All The Farm That Is Fit To Print

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Eat it to Save it: An Interview with Gary Nabhan

Originally posted at UpNorthFoodies.com

From roasted tomato hornworm larvae, to pit-roasted cactus flowers, Gary Paul Nabhan has sampled his share of foods unfamiliar to most of us in northern Michigan.

A renowned ethnobiologist, conservationist, MacArthur "genius grant" recipient and author, Nabhan has traveled the globe, searching out the stories and tastes of many a region's traditional foods. But his efforts aren't about saving these foods for the museum shelves; instead, he aims to get these foods back on our plates to savor and enjoy. "Eat it to save it" sums up the approach.

And now his wanderings and his research bring him to northern Michigan, where he'll meet with local farmers, chefs, and others to identify foods in need of recovery and to offer assistance to those who wish to return these foods to the table.

He'll also appear at Horizon Books in Traverse City on Friday, October 10, with local author and longtime friend Stephanie Mills, where each will read from their works and sign books following a local foods tasting.

In 2004, Nabhan joined the collective forces of seven likeminded organizations, including Slow Food USA, to form the Renewing America's Food Traditions collaborative. RAFT's goal is to help conserve and restore food traditions unique to the continent, and one of its tasks has been to create the first-ever inventory of North American food species and varieties.

That list is included in Renewing America's Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods, a book edited by Nabhan and released earlier this year. RAFT slices North America into "food nations," each identified by a local traditional food. We live in the "Wild Rice Nation," which encompasses the upper Great Lakes states and part of Ontario. RAFT founders expect those designations will evolve over time, but for now, they get people to think about the connection between food, place and culture.

The book profiles 93 traditional foods, sharing their histories along with recipes and photos. Just three are included from our own food nation: hand-harvested wild rice (Manoomin to the Anishnabe), Chantecler chicken and American eels. But Nabhan is working his way around the country, and the Wild Rice Nation is now one of his focuses. As a result, our local list has grown considerably. Nabhan currently estimates there may be as many as 50 wild foods and more than 300 historically cultivated foods at risk in Michigan.

When he's not touring the country, Nabhan raises desert crops, Navajo-Churro sheep and heritage turkeys in the Southwest, where he teaches at the University of Arizona in Tucson. We caught up with him to ask about his work. Here's our interview:

UNF: You're known for your connections to desert cultures, a far cry from northern Michigan and the Great Lakes. Do you have any connection to this area?

Nabhan: My Lebanese family arrived on the Lake Michigan shores in the 1920s, after a few years in Detroit among the Arab community there. My grandfather set up a fruit-peddling business in northern Indiana, with my uncles and father often helping him pick fruit from Saugatuck north toward Traverse. As a teenager, I had the blessing of spending several summers up around Lake Leelanau. But I grew up in sand dunes, not Midwestern farmland. My family's roots are in the Arabian desert. When I first backpacked and foraged in the Desert Southwest I had dreams I was home. I was. Except for a year working in the Upper Great Lakes on environmental impacts of shoreline developments, I've been employed in the stinkin' hot desert. My joy is seeing my friend Stephanie Mills do the reverse: move from Arizona to Lake Michigan and take root in your dryness-deficient landscape.

UNF: How did you get interested in ethnobotany?

Nabhan: My family always fished and gathered grape leaves, wild fruit and berries along the shores of Lake Michigan, so I thought everyone did such things and ate their own culture's heritage foods. But I was wrong; when I first went on cafeteria food at age 17, I lost 15 pounds in four months. And so I became curious about how to keep place-based heritage foods from falling off our tables. By the time I was 30, I founded Native Seeds/SEARCH.

UNF: You took on that task in the early '80s, and the organization focuses on the conservation of seeds important to the cultures of the American Southwest and northwest Mexico. Twenty-five years later, here we are with RAFT, where you've really expanded your work beyond seeds and the Southwest. What prompted you to create RAFT?

Nabhan: I realized that not just genes and species were being lost from the American landscape and its waters, but culinary and cultural traditions as well. There had never been a comprehensive inventory of foods unique to North America, and little on their conservation status. So I brought together seven of the most effective organizations in the U.S. to see if we could forge an "eater-based conservation strategy" where sustainable market demand helps recover foods and their habitats rather than depleting them.

