Friday, June 10, 2011

Renewing America's Food Traditions

The latest issue of Conservation Magazine's cover article is Closed-Source Crops, about the patenting of genetic material in crop plants. Good article, especially in a magazine that's usually about the conservation of endangered wildlife. It seems to me that usually the issue of the loss of biodiversity in food plants is only talked about with a certain subset of the gardening community who do things like join Seed Saver's Exchange and have mason jars of saved squash seeds in the fridge. You know, like me. (Though, technically I haven't joined SSE yet, but I plan to in the future once I get better practice at seed saving.)

I'm a member of The Society for Conservation Biology, since I got my education in ecology and conservation biology (and would like to someday maybe even get a job in that field, though that's proving to be difficult!), and that's why I get this magazine. Now with this article my hobby and professional life have crossed a bit.

The article is well worth reading. The author spent some time with Native Seeds/SEARCH, another organization I'm a fan of. He mentions Gary Paul Nabhan, who is one of the founders of Native Seeds. I wasn't aware of that, actually. It reminded me that I had been intending to review his book, Renewing America's Food Traditions, on this blog, but haven't gotten around to it yet. I guess now is a good time!

This book was one of those lucky finds at Half Price Books that caught my eye, mainly because at the time I had been reading things from a lot of foodies who seem to claim that America doesn't have any food traditions. They claim our food is all cobbled together from various immigrant cuisines taken out of context and made more unhealthy, and this is why we have an obesity epidemic. People seem to think that McDonald's is the best that America has to offer, food-wise, and to get good food you have to look elsewhere, to China or India or the Mediterranean, where they have proper food cultures.

Well, anyone who holds that opinion really needs to read this book. America does have a food culture, several in fact, but they're endangered. Now, I'm all for trying out foreign foods from China or India (as you can see from some of my other foodie posts on this blog), but it would be a shame if people ignored the food traditions we have right here and let them go extinct. What about Texas Chili? What about Jambalaya? What about New England Clam Chowder? There's a lot more to American food than Big Macs.

Nabhan divides the country into no less than thirteen "Food Nations", and the ecologist in me is tickled by how they correspond to the different ecological zones of the continent. He calls them "ecogastronomic zones". That makes a lot of sense in light of how, until recently, most food had to be obtained locally, and what food could be grown locally depended entirely on what ecosystem you live in. Each of Nabhan's culinary ecosystems even has it's own culinary keystone species that each nation is named after.

For example, the modern state of Texas covers four Food Nations. I live in central Texas, which is the southernmost area of Bison Nation that stretches up the Great Plains from here to the Dakotas. This food nation is named after the bison that used to sustain the Plains Indians before the Europeans almost completely wiped them out. Now Bison Nation is ranch land with cattle replacing the bison.

To the west of the Texas plains is the Trans-Pecos region of Texas, and covering there through the Chihuahuan and Sonoran Deserts is Chile Pepper Nation. This is the food nation that Native Seeds/SEARCH focuses on. East Texas, with its wetter climate and Piney Woods, lies in Cornbread Nation, that goes from there to Appalachia. Then along the Gulf Coast of Texas and Louisiana is Gumbo Nation, named after its characteristic dish of okra and seafood.

Each food nation has a chapter in the book, which highlights several crops, livestock, and even wild plants and game animals that the cuisine of that area once depended upon, but are now endangered. For example, my food nation's chapter talks about the bison, of course, and then Arikara Yellow Beans, Hutterite Soup Beans, Osage Red Flint Corn, Sibley Squash, Silver Fox Rabbits, and Hidatsa Sunflowers.

This book shows how America is a tapestry of different groups of people, through the lens of food. There are Native American foods listed in the chapters, but also foods brought here by European immigrants and African slaves. You can see the different layers of the region's history in its food, with the Plains Indians of Bison Nation influencing later cowboy culture, the Hopi and Navajo of Chile Pepper Nation with later Spanish influence, the strong African-American influences of Gumbo Nation, and Cornbread Nation's Cherokee mixing with the descendants of Scots-Irish immigrants who became known as Hillbillies (though I'm not sure if it's PC to call them that, but I don't know of any other word for that particular culture).

But it's not so much of a hodge-podge to make America have no food culture. Other countries, such as India, are also made up of a diverse mixture of various cultures that all brought their own foods. Why does this need to be a bad thing?

Well, I'm already trying to hunt down some of the vegetable crops listed in this book, at least for the ones from the food nations of Texas (assuming that the foods of neighboring food nations will grow OK here as well). It looks like most of them can be obtained from SSE, Native Seeds, or Sandhill Preservation Center. Besides the ones highlighted in the book, there is an Appendix with a list of even more endangered foods from each nation. My I'itois onions from Chile Pepper Nation are listed on there, and they're growing great in my garden right now despite the terrible heat.

Unfortunately, I don't have the means to raise my own livestock, but reading about heirloom breeds of cows, chickens, goats, pigs, etc. is still really interesting. One of the important reasons for preserving these breeds is that a lot of them do better in a free-ranging environment than modern industrial factory-farmed breeds. Your standard Butterball turkey, for example, has been bred to have such huge breasts that it can hardly walk, let alone run around out in a pasture. The same principle applies to other livestock species. If we want to get away from the cruel and ecologically destructive practice of factory farming, we need to have the right breeds of animals for it.

One thing that gives me pause is the mention of wild game animals, fish and seafood, and wild plants that people used to depend on for food but are now endangered. I hope that doesn't cause confusion, because the way to save domestic plants and animals is actually to eat more of them, therefore making it profitable for farmers to raise them, but with wild plants and animals it is exactly the opposite. There are species in here that should never be eaten again, like sea turtles, and even though Nabhan does say that the wildlife listed in this book should not be hunted again until their populations recover, I hope that going on about how tasty they are doesn't send the wrong message. He does end with a passage about the Passenger Pigeon, which was once the most common bird in North America, but was hunted to extinction. I admit that when I think about the Passenger Pigeon, the first thing that comes to mind is not "too bad I'll never be able to eat one", but I guess that's just another thing to add to the long list of why driving species to extinction is a bad thing.

It reminds me of how right after the BP Oil Spill, Slow Food posted an article encouraging people to eat more Gulf seafood to support the fishermen. I'm not sure if that was such a good idea. What makes people think they can't drive fish and other marine life to extinction the same way they did the pigeons? We say there are plenty of fish in the sea, but it used to seem like there were plenty of birds in the sky, and we turned out to be wrong. Now it looks like we're wrong about the fish too, with many fisheries collapsing.

On a less depressing note, I also like how this book has recipes for these foods. Not only are people forgetting about their traditional foods, but they're also forgetting how to cook them, which was mentioned in passing in the "Close-Source Crops" article. Reminds me of how people complain that grass fed beef is tough, and then I find out they're overcooking it. These foods are often different in taste or texture than the industrial versions we're used to now, and therefore you have to cook them differently to get a good result. Of course, in my opinion, you end up with a better result! I haven't tried any of these recipes yet, but some look tasty and interesting. I might have to do a little bit of substituting for some of these ingredients I haven't tracked down yet.

I agree that in this time of global warming and transitioning away from ecologically unsustainable methods of food production, it's very important to look at some of these older breeds of plants and animals and the genetic diversity they contain. Evolutionary adaptation requires genetic diversity as a pre-condition, after all.

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