Part 1 of my interview with conservationist Gary Nabhan, we talked about impacts of modern farming, the implications of biological complexity, and the current direction of the sustainable food movement. In this second installment of our conversation, Nabhan talks about his childhood on the shores of Lake Michigan, about how his Arab-American heritage has influenced the direction his career has gone, and about how a modern chef is like a jazz musician.
French: Where were you born, and can you describe your childhood in the context of the work you are doing now.
Nabhan: I was born in to a Lebanese America immigrant clan in 1952, on the edge of Lake Michigan across the border east of Chicago, so I grew up right on Lake Michigan and the Indiana Dunes – and my back yard is now part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
So, I spent a lot of time out in the boonies. It wasn’t an agricultural area, per se, as much as my grandfather was a fruit peddler who would go up and get things from Michigan and bring them back to sell at farmers markets.
French: Did you ever go out with your grandfather, collecting or selling fruit?
Nabhan: Yes, a fruit peddler and before that a sheep herder, so it’s sort of an irony that I raise sheep and fruit now. I was a little kid, but it was certainly there in front of me. And I saw that people were there selecting perfect fruits and delivering them in perfect condition on a small scale. Literally, my uncles and cousins would pick fruit and bring it back to the markets of other uncles, and also do some exchange with local fisherman. Great fish and fruit were an unquestioned part of my childhood.
French: When did you know that food was an area of interest for you?
Nabhan: Well, when I was maybe 26 of 27, I was having a Thanksgiving dinner on one of the Indian reservations in Arizona. And I was in awe that this woman was making these pre-Columbian dishes for dinner, with a little tongue in cheek humor.
French: Can you describe what she was making?
Nabhan: Yes, she was making Tepary beans, sort of slow cooking them on an outside fire, and make Mesquite pod pudding, and pies from a green striped squash, and Cholla cactus, and I was totally in awe at this opportunity to eat what was consumed in the region prior to European colonization of the desert.
I was really shy, but finally a friend said, “Do you know that Gary is Lebanese?” And the hostess replied that she loved Lebanese food, saying that she had cooked for a Lebanese lawyer, but that she couldn’t find the spices she used anymore. And we were losing access to ingredients.
And at that point the whole world lined up, and I realized right then that being an ecologist interested in food sustainability and that conservation of food diversity is not that weird.
French: And when was that?
Nabhan: In 1978.
French: But in 1978 everything that is currently happening with food conservation was barely a glimmer.
Nabhan: Yes, that’s true. In 1982 I co-founded Native Seeds/SEARCH that helped conserve the food diversity of all cultures, native and immigrant, and we were the only nonprofit on the Southwest region working on anything like that, and now there are dozens. And so it’s gratifying, not to see what we did, but to see how many groups have found a comfortable niche contributing to local food systems.
French: Do you think that was partly because of Native Seeds/SEARCH, or was it just a natural progression, an organic movement, if you will?
Nabhan: It was definitely organic the way it happened. There are so many reasons for seeing the revitalization of regional food networks and place-based local heritage foods, and sustainable agriculture that is sensitive to the climate and environment in which it occurs. And that we were a few years ahead of the curve is not genius.
French: And was your interest in food a direct product of your interest in ecology?
Nabhan: It’s astonishing that I remember my first ecology seminar in school. The teacher brought in this paper, saying “Someone thinks that the oceans are not an endless source of food – that we may have limits…I’ve never thought about that.” And ironically, it took people another 18 years to realize, since 1971, that our ocean fish stocks – about 170 different fish – reached their peak harvest in 1971 and have since unilaterally declined. It just seemed unfathomable, even in 1970, that we’d have dozens of fisherman industries working on the conservation of fisheries.
French: How did this awareness spread?
