Renewing America’s Food Traditions: An Interview with Gary Nabhan, Part II | Civil Eats

Renewing America’s Food Traditions: An Interview with Gary Nabhan, Part II


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?

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Nabhan: In a way, I’m interested in the creative tension between honoring the farmers in all the centers of diversity where our food historically emerged from, and honoring the farmers who provide us our food.  Because hopefully, more and more food systems, regional food sheds, are starting to re-emerge.

French: But how did we get detached from them in the first place?

Nabhan: You know, when I think about that I think about the incredible dramas that we have in the American literary canon about that change – from East of Eden, with john Steinbeck telling us about the first shippable produce on freezer cars out of California that now so dominates much of America for most of the year.

So, having shippable produce was something that University of California Davis and other agricultural colleges began to select for over nutrition and over flavor, and because of that we became less interested in where our food came from, and more in its east transformation into a commodity.

French: Yes, like the square tomato, the holy grail of packable produce!

Nabhan: Yes, what a terrible idea!  It’s such a different way of looking at the world than terroir, where you say “Obviously this came from this place, because all the wines this region have this incredible taste to them, or oysters from Hog Island, or Peugeot Sound, have this particular flavor.  You can blindfold chefs and they can tell you a Sonoma Gravenstein apple from another kind of Gravensteins because of the flavor.  But now our food has become placeless, and a lot of other values went out the window when that happened.

French: Are you the cook at home?

Nabhan: Yes, most of the time, through my wife makes great stews and soups

French: So she’s the Fall and Winter cook, then?

Nabhan: Yes.

French: How do you like to cook?

Nabhan: It’s one of the great joys, it’s completely out of the mind and into the body and the senses.  Cooking is kind of a magical moment fro me, and I love taking something all the way through…so butchering a lamb, seasoning it with spices that I’ve collected, roasting it in the wood fired oven outside, making sauces to baste it with, and so I love that sort of beginning to end immersion in something that may take a whole day.

French: In your estimation, how many people in the US might have experienced something like that in their lifetime, even once?

Nabhan: I haven’t even thought about that?  What’s your guess, have most rural people done that, I don’t know?

French: I think if you changed the question to include a farmer who then grew their food to eat, it would certainly be a much larger number…

Nabhan: Yes.

French: …but if you take to the level you are taking about, where the spices you gathered, and all the marinades you make yourself and you cook it in a wood fired oven where you probably chopped the wood yourself…

Nabhan: Yes, and I also made the wood fired oven…

French: …and made the oven.  So if you take it to that level probable very few.

Nabhan: But I don’t want to make it into a Martha Stewart kind of thing, that’s not it.

French: No, of course.

Nabhan: Martha Stewart has sort of made a parody of all of this.  But what’s interesting to me about it is tracking the story. I mean, the food is so much more memorable, such a deeper part of my imagination if I can tell over dinner who we originally got our sheep from, and the story of butchering them with my Navajo friend who’s been a sheep herder since age 6, and how the grape leaves that we’re having as a side dish, that I used to import grape leaves from Lebanon until I realized I could use Arizona wide grape leaves to do dolamdas instead of bringing in Lebanese ones.

French: Do the Navajo butcher different from a western butcher?

Nabhan: Yes, that’s interesting.

French: How are the cuts different?

Nabhan: Well, lambs are pretty easy to butcher.  I’ve never butchered a cow, but have butchered many pigs and goats and all of that.   After one of us holds the neck, and one of us bleeds it.  He will literally use his elbow to separate the skin from the carcass, and does some really really interesting things, separating out the legs first.

French: But, isn’t it hanging?

Nabhan: We will put it down on a tarp.  We hang it to bleed it, take it down, remove the back legs, and then separate out the whole rib cage and all of that.  And then sever the front legs.  And then he uses all the tripe, the intestines and all.  I haven’t done blood sausage or anything like that.  But I do use all the scraps that people usually toss.  These subtleties are where he cuts that are different from what most trained butchers would do.

