America’s Most Endangered Foods

September 1, 2008

By hammersmith

[Source: Allison Van Dusen,] – Walk the aisles of any grocery store in America and it may seem like the average shopper has access to a wide range of foods. Spend a minute talking to someone knowledgeable about endangered foods, however, and you realize you’re only seeing a glimpse of what was once an extremely diverse bounty.

Sure, the average grocery store may carry six or seven different types of apples, some of them grown in America, but a century ago, Americans grew and ate more than 15,000 named varieties. Today you’d probably be lucky if you could find the trees representing the 1,500 kinds remaining in North America, according to Gary Paul Nabhan, editor of Renewing America’s Food Traditions. The book lists some of the more than 1,000 food species and varieties once savored by Americans, but are now on the verge of disappearing from the landscape altogether.

In Depth: America’s Most Endangered Foods

By displaying these food histories, printing pictures of them in their natural glory and sharing accompanying recipes from early American cooks–Mashpee Wampanoag quahog chowder anyone?–Nabhan hopes to encourage a concept known as eater-based conservation.

“This is not about taking the rarest animal and eating it,” says Nabhan, director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University. “We’re reminding people of the deep historical connections–that some of these foods that are endangered once fed hundreds of thousands of people. We want that to be a motivating force for eaters to be more selective of their choices.”

Nabhan’s list is organized by regional foodsheds, areas so named by the Renewing America’s Food Traditions’ collaborative to highlight foods–such as gumbo–that are somewhat iconic.
The effort was founded by seven organizations, including Slow Food USA, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy and Chefs Collaborative, which came together in 2004 to help conserve, restore and celebrate North America’s unique food traditions. Nabhan compiled his list by working with collaborative members and talking to farmers, fishermen, foragers, herders, chefs, food historians and folklorists about what foods they’ve seen dramatically decline over the past few decades.

Among other findings, some of the endangered foods on their way to recovery include the Mission olive, silver fox rabbit and standard varieties of turkeys or heritage turkeys. The desert plum and Carolina northern flying squirrel are still considered too endangered to be eaten.

What Happened

When people hear about endangered foods, they often assume the cause has something to do with the way a fruit or vegetable tastes. But experts say it’s more likely the result of changes in the way the country farms and transports goods. For instance, the sweet and flavorful black sphinx date, a new variety that emerged in Arizona in the 1920s, fell out of favor in part because its delicate skin caused it to spoil during long shipments. Traditional food varieties also can be contaminated by cross pollination with genetically modified crops, changing their taste and character. Disease, over-harvesting and climate changes can take a toll over time.

So do people. The spike in the world’s population after World War II and the industrialization of agriculture, enabling the mass production of food, helped shape what kinds of livestock we eat, says Chuck Bassett, executive director of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Prior to the war, small farmers raised multipurpose cattle for milk, beef and ability to work. After the war, there was a shift toward farming animals that maximized only one characteristic–one reason behind the popularity of the Holstein, the highest-producing dairy cow. On the other side of the coin, Pineywoods cattle, among the oldest breeds of cattle in the U.S. and one used for dairy as well as beef, were used less and steadily replaced by English and European cattle. Today, Pineywoods cows are considered critically endangered by Nabhan’s group.

“When animals lose their jobs, they can become endangered,” says Marjie Bender, research and technical program director for the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy.

Diversified Diet, Full Flavors

Many Americans who shop at farmers markets and go to great lengths to eat locally grown foods and diversify their diets likely are already aware of the move to renew interest in the country’s endangered foods. But they’re greatly outnumbered by those who are unaware of the situation–and who couldn’t afford these types of foods anyway. Because of this, they’re missing out on something important: flavor.

“You’re losing a lot of pleasure in your diet,” says Barry Glassner, author of The Gospel of Food. “As in so many other aspects of life, variety truly is the spice of life.”

Are you interested in endangered foods? Or is the mainstream selection enough for you? Weigh in. Add your thoughts in the Reader Comments section below.

If you want to wake up your taste buds and help endangered foods make a comeback, your first step should be to look around your foodshed and seek out the rare foods in the recovery process that grow closest to home, Nabhan says. The idea is not to create national demand for these foods, whose producers likely couldn’t handle it. Instead, it’s to create a local interest that helps the farmers, producers and breeders maintain diversity and possibly, in the process, teach people a little bit of history.

And while some of the foods, such as the Tennessee Fainting Goat, may sound strange or funny, Nabhan hopes people will get over that and remember how these foods were once important to, and even celebrated by, communities.

“The real point,” Nabhan says, “is that the textures, flavors and stories behind these foods can really enrich our lives and those of our families.”