Nabhan: Well, chefs played a large part in this. For example, when the Chefs Collaborative, with over 800 chefs around the US, said “We won’t buy swordfish until we’re sure that the harvest is sustainable,” it basically shut down the unscrupulous brokers who were encouraging fisherman to hammer population after population. And then it seemed that the whole notion of “eater based conservation” really took off. The idea that we vote every time we eat with our mouths, and knives and wallets and bellies – whether we want a diverse food system or an impoverished food system – seemed plausible.
French: And so, your fist nonprofit group was the Native Seeds/SEARCH. How did that progress into the Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) project?
Nabhan: Well, there was a hiatus for a while. RAFT started in 2004 when I realized that the sustainable agriculture groups and conservation groups and chefs groups had all begun to find common ground, and I wanted to develop an alliance that had more synergies. I wanted to create something where they could really learn from one another and be incredibly effective. And one of the key elements there was that, how do I want to say this, that there were people talking across those boundaries who were friends, but we hadn’t really captured the possibilities of our discussions.
French: Can you give me an example of this?
Nabhan: To say it more tangibly, my friend Kent Whealy who co-founded Seed Savers Exchange and was also a MacArthur Fellow, he and I were beginning to feel that if something didn’t happen, that the seeds we had saved earlier would just be museum pieces in agricultural museums or mechanical gardens, but not have any impact on real food systems. And all of a sudden, we began to find interest from chefs who began to realize there were great flavors and colors and textures. And the chefs began to realize that they could play a role in promoting conversation. They were deeply interested in these things historically and in a culinary sense, but I don’t think they realized their power as chefs to set trends and shape public opinion.
French: And this has grown dramatically recently, hasn’t it.
Nabhan: Yes, and how! With Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley and Peter Hoffman of Savoy in New York and many others in between.
French: Do chefs have perhaps too much influence, now? Does it need to go in the other direction?
Nabhan: Yes, I think you’re right.
French: Do you feel like your Arab background and culture helps you integrate your work? Even in the Southwest where you live?
Nabhan: I grew up around Greek and Eastern European Jews, and Armenians, and native Americans, and Gypsies, and African Americans, and I sort of feel like a lot of my Native American friends who don’t have the stereotypical physical appearance. I don’t look particularly Arab, but I have a deep sense of my family’s history. And so labels aren’t the point – I don’t want to be assertive about it. I’m thankful for the flavors and stories that are part of my imagination. And so whether I look “light” or not is not part of the issue.
We were wrong to subsume our diversity into two or three diversities in the 1960s and 1970’s…especially with food traditions. We need the greater diversity that truly exists to be reflected.
All our cultural diversity of the United States background – how could we not have such an incredible food diversity, and of course we have so many niches for growing things on this continent, and abundant water and soil, and so if you read the older food writers like M.F.K. Fisher and they just marvel and the American continent’s capacity to produce food. It’s not worn down. It’s so abundant. It’s a remarkable blessing to live on this continent.
French: And do you consider yourself a farmer at this point?
Nabhan: I occasionally use that term, and we just had a failed attempt to buy a 15 acre farm with the economic collapse, not having yet sold my place near the Grand Canyon, I’ve been looking for a farm as sort of a big quest to get the last place I live for the rest of my life right, but I’m uncomfortable with calling myself my farmer. A farm advocate certainly, and an occasional farmer, but I wouldn’t call myself a rancher, so again the labels …but we raise a lot of our own food, and we do sell to restaurants and farmers markets.
French: How much land do you have now?
Nabhan: Yes, so we’ve about 3 acres right now, with two gardens, a field, and then sheep, turkeys and horses. The story that I want to emerge for North America is the story of restoration of the cornucopia that is our birthright. We were born into a place with this astonishing abundance of foods that have been depleted by industrial processes and I want us to make sure that more doesn’t slip through our fingers.
French: Most of us living today hardly know where our food comes from – what do you think led to that complete disassociation, and what are the quickest and most sure ways that we can connect back with that?
One question: I'm not familiar with Franciscan tradition, but he mentioned he was married and being ordained a priest. Are Franciscans not celibate?