Endangered Foods

Goodlifer: Endangered Foods

We have all heard about endangered species, animals at risk of perishing because of altered conditions in their natural habitats, some caused by humans. Many do not know that the way we grow, transport, cook and shop for food is depleting our food varieties in a similar way. Foods that were once plentiful are disappearing and with them the cultural traditions that they embody.

At times, this has less to do with taste than with convenience; varieties superior in taste and nutritional value may be harder to grow in our industrial-scale monoculture or transport long distances, and are therefore phased out of our food system.

Saving rare breeds and varieties saves cultural traditions, too. Among American plants and animals being catalogued are the Tennessee fainting goat. Photo: Jeannette Beranger/American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, via The New York Times.

Saving rare breeds and varieties saves cultural traditions, too. Among American plants and animals being catalogued are the Tennessee fainting goat. Photo: Jeannette Beranger/American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, via The New York Times.

An article in Forbes describes 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 are frequently contaminated by cross-pollinating with GMO (genetically modified) crops, changing their taste and character. Intentional cross-pollination (farmers like to experiment), disease, over-harvesting and climate changes also contribute to the accumulation of the problem.

Left: The pawpaw is native to the US, yet generally unknown to the American public. Right: The Hatcher mango is a cultivar unique to South Florida. The variety is very prolific and yields unusually large, blemish-free fruits that can weigh 2-3 pounds or more.

Left: The pawpaw is native to the US, yet generally unknown to the American public. Right: The Hatcher mango is a cultivar unique to South Florida. The variety is very prolific and yields unusually large, blemish-free fruits that can weigh 2-3 pounds or more.

Left: The flavor of the ‘Pantin’ mamey sapote is a combination of sweet potato and pumpkin with undertones of almond, chocolate, honey, and vanilla. Right: Unlike most oily commercial varieties, the Popenoe avocado is lighter, enormous (up to a pound each), has a shiny green skin and is described as firmer, creamier and juicier than the Haas avocado.

Left: The flavor of the ‘Pantin’ mamey sapote is a combination of sweet potato and pumpkin with undertones of almond, chocolate, honey, and vanilla. Right: Unlike most oily commercial varieties, the Popenoe avocado is lighter, enormous (up to a pound each), has a shiny green skin and is described as firmer, creamier and juicier than the Haas avocado.

A century ago, somewhere around 15,000 named varieties of apples grew in the United States. Today 1,500 remain, but the average person would be lucky to find even seven varieties in the grocery store. In his book Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods Gary Nabhan lists some of the more than 1,000 foods that were once frequently enjoyed by Americans, but are now at risk of disappearing from the culinary landscape for good.

Left: White Sonora wheat is one of the oldest surviving wheat varieties anywhere in North America. Right: As one of the most ancient corn species, the Chapalote Corn plant, also known as “Pinole Maiz,” was the first corn species to enter the US from Central America.

Left: White Sonora wheat is one of the oldest surviving wheat varieties anywhere in North America. Right: As one of the most ancient corn species, the Chapalote Corn plant, also known as “Pinole Maiz,” was the first corn species to enter the US from Central America.

Left: The Black Sphinx is a distinctive variety of date discovered as a rogue seedling in Phoenix, Arizona in 1928. Right: The Black Republican cherry has an intense black cherry flavor and was highly regarded by many growers, but lost favor because of its smaller size and tendency to be slightly astringent when not fully ripe.

Left: The Black Sphinx is a distinctive variety of date discovered as a rogue seedling in Phoenix, Arizona in 1928. Right: The Black Republican cherry has an intense black cherry flavor and was highly regarded by many growers, but lost favor because of its smaller size and tendency to be slightly astringent when not fully ripe.

The good news is that is a lot easier to incorporate new foods into your diet than to, say, adopt a polar bear. Founded by Nabhan and managed by Slow Food USA, RAFT (Renewing America’s Food Traditions) is an alliance of food, farming, environmental and culinary advocates who have joined together to identify, restore and celebrate America’s biologically and culturally diverse food traditions through conservation, education, promotion and regional networking. The web page has a great list of resources, where you can learn about some of our endangered foods. Sign up to be a hands-on food detective and help RAFT more thoroughly document the history and current status of America’s endangered foods in your area, and propose other foods for listing. The Ark of Taste initiative, also from Slow Food USA, has identified varieties whose cultural and culinary significance make them worth saving, and encourages and helps you hold events or throw a dinner parties using endangered ingredients.

