same strains of wheat make their way into our bread. Since we shop primarily in large supermarkets, the majority of us have never tasted a just-picked wild raspberry, hunted for morel mushrooms or sliced into a green zebra tomato. The true diversity of foods in the world is not represented in the global marketplace.
Luckily for us all, there are people, lots of people, working to change the system. They are using the internet, rich soils, hand tools, draft horses and the old-fashioned printed word to reintroduce consumers to what is possible in the world of food. Small farmers and locavores are planting and celebrating heirloom varieties of vegetables and grains. A new group of conservationists is focusing their attention on heritage breeds of livestock, and foraging experts are leading gourmands into the fields and forest to hunt for ramps, fiddleheads and chanterelles.
Ramps, a wild allium available for just a few short weeks, or a Java chicken, a rare heritage breed once prized for its succulent meat and brought back from the brink of extinction by careful breeding, are appealing not just for their rarity, but for their flavor. As Slow Food’s Makale Faber-Cullen noted in a recent Q&A with Chelsea Green, “If resources are to be spent recovering a food (and it takes years, decades often, to do so) then it better-well be tasty.” Flavor may well be what keeps these foods alive.
Several terrific books have been written on these subjects, and I suggest you read them. In the meantime, here’s a primer to help you navigate the world of fleeting, rare and forgotten flavors.
You have to Eat it to Save it – the RAFT Alliance
A collaboration between several organizations, including Slow Food USA, Seed Savers Exchange and American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, RAFT (which stands for Renewing America’s Food Traditions) is both a movement and a guidebook for “Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods”. The book, filled with stunning photographs and historical recipes for ninety endangered foods, offers a brilliant strategy for our preserving native flavors: “eater-based conservation.” It seems counterintuitive — we’re used to protecting endangered species, not eating them — but here, the guiding principle is that we must eat these foods to save them. If we can raise awareness of the Early Golden Persimmon, the Buckeye Chicken, Osage Red Flint Corn or the Mulefoot Hog through celebrating their exceptional flavors, perhaps these breeds and varieties can be returned to their much-deserved place in our fields and barnyards, and at the table.
Forage for Your Food – Wild Edibles
Foraging is one of the simplest and most satisfying ways to both connect with the source of your sustenance and to experience new flavors. It’s also essentially free! That said, I’d hardly recommend sallying forth into the woods and munching on anything that looks tasty. Many plants that grow in the wild are inedible or poisonous, so you’ll want to find someone who knows their wild foods. If you’re anywhere in the Northeast, consider “Wildman” Steve Brill. He’s offering dozens of foraging excursions over the coming months – the perfect introduction to eating your way through the woods. Real Wild Foods, Inc offers a stunning and functional website that, at the very least, will tempt your palate and encourage you to learn more. For mushroom lovers, I suggest finding a local club that offers walks for the culinary-minded. A quick Google search will reveal dozens of clubs, from Asheville, NC to the Hudson Valley, Iowa, Arizona and beyond.
Grow Your Own – Seed Saving & Heirlooms
Whether you have a field, a yard, a rooftop or a windowsill, you can grow at least some of your own food. Seed Saving groups and organizations have sprung up all over the country, from small rural towns, to large cities, with thousands of varieties of heirloom seeds ready for the planting. Most of them serve as educational resources as well as seed catalogs, so it’s easy to find out how, when and what to plant in your own little corner of the world. Seed Savers Exchange, out of Decorah, IA has been promoting garden biodiversity since 1975. The organization is now a major force for seed-saving and heirloom awareness around the world. On the local level, organizations and groups such as the Hudson Valley Seed Library and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange are doing their part to keep our gardens diverse and our culinary heritage alive and well.
Don’t Go Nuts
Since we’re talking about sourcing and growing foods that might originate far from your local stomping grounds, or in sensitive, protected habitats, it’s worth bringing the word “sustainability”, as overused as it might be, into the conversation. Especially since the type of foodie who might swoon at the mere thought of tasting a Sonoran White Pomegranate is also likely to be concerned with food miles and CO2 emissions. I suggest a compromise. Start by embracing the fact that there are probably dozens of foods in your particular region that you’ve never heard of, let alone tasted. Use foraging as a way to enjoy time in the woods, hopefully with the added benefit of a nice haul of morels or acorns, and tread lightly. Plant a garden and rejoice in your shrinking ecological footprint as you traipse out to harvest a salad from your own backyard.
And if you live in California but can’t resist a craving for South Carolina’s White Maypop Passionfruit, gather some friends, hop in the car (preferably one with decent gas mileage) and treat yourselves to a culinary adventure. Getting out of your own foodshed just might make you appreciate it all the more when you return.
Personally, I can think of nothing more venerable than road-tripping to the 2009 Paw Paw festival in Albany, OH (which I intend to do), or venturing into the woods near Tivoli, NY on quest for wild ramps (which I did several times this spring). When I taste that pawpaw, as when I spied my first ramp nearly two years ago, I am likely to fall to my knees in devotion, and say some kind of gushing prayer of thanks.
Forgotten foods, I find, often elicit an immediate and powerful response. At that first sight, or taste, there is a sense that you have just made a direct connection to your culinary heritage. For as so often is the case, what is new to us, is often old. Past generations raised dozens of livestock breeds, planted heirlooms and saved seeds. They had a keen awareness of their cultivated, and wild, edible landscapes, and the ways in which those landscapes were intricately tied to culture, family and community. The knowledge is not lost, we just need to look for it again, tap into it and celebrate the flavor.
Renewing America’s Food Traditions edited by Gary Paul Nabhan (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2008)
A World of Presidia: Food, Culture and Community, by Anya Fernald and Piero Sardo
Identifying and Harvesting Edible and Medicinal Plants in Wild (and Not So Wild) Places, by Steve Brill (Harper Paperbacks, 1994)
Stalking the Wild Asparagus, by Euell Gibbons, Special Edition (Hood, Alan C. & Company, Inc., 2005)
Anne Dailey is a writer and locavore who grew up in Maine and now lives in the Hudson Valley where she writes about food and farms, grows a little garden and runs a small farmer-to-consumer food co-op. She maintains a blog, Raw Milk & Liver and loves doing yoga by the Hudson River. Her previous articles for Last Exit have examined homemade saurkraut and raw milk.
Copyright Last Exit 2009
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