Renewing America's Food Traditions

A search for forgotten delicacies.

“This I bicked for you,” my grandfather would tell me in his thick Arab accent. “Have you ever tasted anything so good?” As I bit into it, the plum’s mellow juices ran down my chin and filled my mouth with flavors I had yet to put words to.

Today, that plum is almost impossible to find. Many of the small farms of my grandfather’s time have been developed or converted to a monoculture of corn, soy, rice or wheat. In the last 100 years, more than 1,000 varieties of uniquely American seeds and breeds, fruits and fish, greens and game have declined and are currently at risk of extinction. More than 76 food varieties have vanished altogether. Some, such as the wild Atlantic salmon and the sugar maple, are threatened by environmental factors ranging from damming of rivers to climate change.

Gone are flavors, aromas, textures and colors we can hardly imagine: historic delicacies from the sea such as White abalone and Shortnose sturgeon; the Cui-ui sucker and the Colorado pike-minnow from our rivers; Gaspé flint corn, Chapalote popcorn, Jack beans and Sumpweed sunflowers from our fields. We once grew some 14,000 named varieties of apples in North America, but our nursery trade today comprises only about 1,400, some of which are new varieties. Each apple had a different taste, use, season of maturity and keeping time in cold cellars; some were for hard cider, others for baking or for eating right off the tree. Many of them may still be out there, a few last trees surviving in abandoned orchards and hedgerows.

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