Preserving and Protecting Native Foods | Civil Eats

Preserving and Protecting Native Foods

At a Slow Food dinner seven years ago, native foods chef John Farais and California native landscaper Alrie Middlebrook began an ongoing conversation about the importance of integrating native plants into our daily lives and diets.

One fruit of that conversation is the Eating California class sponsored by the California Native Garden Foundation. The goal of the class is to inspire a movement of passionate native food lovers, and in the process start an ecological revolution.

Native foods are, by definition, adapted to the places in which they grow and as a result have a far smaller environmental load on the land. One of Alrie’s dreams would be to transfer food production to urban areas – on rooftops, in city gardens – freeing up farmlands to be reclaimed as native habitat. The ultimate result, she reasons, would be greater biodiversity with less energy use and pollution.

And greater culinary diversity, as well.

There are thousands of native edibles, many of which have superior nutrition and even taste than their cultivated counterparts. The problem at this point is that they can be hard to come by in our modern world. Some of them are being protected and supported by Slow Food USA’s Ark of Taste. The Ark’s goal is to catalog and protect forgotten foods before they disappear. Foods such as Desert Oregano, Pinyon Pine Nuts, Emory Acorns, and Mesquite Pod Flour are all represented.

Beyond the foods themselves are the lessons that they teach us. When ethnobotanist Kat Anderson, from U.C. Davis, talks about the Native Californian way of harvesting food, it sounds like poetry:

Do not take everything

Leave something behind

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What Kat is describing is simply a culture code of respect for the land that feeds them. And that belief isn’t necessarily gone, just perhaps forgotten.

She tells this story of the elders speaking about the decline of the native plants: “No one is talking to the plants,” they say, “and as a result they go away.” The elders say the plants miss us but are in hiding. They will return, but “only when we start paying attention.”

Slow Food Nation’s Native Foods Pavilion at Taste, curated by Bernadette Zambrano will be open Saturday, August 30 and Sunday, August 31. Foods available for tasting will include wild rice from the White Earth Land Recovery Project, posole with native corn hominy and buffalo.

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Photos by Aaron French and Yosemite Native American

Chef / Ecologist Aaron French is the Environment Editor at Civil Eats. He is the chef of The Sunny Side Cafe and is writing his first book "The Bay Area Homegrown Cookbook" (Voyageur Press, 2011). He has a Masters in Ecology and is currently working toward his MBA at UC Berkeley, with a focus on sustainable business practices. Read more >

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