Could native foods be the next big thing in eating? Some people, Gary Nabhan in particular, are working to push things in that direction.
Nabhan, a noted conservation scientist at the Northern Arizona University, is a founder of the Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) Alliance and may be the original locavore, having published “Coming Home to Eat,” a memoir of his 200-mile diet in 2002 — five years before the much more widely known 100-Mile Diet and others. (The concept predates Nahban’s memoir, with “Coming Into the Foodshed” by Jack Kloppenburg, Jr., John Hendrickson, and G. W. Stevenson at the University of Wisconsin providing a powerful explanation.)
Nabhan, a MacArthur “genius” grant recipient who spoke this week in Lawrence, Kansas, thinks we are at a critical moment where both knowledge of native foodstuffs and losses of those species are high. He and others assert that taking advantage of those foods would address numerous ills, from the reliance of petroleum-based agriculture to the explosion of diabetes among Americans, particularly those of color, to loss of cultural identities.
The question, of course, is how to put native foods back in people’s diets, including into the diets of people for whom those native foods are, well … foreign. To boost people’s understanding of food regions, RAFT and its supporters have assembled maps that divide the United States (spilling into Mexico and Canada) into food “nations,” named for iconic native foods. Nabhan emphasizes that the maps are fluid, and different people might define those food regions differently. The map on the RAFT (PDF) website, for instance (above), departs from the one Nabhan showed the other evening. Among the several differences, the map Nabhan showed took Cornbread Nation (without the barbecue) all the way to the Atlantic Coast (leaving out Chestnut and Crabcake nations), and his map called the area along the California coast Abalone rather than Acorn. Bison Nation, my own, corresponds with the Great Plains and is the same on both maps; I have a post on Foodperson.com about how we Bison Nation residents might eat within our foodshed.
Regardless of how the regions are defined, the next steps are to identify the native and heritage food plants and animals of the region, work to recover seeds and restore habitat, renew cultural associations with those foods, and then develop niche markets for the foods through progressive chefs, farmers markets, and other “early adopters.” The hope is that those foods’ role in the landscape and on the table would be revived on a broader scale. He also favors “denomination of origin” such as those used in other countries to signify Bordeaux wines, for instance, as distinct from California Cabernet Sauvignon.
A new book edited by Nabhan, “Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods,” identifies some 1,100 species that are at risk, from wild plums to the Sibley squash. According to promotional materials, the book “builds a persuasive argument for eater-based conservation,” an idea that Ethicureans can get behind.
Will any of it happen? My gut feeling is yes, at least on some limited scale. The broader population already has become aware, even if not actively involved, of the local foods movement. Add soaring oil costs and the numerous food recalls and illnesses resulting from problems in the industrial food system, and people have lots of reasons to seek local and, yes, native, foods.