Renewing America's Food Traditions

A search for forgotten delicacies.

While we are dimly aware of what we may have lost, we are starting to learn the consequences of their disappearance. In the 1700s, it is estimated that one in every four birds in North America was a passenger pigeon. By 1914, this popular source of food had been hunted to extinction. With the pigeons gone, their primary food source—acorns—began to flourish. Shortly after, the population of deer and mice, which also subsist on acorns, began to explode as did the ticks these animals carry. Scientists now directly link the disappearance of the passenger pigeon to the spread of Lyme disease.

The good news is this: in the past, we may have depleted the diversity of our continent, but today we can also “vote” with our pocket books and bellies for a healthier, more diverse and secure food system. My friend, food historian Poppy Tooker from New Orleans, learned this adage from her grandmother: “Honey, if you want to save it, you gotta eat it.”

The converse is also true: if there is no market for these rarities, they will be plowed under or culled out by farmers who must make a living off their lands. By providing new markets for heirloom flavors, we are enabling biodiversity to be maintained through what we might call culinary conservation.

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