I was once asked what I would do if I had to choose to eat just one of America’s distinct heritage cuisines exclusively. Would I head to the Mississippi Delta to try the crayfish, rockfish and gumbo of Creole and Cajun dishes, or to a New England Yankee farmstead to savor one of the region’s many heirloom cider apples, roasted root vegetables, mutton or cheeses? Would I travel instead to Puget Sound for Chinook salmon cooked over a smoky fire on alder sticks and topped with a huckleberry sauce? Or hunker down in a canyon in the Southwest for grilled, range-fed goat, Hatch chiles and tomatillos?
As my imagination raced around the continent, my mouth watered. I thought about the question during a long, long pause, then replied, “I think I’d cry…” I would cry with joy at the astounding diversity of native foods we still have. And I would cry with sorrow at what we have lost and may still lose.
A century ago, when my Lebanese grandparents immigrated to the Great Lakes region, they were amazed by the country’s fertile soils, rich waters and the unfathomable diversity of foods. There were hundreds of varieties of cherries and plums being grown on neighboring farms; and lake perch, smelt and pike were abundant in the waters in front of their home in the Indiana Dunes. At the time, most U.S. households were still involved in some kind of gardening, farming, foraging or fishing and my grandfather became a fruit peddler and fishmonger. When I would visit, “Papa,” as I called him, would appear with a fresh-picked heirloom plum hidden in his fist. He would open his hand and present me with a purplish red gift ready to explode with flavor.
“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.
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.
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.
There is much to be accomplished and we are hoping to engage others in the adventure to find, recover and celebrate these culinary rarities. With some 669 food varieties now considered to be endangered, and another 348 threatened, we need help to keep them from joining the 76 uniquely American foods that have already been lost from our tables through extinction.
For wild foods, this effort involves the hands-on work of restoring natural habitats, reducing threats to them, and using nursery or hatchery stock to re-establish populations in the wild. For domesticated foods, we need to enlist hundreds of “food sleuths” in searching for rarities in abandoned orchards, roadside stands and small cafés off the beaten path.
America’s backroads, ethnic barrios, and home-grown dooryard gardens: That’s where many of the cultivated heirloom fruits and vegetables are likely to have survived; often nursed by Cajun, Cracker, Gullah, Amish, Mennonite, Bonacker, Tidewater, Amana or Cherokee gardeners, orchard-keepers and fishers.
And of course, we hope that you seek out heritage and heirloom foods as they start to reappear at farmers’ markets across the country. If you can, plant a handful of heirloom seeds in your garden, stick a few cuttings in your orchard or nurture a dozen rare laying hens in your chicken coop.
This is conservation with a human face. Put down your magazine, walk outside, and begin your own search for the foods which link your own sense of place to a deep and lasting sense of taste.
Gary Paul Nabhan is the author of Coming Home to Eat (W.W. Norton, 2002) and editor of Renewing America’s Food Traditions.