French: Speaking of the farmers and how many people have worked with their meal from beginning to end, how is it that farmers, with so much land, are now so poor as a rule?

Nabhan: You can see that even in the United States right now, a lot of our farmers are so in hock they can’t even afford their own food.  It’s a better deal for them to sell as much of their food as possible, and then get cheap food from a local warehouse, and try to pay off all their debts.

And it’s so odd, the way that the government has subsidized farmers has ended  up putting farmers up on a treadmill to pay back larger and larger debts and so that’s why both in the United States and internationally, farmers have one of the highest suicide rates of any professions.

French: Well, it used to be chefs, but that’s declined recently.

Nabhan: Vandana Shiva talks about this, but it’s in part because of this thing where I heard a very poignant story from a friend of mine in the Midwest.  A farmer realized that his farm, that had been in his family for 4 generations, that he had so over borrowed and  he couldn’t pass it onto his kids, and he had to tell his wife that they’d have to move into town, and he couldn’t even face it, so he went out to the barn and shot himself.

French: And yet, one could argue from a positive perspective that the reason for these food polices were created was to feed the nation, not bankrupt people?

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Nabhan: Yes, but look at the current financial mess, you know the cheap mortgages weren’t supposed to bankrupt the nation either….

French: So, the issue you’re getting that is a true cost pricing?  What is the real cost of food security?

Nabhan: When Earl Butz, former Secretary of Agriculture, said “Get big or get out,” he was telling farmers to buy larger equipment.  So they bought a 400,000 lb thresher, and thought that based on current yields and prices, I can probably pay that back in 10 years.  But them maybe it’d be 15 years, and perhaps they didn’t account for fuel and management and the whole thing shifts.

French: What’s your take on Biomimicry as a solution to some of these environmental issues?

Nabhan: To harvest water from fog, and from micro-crevices…

French: Yes, exactly.  How many of these technological advances are possible, and how much should we just look backwards to what is already there, that is my question.  How much can we trust technology of the future to solve these big issues we are facing?

Nabhan: I dream of a little bit different way.  I like to think of it as …and I’m really excited by the imaginations of the authors of this work.  But even if you are excited by that, why would you throw away the parts of the tried and true solutions from the past.  So, if we invent some new ways of water harvesting that we didn’t have before, great.  But why throw away the system my ancestors created where the water is harvested off bedrock and put into a horizontal cistern where it is stored without any evaporation.  Why would you abandon that for some completely novel but untested water harvesting system?  Let’s save all the parts, and keep what we’ve learned from the past, and there’s no contradiction about loving innovation and still loving the traditional parts as well.

It’s like a jazz musician who incorporates very ancient riffs into modern music.  Is he being disrespectful, or does he not want to advance the music?  No, it’s both modern and classic.  It’s the same thing with chefs, yet it’s so interesting that how we define that line between tradition and innovation.

If you would have told someone 25 years ago that a guy like Rick Bayless who takes traditional Mexican cuisine and used that as his portfolio of “riffs,” this language to do innovation around, people would say “French is where the culinary world is, you’re never going to get Mexican as high cuisine. Come on now!”  But he’s excelled at exactly that!

Tradition and innovation are so interconnected.  The irony is that fast food and GMOs have become static and that’s why they fail.  Traditional agriculture is dynamic and innovative that’s why it’s not going to fail.

To say the every McDonalds is going to cook the hamburger in the same way, every time – that’s trying to freeze something in time.  If you say, “I want 20 million acres of corn planted with the same variety,” that’s the same quest for the static.  But we need dynamic, instead.  Fast food isn’t fast, it’s still.   It’s trying to stay in the same place, it’s not innovation.

French: As a chef personally, I’ve been trying to integrate more native food into my food, and it’s remarkably difficult to do.  For example, some foods that are California native are now only available if imported from South America, not where it naturally comes from.  Do you think there is a role for native foods, and if so what is it?

