Friday, February 8, 2008

Protecting our Heirlooms

When we commit to eating more local foods, we not only help the farmers of our region, we protect our indigenous foods and animals. What we need is a world of adjoining regions each known and valued for the special and distinctive produce that has been uniquely flavored by the particular soil and climate where it grew. But if we do not fight to protect these unique regions, with their beautiful orchards, nut trees, and traditional crops, they will all too soon be wiped out by housing developments and strip malls or reduced to monoculture farms that mass-produce corn and soy for processed foods and animal feed.

Alarmed by the fast food and supermarket homogenization that threatened to take over the world's food supply, Italian Carlo Petrini founded the Slow Food movement in 1986. When we think of the Slow Food movement, we might imagine a global mission to protect our regional markets—which means actively supporting crop biodiversity and sustainable agriculture as well as the regional food knowledge and customs that come with a locally based food supply. What began as a small, grassroots, Italy-based organization of a few concerned citizens has evolved into a rapidly expanding worldwide organization of over 80,000 members in fifty countries, with 12,500 official members in the U.S.

Diet Start

One of their many international efforts is to create an "Ark," a catalogue of farm animals, crop species, and agricultural techniques that are in danger of extinction. A quick study of the Slow Food Ark shows that the United States has many national treasures at risk. For instance, the Ark lists California's Blenheim apricot, which is described as "tart, honeyed and intensely aromatic." Biting into the deep golden flesh is said to be an "unforgettable experience"—and we agree—yet it may soon be forgotten unless their orchards are protected from developers.

Other fruits are endangered because they just don't fit the heavy travel supermarket model. New York's yellow- toned Spitzenberg apple, with its subtle streaks of red in the flesh, is perfect for eating fresh from the tree, but it does not ship well and is thus in decline. We may also lose the Rhode Island Greening, an excellent cider and pie- making apple that doesn't fit the generic, supermarket apple model. The Shagbark hickory nut of Wisconsin is endangered due to shrinking rural areas and the fact that manually recovering the meat is laborious. The nut has a delicate, sweet taste with no bitterness and once upon a time it was a traditional food item during the region's winter holidays. Fortunately, there are a few elders who still value the nut and sell it at local farmers markets in Madison.

When we protect the diversity of crops and food traditions of a region, we also preserve the special knowledge of how to cultivate and care for them. If we allow our local farms and orchards to be paved over or carved into housing developments, we also lose the growers who understand the soil, who understand the weather, who know how to work in harmony with their environment—knowledge that is far more valuable than chemical mixtures or instructions from genetically engineered seed manufacturers.

As those who Came Before

When we value the foods of the seasons, we help protect priceless ancestral wisdom as well as the heirloom seeds that have been passed on and perfected through many years and many harvests. Hundreds of years ago Iroquois white corn provided daily sustenance for the six nations of

the Iroquois based in New York state, Pennsylvania, southern Ontario, and Quebec. Legend has it that the Iroquois gave this corn to George Washington's troops so they could survive winter at Valley Forge. As it is with many foods that are crucial to native survival, the Iroquois white corn was also integral to many of their spiritual ceremonies.

To preserve its delicious earthy flavor and varied texture, the Iroquois farmers developed special methods of growing the corn, orally passing down the ancient knowledge from parent to child, generation to generation. The small number of growers who still cultivate the corn know the ancient secrets for keeping the corn pure and delicious, and they also know how to time the planting and harvest to protect it from being contaminated by a neighbor's commercial corn. The corn is still roasted or hulled and milled in a log cabin on the Iroquois Cattaraugus Reservation in western New York state.

... andjoyohoxing