Renewing America's Food Traditions

A search for forgotten delicacies.

Over three decades of working as an agricultural historian and conservationist, I have witnessed dozens of foods rescued from extinction. Take the Plains bison: Once hunted to near depletion in the wild, bison are now being bred and released onto large prairie landscapes where they are recreating the buffalo wallows that are necessary for many wildflowers, amphibians and prairie chickens to survive. The bison are matched so well to living in particular habitats and eating native grasses and wildflowers that I can literally taste the terroir in their flesh just as I can in certain wines. They broaden my sense of what it means to be truly nourished by the American earth.

In the past 25 years the diversity of food available in the Pacific Northwest has multiplied, in part because groups in that area, such as Tilth, the Portland Farmers Market, Chefs Collaborative and Eco-Trust, have embraced heritage foods. At last estimate, restaurants in downtown Portland alone were purchasing more than six million dollars a year of locally produced vegetables, fruits, mushrooms, meats, cheeses and fish. While farms in other regions of the country may be struggling to stay solvent, the number of farms in Oregon has increased 44 percent over the last three decades, from roughly 27,000 in 1975 to more than 39,000 today. Today, you can walk into a Portland restaurant and find diverse delicacies: wild mushrooms, Olympia oysters, Makah Ozette potatoes, wapato, camas, stinging nettles, marbled Chinook salmon, Nootka Rose garlic, Orcas pears.

In 2003, I asked friends in a half-dozen organizations across the country to join me in trying to recover the diverse, imperiled foods of North America. The initiative is called Renewing America’s Food Traditions, or RAFT and our mission is to preserve vanishing foods.

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