Keeping life spicy

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April 30, 2008, 8:54 pm

One of the most oft-cited goods of the industrialization and globalization of the modern diet has been the veritable explosion in the variety of foods available to consumers. This tendency toward diversification is supposed to characterize, not just the processed and packaged stuff whose growth has been unquestionable, but the market for fresh foods as well, e.g.:

Normal grocery shoppers no longer have to agonize over the choice between settling for mealy apples or springing for the pricier exotics like mangoes or hothouse strawberries. These days even the most run-down corner grocery offers shoppers apricots, cartons of blueberries, and ripe cherries out of season. Soon Wal-Mart shoppers might even be able to get an organic pineapple if the mood strikes them.

All this is true enough so far as it goes, but – even if we leave aside questions about the environmental, cultural, and nutritional costs of shipping food halfway across the globe – it’s crucial to recognize that the perpetual presence of a cornucopia of fresh(ish) edible goods from every genus can often manage to obscure the giant sucking sound that is the steady disappearance of most of the species that used to make up each such genus. In general, the industrialized food chain prizes cheap, mechanizable, low-skill production, maximal portability and minimal spoilage, and inoffensive, regionally-unspecific taste at the expense of the parochial, the traditional, the quirky, and the seasonal. It tends, in short, toward monoculture, or rather toward the creation of a lot of different monocultures, each of which generates a certain sort of food in a maximally efficient way while crowding out those related varieties that don’t lend themselves to streamlining.

To say this is not to raise a complaint against the free market, nor is it meant to be a blanket condemnation of industrialized farming methods. In the first place, the presently sorry state of the Western diet is in countless ways the product of government meddling – in the form of subsidies, standards, price controls, research grants, bad nutritional advice, and so on – rather than the free choices of producers and consumers. Secondly, there is really no way of getting around the genuine goods that these changes in our food chain have brought about: not just the availability of cheap food to feed the hungry, but also the year-round sale, to the wealthier among us, of (admittedly mediocre) apricots, blueberries, cherries, and more exotic things like unheard-of spices and frozen, mail-order kangaroo steaks. Finally, and most importantly for the present argument, it’s essential to recognize that even socialist-sounding developments like Community-Supported Agriculture programs, farmers’ markets, and Alice Waters, to say nothing of the availability of local, grass-fed pork in a burrito near you, are themselves elements of a free market – perhaps not the most prevalent ones, but products of and possibilities for personal choice nevertheless. And so the real challenge is to find ways for all of these mini- and mega-economies to coexist: to resist, in other words, the destructive and very un-libertarian characteristics of monoculturation.

All of this is just a lengthy way of prefacing the claim that this is exactly the sort of thing that lovers of culinary freedom ought to get behind:

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.”

Precisely. What Mr. Nabhan sees, which many who write about and work on issues of conservation do not, is that it’s essential that we find ways to preserve – and in some cases, rebuild – what is good and beautiful and true in human culture, too, and indeed that when properly conceived and carried out, this kind of project goes hand-in-hand with that of doing the same for the (non-human-) natural. Saving an animal or a vegetable is one good thing, bringing it back into the human food chain is another, and it doesn’t take an economist to see that it’s very often the market itself that provides the best chance of keeping once-endangered foods around:

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.”

This is, of course, a tricky proposition, and there are bound to be cases – the endangered Carolina flying squirrel is one example that is discussed in the article – in which sustainable hunting and harvesting aren’t possible. But in many others, the best route to sustainability is that of finding a way for humans and other species to coexist in the same sorts of reciprocal ways as any other creatures. Call it compassionate capitalism, if you like, though I’d prefer to put the stress on the second term. Human culture, too, benefits from variety, and it’s a sign of the health of a market when that’s what it provides. Ours has a long way to go, but we should be grateful to people like Mr. Nabhan for helping us to take these small steps toward restoration.

Upturned Earth – http://johnschwenkler.wordpress.com/

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