Nabhan: Well, I was going to say that the interesting thing is… it’s someone like David Parker saying that even the great peaches and nectarines developed in California in the 1950’s are already not available.  You can’t find them anywhere.

French: But I hear this a lot: “If they aren’t here, that must be because they weren’t very good.  There’s a reason that they are lost.”

Nabhan: That’s unbelievably idiotic.  And so, we have 19 apples left in American grocery stores out of the 14 thousand found in this country.

French: Even 19 are more than you find in many stores.

Nabhan: Yes, and so I hear people say that they have heard that certain apples aren’t that good, like some of the heirlooms, so there must be reasons that they disappeared.  But that’s if we think of an apple as a desert food for fresh eating.  How about for hard ciders, and sauces, and apple butters, and cider blends?  I went to a little place in Michigan that had these extraordinary blended ciders.

And so we now have some of the rarest apples in the US, thought to be extinct, and some of the finest apple cider I’ve ever had was from a blend of some of these rare apples.  People are thinking that they must have been lousy, but they are thinking about eating the apples fresh, the week it was picked, but some apples improve over time and are better to eat in January.  It’s like saying a record fell off the music charts so obviously that music isn’t very good any more.  It’s very weird logic.

French:  Are we shifting in the right direction right now, in the sustainable food movement?

Nabhan: Maybe, but what worries me is that there are a lot of secular missionaries, and I’m not disparaging what they say or how deeply they mean it, but I don’t want to be converted to anything.  So, anything that stinks of being a movement, I worry about.

French: You mention missionaries.  Who holds the moral high ground, of the religions in the world, in terms of the food issue.  Are there religions or movements that hold a viewpoint that would keep us going in the right direction?  Or is science the answer?

Nabhan: Jeez, interesting question.  Well, I did an essay years ago about “A spirit earthly enough.”  I find within every major religion…I find people who’s spirituality isn’t other-worldy but is a spirit that is Earthly enough to be made manifest right where we live. The whole idea that heaven and hell are right here in this world with us, and are what we choose to see manifest right here in our own lives and in our community.

For instance, in the Mennonite and Amish traditions, even if we disparage evangelical and puritans for whatever reason, there are people there that deeply love the integrity of food the same way that Michael Pollan is talking about.

We can see that in monasteries, I can see it in Ramadan in Muslims, I can see it at seder among my Jewish friends, that there are certain Rabbis that guide the criteria for kosher that decided that kosher shouldn’t’ include GMO’s, because this is a deeply spiritual issue.  Can we say the food is acceptable if it is literally manipulating “God’s handiwork” to use that metaphor?  And I can say that I have found an element of that in nearly every religious tradition I can think of.

French: Do you personally have a spiritual tradition?

Nabhan: I’m a Franciscan Lay Brother.  And so I think deeply about the world in terms of what St. Francis of Assisi thought about, but even when he was captured by Muslims, he went to the mosque with them and backed off from trying to convert them. And so I’m more concerned that any participation in the spiritual tradition for me should be really personal and not about bringing anyone else too it.

French:  Did you think about trying to go farther down that path?

Nabhan: Well, I’m going to be ordained as a priest by next year.  But it’s not unrelated to anything else I do, so it’s …my point is that it informs my ecology and restoration, and my ecology informs my Franciscan beliefs.

Gary Nabhan will be in San Francisco on April 29th,  speaking about the Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) program and the book by the same name.  Hosted by CUESA, the presentation will take place in the Port Commission Hearing Room in the Ferry Building, and will be followed by a tasting of rare and endangered foods found at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Buy tickets here.

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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  1. Amerigo
    Fascinating interview. I've never thought about the idea of "secular missionaries", very interesting. I also liked the "earthly spirit" concept, and how it applies to how we eat.

    One question: I'm not familiar with Franciscan tradition, but he mentioned he was married and being ordained a priest. Are Franciscans not celibate?
  2. great interview...thank you.

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