On rare and endangered foods, and vanishing food traditions

Jimmy Nardello’s Sweet Italian Frying Pepper greening up nicely in the greenhouse. These are great frozen.

“No matter how cynical you get, it’s impossible to keep up.” –Lily Tomlin

For my birthday recently I received a copy of Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods, edited by Gary Paul Nabhan and with a forward by my hero Deborah Madison. This book (as you can imagine) is right up my alley. Nabhan founded Native SeedSearch. He’s an ethnobotanist who happens to be a kooky single-minded food enthusiast. I read his Coming Home to Eat a couple of years back and truly enjoyed it: it makes the nice idea of eating locally in the verdant hills of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle look like the child’s play it is compared with local eating in the desert southwest of this country.

The premise of this book is to do what Slow Foods has done: instead of presidia, it divides North America (actually, just most of the US) up into small territories (nations) known by what Native Americans and early settlers would have cultivated, foraged and hunted. Traditional foods, in other words. My particular corner of Michigan has a foot in three such territories: the Wild Rice Nation, the Cornbread Nation and the Maple Syrup Nation. (I like that, that where I live is transitory, is between zones.) The book features once common, now rare plants and animals from each featured zone, and why it is in our best interest to preserve them. By preserving, of course, Nabhan means EATING them.

Carolina northern flying squirrel, anyone?

By teaming up with revered seed-saving institutions and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, this book gives little vignettes about disappearing flora and fauna. I think the stories behind each item are fascinating. Take the Northern Giant (McFayden) cabbage, for instance. Or the mulefoot hog. Or the Quahog clam.

Anyway, back to the cynicism of which I have in abundance. I am not one to believe capitalism is a cure to all that ails us: that we can, say, buy our way out of global warming by purchasing a solar panel or two, a hybrid car, a few canvas shopping bags. As you may know by now, I think we’re all quickly approaching the shores of an entirely different world. The index and bibliography in this book are stellar. The RAFT List of Foods at Risk in North America is a large one, 700 items and counting, listed with T (threatened), E (Endangered) or X (Functionally extinct). Currently, I do seed-save some of the threatened and endangered vegetables, and I intend to breed a few crucial animals over the next few years. My cynicism comes in (and again, it’s hard to keep up!) when everyone just HAS TO HAVE x cool endangered item. Is creating a market for them a good thing? I suppose if it brings something back from the brink of extinction, it is.

Either way, it’s nice that some people give a damn.

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11 responses to “On rare and endangered foods, and vanishing food traditions

  1. Sounds like an interesting book! I really loved Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and I’ve been looking for other books in the same vein. Thanks!

  2. Mrs. GH: I should tell you it’s not a story, a narrative. It’s a list of foods by region, with recipes. There’s lots of history and really interesting information, but it’s not “one family’s quest for a year,” of which there are dozens to choose.

  3. You meant Stouffer’s Carolina northern flying squirrel, right? OK, then.

  4. El, sounds like a wonderful book! I am going to my library’s website right now.

    I hear you about the race to “acquire” green goods. I don’t think that is the answer either.

  5. I don’t believe that we can have too many people taking these things seriously. Every canvas bag, funky lightbulb and solar panel means someone is making an effort to do the right thing for our community…… and talking about it.

  6. CC: Exactamundo. I did pause when I saw a recipe for these tiny squirrels. One, they’re tiny. Two, they’re squirrels (it’s not like they travel in herds: how does one get enough for a family-sized meal?). There was a chapter in there about the passenger pigeon. Wow, do they look like mourning doves, only colorful. Then, I got it. Habitat loss for these squirrels (who prefer old-growth) is a huge deal, and their very existence is questioned.

    Katie and Pamela: It’s not that people shouldn’t be taking these little steps (as they should). People should be taking big ones, and conservation in some form should at least be MENTIONED somewhere by our government, but no, let’s go drill offshore for more oil so we can cart our canvas bags around in our SUVs. I swear this twists my undies in a bunch and I just am spitting mad all day long. We really do need to conserve, not buy, our way into a new way of being.

  7. El, you know, I thought the very same thing yesterday. The news was discussing folks wanting smaller cars and the manufacturers were trying to figure out how to get them made. They were also discussing Jimmy Carter’s conservation efforts in the 70’s and comparing them to today’s crisis. It struck me that a bunch of folks don’t want smaller cars to conserve, but they want smaller cars so they can still do the same as they have been doing, only saving THEMSELVES money, ie not using as much gas. (I wondered when ‘drive 55’ would make a comeback) They don’t really want to cut back on driving, or want to conserve, they just don’t want to have to spend all their money on gas. Conservation actually probably never crosses their minds.

  8. Hi Jules. Drive 55 is already making a comeback here, as Gov. Jennifer Granholm has proposed moving the speed limit back FOR conservation’s sake. Of course we have a completely troglodytic legislature so it won’t work (I think Michigan was one of the first to go to 70 in the first place, home of the car that it is) but at least she’s trying. And I do think higher gas prices (for whatever reason they’re higher, including tax structure as is the case in Europe) is a backhanded way toward conservation. We saw an ad on TV for Acura that pitched the car as “a fun way to drive to get your lunch” through a drive-thru. Come ON.

  9. C’mon El! Don’t you want to be cool?! Ha! Somehow, I just cannot imagine our type ever being considered the “in crowd”….but I still wanna save all of those barnyard animals from extinction….

  10. Hi I love reading your blog:)and thanks for all the tips and info keep it coming.. I have to say I understand the frustration of conservation. However, it is going to take high energy costs and food shortages and all the extremes to get people to conserve. Its upsetting but there are to many people out there who are uneducated or who choose not to believe what is coming down the pipe.. I do not want to particularly drive a car that I have to pay 10$ a gallon for gas… (I would like a non gas burning choice) but I do want people to start to conserve. I think that hight gas prices are going to ultimatly be a good thing when it comes to waking up the American public.. It is so horrifying that the almighty dollar is what brings about change. But it is true.. the public “buys” in to what ever it is.. and consumerism is what is the driving force.. It is sad but its true.. the only way that a majority of people will change is due to the fiscal affect on his or her family..

  11. Angie, well, just last week the NYTimes mag had a feature on women farmers, usually second-career types. Not quite us, but getting closer!

    Hi Laura. I know exactly what you mean! I just think a little moral bullying from what Bush calls his bully pulpit wouldn’t hurt at all regarding saving a little gasoline. Yeah he said in ’06 that we were “addicted to oil,” then he jets off and talks to some Saudi Arabian princes about keeping the tap on full. (They demurred, they know low supply = high oil prices, and that can’t hurt them.) Our problem of course is that most of what runs our lives is laughably cheap (gas, food, electricity) so it’s allowed us to spend our money on unimportant things (cell phones, cable) that we think we’re entitled to have. And dang, if we have to choose between filling the tank and cable then we’ll stay home and eat Ramen noodles.

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