Left: As a hardy, docile, broody and excellent producer of both meat and eggs, which it lays year-round, the Plymouth Rock Chicken is a quintessential American breed. Right: Renewed interest in the biological fitness, survivability, and superior flavor of the Slate Turkey has captured consumer interest.

Left: As a hardy, docile, broody and excellent producer of both meat and eggs, which it lays year-round, the Plymouth Rock Chicken is a quintessential American breed. Right: Renewed interest in the biological fitness, survivability, and superior flavor of the Slate Turkey has captured consumer interest.

Left: Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry is not actually a cherry, but rather a small ground tomato. The fruits were recorded in horticultural literature as early as 1837 in Pennsylvania and are still common today at roadside stands in late summer. Right: Used by American Indians, African Americans and early European settlers, wild Persimmons are a distinctively American fruit.

Left: Aunt Molly’s Ground Cherry is not actually a cherry, but rather a small ground tomato. The fruits were recorded in horticultural literature as early as 1837 in Pennsylvania and are still common today at roadside stands in late summer. Right: Used by American Indians, African Americans and early European settlers, wild Persimmons are a distinctively American fruit.

One thing that is great about meal-centered holidays like Thanksgiving, is that they features seasonal foods many of us may not go through the effort of making otherwise. Eating seasonally is one thing that we all have to re-learn in our quest for a secure, just and truly sustainable food system. This not only encompasses vegetables, fruits and grains, but also fish, seafood, meat and poultry, since they are also subject to seasonality when raised naturally.

Left: When the Elephant Heart Plum is perfectly ripe, the meat is so juicy that it is more like a beverage than a fruit. The soft flesh is luscious with tropical and vanilla overtones. The fragrance is subtle, the flavors rich and distinctive. The skin has a tart, berry flavor. Right: Clapp’s Favorite was raised by Thaddeus Clapp ofDorchester, Massachusetts. It was favorably mentioned as a promising new fruit at the meeting of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1860 and ripens in late August and early September.

Left: When the Elephant Heart Plum is perfectly ripe, the meat is so juicy that it is more like a beverage than a fruit. The soft flesh is luscious with tropical and vanilla overtones. The fragrance is subtle, the flavors rich and distinctive. The skin has a tart, berry flavor. Right: Clapp’s Favorite Pear was raised by Thaddeus Clapp of Dorchester, Massachusetts. It was favorably mentioned as a promising new fruit at the meeting of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society in 1860 and ripens in late August and early September.

The Marbled Chinook is a distinct fish that occurs predominantly in the fisheries of Washington and Southwestern British Columbia. When fishermen catch a Chinook salmon, they don’t know if it will be red, white or marbled until it is cleaned.

The Marbled Chinook is a distinct fish that occurs predominantly in the fisheries of Washington and Southwestern British Columbia. When fishermen catch a Chinook salmon, they don’t know if it will be red, white or marbled until it is cleaned.

Left: The Guinea Hog is a small, black breed of swine that is unique to the United States. Also known as the Pineywoods Guinea, Guinea Forest Hog, Acorn Eater, and Yard Pig, the breed was once the most numerous pig breed found on homesteads in the Southeast. Today there are fewer than 200. Right: One of the earliest breeds of cattle in US history, the Pineywoods, has currently dwindled to less than 200 hardy individuals. The Pineywoods is a rugged breed that—because of its history—is well adapted to the humid South.

Left: The Guinea Hog is a small, black breed of swine that is unique to the United States. Also known as the Pineywoods Guinea, Guinea Forest Hog, Acorn Eater, and Yard Pig, the breed was once the most numerous pig breed found on homesteads in the Southeast. Today there are fewer than 200. Right: One of the earliest breeds of cattle in US history, the Pineywoods, has currently dwindled to less than 200 hardy individuals. The Pineywoods is a rugged breed that — because of its history — is well adapted to the humid South.

Next time you go to the store or farmers market, make an effort to try something you don’t usually buy. You may be in for a new delicious discovery, but will also help keep endangered foods on the menu. Because the best way to preserve foods and their traditions is not through a museum, but by growing and eating them.

Top photo: Meech’s Prolific Quince.

About author
A designer by trade, Johanna has always had a passion for storytelling. Born and raised in Sweden, she's lived and worked in Miami, Brooklyn and, currently, Ojai, CA. She started Goodlifer in 2008 to offer a positive outlook for the future and share great stories, discoveries, thoughts, tips and reflections around her idea of the Good Life. Johanna loves kale, wishes she had a greener thumb, and thinks everything is just a tad bit better with champagne (or green juice).
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