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An Unlikely Way to Save a Species: Serve It for Dinner

Published: April 30, 2008

SOME people would just as soon ignore the culinary potential of the Carolina flying squirrel or the Waldoboro green neck rutabaga. To them, the creamy Hutterite soup bean is too obscure and the Tennessee fainting goat, which keels over when startled, sounds more like a sideshow act than the centerpiece of a barbecue.

But not Gary Paul Nabhan. He has spent most of the past four years compiling a list of endangered plants and animals that were once fairly commonplace in American kitchens but are now threatened, endangered or essentially extinct in the marketplace. He has set out to save them, which often involves urging people to eat them.

Mr. Nabhan’s list, 1,080 items and growing, forms the basis of his new book, an engaging journey through the nooks and crannies of American culinary history titled “Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods” (Chelsea Green Publishing, $35).

The book tells the stories of 93 ingredients both obscure (Ny’pa, a type of salt grass) and beloved (the Black Sphinx date), along with recipes that range from the accessible (Centennial pecan pie) to the challenging (whole pit-roasted Plains pronghorn antelope).

To make the list, an animal or plant — whether American eels, pre-Civil War peanuts or Seneca hominy flint corn — has to be more than simply edible. It must meet a set of criteria that define it as a part of American culture, too. Mr. Nabhan’s book is part of a larger effort to bring foods back from the brink by engaging nursery owners, farmers, breeders and chefs to grow and use them.

“This is not just about the genetics of the seeds and breeds,” said Mr. Nabhan, an ethnobotanist and an expert on Native American foods who raises Navajo churro sheep and heritage crops in Arizona. “If we save a vegetable but we don’t save the recipes and the farmers don’t benefit because no one eats it, then we haven’t done our work.”

He organized his list into 13 culinary regions that he calls nations, borrowing from Native American and other groups. The Pacific Coast from California to northern Mexico is acorn nation. Its counterpart on the mid-Atlantic coast is crab cake nation. Moose nation covers most of Canada. New Yorkers, for the record, live in clambake nation.

His work is based on extensive trips around the country, where he listened to old-timers and cataloged hundreds of hard-to-find plants and animals, like the finicky Datil chili pepper (originally from Cuba), the Bronx grape and the long-stemmed Harrison cider apple from New Jersey.

“The daunting thing is that so much about American traditional foods comes out of people’s heads and isn’t in any book,” he said. He had little trouble getting people to share their knowledge. “This to them is like a baseball fan talking about the Yankees. They just know all the details.”

Mr. Nabhan engaged seven culinary, environmental and conservation groups to help him identify items for the list and return them to culinary rotation.

He acted like a broker for the groups, some of which had been trying to save traditional food for decades. Organizations including the Seed Savers Exchange and the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy contributed suggestions for the list. Then, leveraging the rising interest in regional food, he engaged hundreds of chefs, farmers and curious eaters to grow and cook some of the lost breeds and varieties.

Leading the way are members of the gastronomic group Slow Food U.S.A., which assesses whether foods on Mr. Nabhan’s list are delicious and meaningful enough in the communities where they originated to be worth reviving and promoting. Foods that do become part of what the group calls its Ark of Taste.

The Chefs Collaborative, a group of more than 1,000 professional cooks and others dedicated to sustainable cuisine, willingly signed on, too. Several members incorporated traditional ingredients into modern restaurant dishes, holding a series of picnics last year to show off their work.

And everyone in Mr. Nabhan’s alliance tried to encourage farmers and ranchers to grow the seeds and the breeds, promising to deliver buyers if they did.

That is the most complicated part of reviving traditional food, said Makalé Faber Cullen, a cultural anthropologist with Slow Food U.S.A. who contributed to the book. Farmers are often more concerned with innovating and crossbreeding than in preserving cultural traditions or encouraging biological diversity.

“That’s where the tension lies in this project,” she said. “A lot of times products fall into disuse because farmers themselves decide they are not worthy of the marketplace. A farmer will say, I don’t want to grow out that tomato anymore. I want something with thicker skin.”

Some of the items on the list, like Ojai pixie tangerines and Sonoma County Gravenstein apples, were well on their way back before Mr. Nabhan came along. But other foods are enjoying a renaissance largely as a result of the coalition’s work.

The Makah ozette potato, a nutty fingerling with such a rich, creamy texture that it needs only a whisper of oil, is one of the success stories. It is named after the Makah Indians, who live at the northwest tip of Washington state and have been growing the potatoes for more than 200 years.

The Seattle chapters of Slow Food and the Chefs Collaborative adopted the rare potato. In 2006, Slow Food passed out seed potatoes to a handful of local farmers and gardeners, and chefs like Seth Caswell at the Stumbling Goat Bistro in Seattle began putting them on the menu.

Mr. Caswell says they are delicious roasted with a little hazelnut oil for salads or cut into wedges to go with burgers made with wagyu beef and Washington State black truffle oil.

There have been other revivals, the moon and stars watermelon and the tepary bean among them. The effort to reintroduce heritage turkeys to the American table was a precursor to the work of Mr. Nabhan and his collaborators.

The meaty Buckeye chicken, with its long legs suitable for ranging around, is considered one of five most endangered chicken breeds. Last year over 1,000 chicks were hatched and delivered to breeders, Mr. Nabhan said.

Justin Pitts, whose family has raised Pineywoods cattle in southern Mississippi for generations, credits the coalition with saving those animals. The small, lean cattle that provide milk, meat and labor spent centuries adapting to the pine barrens of the deep south, raised by families who can trace their herds back as far as anyone can remember. There are less than a dozen of those families left, and at one point the number of pure Pineywoods breeding animals fell to under 200. In the past few years, it has grown to nearly 1,000.

Mr. Pitts, who has “90 head if I can find them all,” sells New York strips and other cuts at the New Orleans farmers’ market and to chefs.

“I can’t raise cattle fast as they eat them,” he said.

He supports the notion that you’ve got to eat something to save it.

“If you’re keeping them for a museum piece,” he said, “you’ve just signed their death warrant.”

But Mr. Nabhan doesn’t want people to eat everything on his list. The idea of eater-based conservation, which holds that to save something, one has to eat it, works well for agricultural products and some wild foods like clams that benefit from regular harvesting. For some wild species, however, like the foot-long, pink-fleshed Carolina flying squirrel, a harvest would create too much pressure on a tiny population.

The squirrels used to make regular appearances in Appalachian game-meat stews. But as their forests declined, so did the squirrel population; they are now on state and federal endangered species lists. Even if catching them were legal, Mr. Nabhan says a trapper would be hard-pressed to bag more than half a dozen a season.

Because the squirrel was once so important to the diets of North Carolina and east Tennessee, Mr. Nabhan included it on his list, along with a recipe for the thick vegetable stew called Kentucky burgoo.

It calls for corn, lima beans, spring water and two pounds of cubed and fried squirrel meat. Just don’t use flying squirrel. At least not yet.

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