Saturday, January 07, 2006

The Natives Are Restless

Some time ago, I read Coming Home to Eat by Gary Paul Nabham, about one man's year-long quest to eat not just local foods, but foods native to his region (in Arizona, believe it or not!). And though I failed to review the book here and gave it only a passing glance elsewhere, the ideas Nabham presented stuck with me, simmering on the back burner.

Those ideas have returned to the forefront, thanks to a link Matt shared with me for an NPR story about endangered native species -- fruits, vegetables, nuts, grains, animals -- that once graced our regional dinner tables. And lo and behold, Nabham's group RAFT (Renewing America's Food Traditions) has issued a report on those species, including stories of some that are now extinct and some that are making a comeback.

One of the less-often-touted advantages of local foods -- but one that eventually enters your awareness as you become exposed to what is available locally -- is biodiversity. Of all the foods we have available today, only a handful of species are generally represented at your grocery store. But at the farmers' market, you may find many more, and even those added varieties may only represent what is native to your region.

For example, at the farmers' market this past year, I bought Kennebec potatoes over the usual Russets and Yukon Golds; Mollie apples instead of Jonathans or Galas; and Fairy Tale eggplant instead of the big varieties found anywhere else.

Part of my reason for buying these different varieties, of course, was simply the desire to try something new. But in trying something new, I also wanted to send the message that I wanted to experience and appreciate the differences in taste, appearance, and other characteristics found in out-of-the-ordinary varieties.

Nature has provided us with a dazzling diversity of foods and flavors, many of which are dependent on the growing conditions of their native regions. Why would we want to trade that glorious bounty for the limited selection at the supermarket, where many varieties have been carefully bred to last longer for shipping, thus losing some of their flavor? Why would we want to risk the health of our food supply by relying on a handful of species that grow ever more susceptible to disease and pests? (Remember the Irish potato famine?)

The only reason I can think of to explain why anyone would settle for less variety is that they simply don't know -- or don't care about enjoying what is all around them. Nabham puts it beautifully:

The real bottleneck to the revival of native, locally grown foods is a cultural -- or more precisely, a spiritual -- dilemma. ... Until we stop craving to be somewhere else and someone else other than animals whose very cells are constituted from the place on earth we love the most, then there is little reason to care about the fate of native foods, family farms, or healthy landscapes and communities. (Coming Home to Eat, p.304)

There are, of course, many people who are working hard to support biodiversity through sharing seeds, providing heirloom varieties, and cultivating native foods, and in small ways I've tried to contribute to some of these efforts (such as swapping heirloom tomatoes -- and ideas! -- with the Archivist). There's plenty of room for others to help, too, whether in growing your own or supporting those growers who do.

Variety is the spice... and everything else!... of life.

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