UNF: Have you met with any resistance to RAFT?

Nabhan: At first, some market farmers, orchardists and gardeners think we're trying to discourage them from trying out varieties new to their areas; instead, we're trying to encourage food biodiversity that incorporates the old and the new. Farmers have always been innovators, trying out new things; we just don't want to abandon or neglect any time-tried, taste-worthy heirloom seeds or heritage breeds. We also want to respect tribal food sovereignty rather than seeing traditional foods commoditized, genetically engineered or outsourced. Many traditional wild foods have a special role to play in preventing diabetes.

UNF: I've read your comments about how these foods are so effective in controlling blood sugar, and have protected Native people for centuries. It really adds depth to eating locally, which some people may view as just another trend. RAFT's approach goes beyond the "eating local" mantra too.

Nabhan: RAFT is deepening our sense of local by focusing on the heritage foods unique to a place and its resident cultures. They are key to post-fossil fuel agriculture, since most of them are adapted to the soils, climate and biota of a particular foodshed and don't need as much pampering. However, some of these, like maple syrup or heirloom fruits, may also need an extra-local, fair trade market in order to survive.

UNF: Can you explain that a bit more?

Nabhan: Let's imagine trade for regionally unique products between foodsheds; like cherries from Michigan being exchanged for prickly pear fruits and pads from the Southwest. In addition to local sales of direct-marketed items, we need direct marketing or barter between regions. This approach would get more of each consumer dollar back to the producers, and ultimately, back to their communities, rather than to middlemen.

UNF: Speaking of the post-fossil fuel economy, author and climate-change expert Bill McKibben was recently in Traverse City, and talked about how eating locally is part of the solution to move past our dependence on cheap fossil fuel. Have you worked together?

Nabhan: Bill and I have taught local foods systems together in Vermont in a climate like Traverse City. He emphasizes the stick: the collapse of the fossil fuel economy. I emphasize the heirloom carrot: more pleasure, flavor, fragrance and stories in our lives.

UNF: Is there another community that has been motivated by that heirloom carrot and embraced the ideas set forth by RAFT, successfully putting these ideas into practice?

Nabhan: Portland, Oregon, is an amazing example. Downtown restaurants there annually source more than five million dollars of locally harvested vegetables, mushrooms, fruits and fish. They get more than 300 chefs, farmers and ranchers to their annual Farmer-Chef Connection event, and are really promoting the heritage foods unique to their area. One Slow Food event I went to there had seventy folks at a potluck, and each family brought a rare RAFT food that had been sustainably harvested or cultivated. When you visit Portland, you are now offered the unique taste of that place. That appears to be happening more and more in northern Michigan as well.

UNF: You paid a visit here in June. What are some of your impressions of the northern Michigan foodshed? Nabhan: The Grand Traverse foodshed has so many interesting initiatives happening within it, as well as some great historic traditions. It's not everywhere you can get smoked cisco, superb cherries and wild leeks, or "ramps," at roadside stands. You have great restaurants like Trattoria Stella that literally sources dozens of foods and drinks from local venues. It seems that a lot of food for-profit and non-profit activities are reinforcing one another. It's an exciting and delicious time to be eating Up North!

UNF: What would a successful end result to this project look like in northern Michigan?

Nabhan: One goal is for Michigan communities to re-adopt one of their neglected traditional foods, help recover it and bring it back onto their tables at American Traditions Picnics in the fall or at other seasonal events. Restaurants and festivals should emphasize the foods unique to your traditions, and tell their stories to the uninitiated. And orchardkeepers should collaborate with the Northwest Michigan Horticultural Research Station to identify abandoned orchards with unique historic fruit varieties in them, to propagate, conserve and promote.

UNF: What's after the Great Lakes?

Nabhan: My great joy lately has been moving from one foodshed to the next, from Alaska to Texas, helping to reinforce existing efforts that will conserve the unique flavors, fragrances and textures of each region on the continent. What is called "local food" in Vermont is altogether different than what I eat at home in Arizona. By re-localizing food systems, revitalizing historic foodways and providing producers with high-value niche markets that truly pay them what they're worth, we can rescue America's imperiled agriculture and food economy. I just returned from the largest food event in American history: 60,000 folks attended Slow Food Nation in San Francisco. There's incredible momentum to democratize and rediversify our food system.

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