By KIM SEVERSON
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.
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