Discovering the Food Traditions of the Northeast

by Asta Schuette

“Cuthbert, Fisher, Flagg, Harrison, Marfax, Marlboro, Marshal, McLellen, Rolfe, Shaffer, Souhegan…” This list of names sounds like the roll call at a New England town meeting. Actually these are the names of some traditional fruit and vegetable varieties formerly grown in the Northeast. Do you ever wonder what people ate before food shipping and freezing technologies were developed? What are the traditional foods of this region? I can tell you, it is difficult to pick them out of the displays of oranges, strawberries, lettuce, and tomatoes at your local grocery store in December.

Consumer demand is one of the key forces that determines what farmers grow and hence what foods we see in grocery stores, farmers markets, and restaurants. One umbrella group actively working on this issue is Renewing America’s Food Traditions (which has the aptly designed acronym: RAFT). RAFT brings together non-profit organizations, seed companies, researchers, and farmers to revive regional varieties and build consumer demand. Member organizations include: Slow Food USA, the American Livestock Breeds Association, Chef’s Collaborative, the Cultural Conservancy, Seed Savers, and Native Seeds/SEARCH.

With the rapid industrialization of the food system post-World War II, food has become more processed and homogeneous. TV Dinners, non-dairy creamer, cake mix, Cheeze Whiz, and Rice-A-Roni started to appear on the shelves of American kitchens in the 1950’s; easing the burden of shopping and cooking for families. Why buy cream weekly for your coffee when you can “enjoy” non-dairy creamer in your cup of joe?

With improvements in “convenience” foods, traditional (also known as heirloom) foods slowly started losing their share in the market place. This is unfortunately because traditional varieties were adapted to the specific ecology of a region and many traditional varieties were selected for cultivation based on their taste, mouth-feel, and adaptability to regional climates. These characteristics, selected through traditional breeding methods, provide heirloom foods with a “taste of place” or terroir.

In the industrialized food system, foods are selected for different characteristics, such as uniformity of appearance and transportability. A side of instant mashed potatoes anyone? Rather than promoting the distinct flavors of a region, food produced for the industrial food system in one part of the country is intended to be indistinguishable from that grown in another region. A Gala apple grown in Washington-state, tastes, looks, and smells the same as a Gala grown in China or New York state.

It is the transformation from small, regional food production to large, specialized national and global food production that has allowed many of the food traditions of the Northeast slip away over time. One of the major factors that contributed to the slow and steady demise of many heritage varieties is consumer demand; consumers wanted foods that were convenient, shelf stable, and unfettered by seasons. (Does anyone really know when Cool Whip® is in season?) However, consumer demand can also play a central role in reviving some of the terroir in our food system.

A member of RAFT, and active in the Northeast, is the Chef’s Collaborative. Working with local farmers and local restaurants, the Chef’s Collaborative is building a consumer market for heirloom varieties that are native to the Northeast. Last winter/early spring, the Chef’s Collaborative launched Grow-Out, a new program that gives traditional seeds to farmers and connects chefs to these farmers so they can showcase heirloom varieties on their menus. The goal of the program is to increase markets, promote biodiversity, and create community and connections between farmers and chefs. In the first year of Grow-Out, 16 heirloom vegetables were cultivated by 29 farms during the spring and summer. These traditional foods then found their way into 38 restaurants in the region over the summer and fall.

Farmers as well as consumers benefit from the local cultivation of traditional foods. Anne Obelnicki, the Grow-Out project manager, describes some of the benefits farmers receive by growing traditional regional varieties, “Farmer’s are differentiating themselves from other farmers though these products.” She says, “They are differentiating themselves from industrial produced food as well as organic industrial grown foods.”

The 16 vegetables featured in the Grow-Out are only a fraction of the crops that have been identified as threatened, endangered, or functionally extinct by RAFT. In addition to vegetables, the RAFT list includes fruit, seafood, livestock, and wild edibles.

Reading through the list I felt like I was meeting the plant breeders, shelling the beans, and tasting the fruit of another time.
Looking at the names of these regional foods one gets a sense of the history, the flavor, or the visual appeal of these foods. Some varieties take both the given name and the surname of their breeder such as the Frederick Clapp or the Dana Hovey pear. Other names are clearly early marketing schemes designed to sell the virtues of a variety such as the “Thousand-to-One” or the “Lazy Housewife” bean, the “Queen of the Market” raspberry, or, quite bluntly, “Beven’s Favorite” apple.

Some names highlight amusing physical qualities such as the “Leather Britches” bean or the “Old White Egg” eggplant. Reading these names made me want to create an apple pie with now functionally extinct (according to RAFT) “Defiance” wheat and “Rambo” apples. I wonder what it would taste like…defiant revolutionaries with machine guns and bandanas?

All joking aside, reviving traditional food varieties is important to those of us interested in nutrition because it arms us with more healthy ammunition to fight obesity. Just as food companies have learned that consumer’s pallets differ, so nutritionists should recognize that more fruits and vegetables grown for a specific region can increase and prolong the availability of fresh food and provide new tastes and textures that will appeal to a wider audience of people. If nutritionists continue to use bland chicken breasts and watery, tasteless tomatoes to coax people into a healthier diet, the battle is lost.

Although we at nutrition school love our fruits and vegetables, the real keystone to food production in the Northeast is grazing or pastures raised livestock. Dr. John Carroll, Ph.D, a professor of environmental conservation at the University of New Hampshire, emphasized the importance of grazing to the Northeast at a Friedman School Wednesday Seminar in September.

“Grazing is the key to food security in this region. A wide variety of animals can be produced by grazing…not simply liquid milk,” he stated. “We should be making it into cheese, meat, and so forth as our forbearers did as a way of preserving [milk]. Grazing soils are a unique aspect of the region.” At one point, pasture raised animals were a cornerstone to food security in the Northeast. Since then most traces of grazing have disappeared, except maybe a dilapidated stone wall marking an old field; cutting through a deciduous forest.

Rebuilding a regional food system rich in the traditions and biological diversity that once thrived in the Northeast is important to good nutrition and the natural environment. This region will never again be as self-sufficient as it was during its colonial grazing days. Nor should it be, with the growth of the population in the Northeast the land base cannot fully support an adequate diet for all the residents. However, bringing some of the history, taste, and biodiversity back to our food would please the gourmand, the environmentalist, and the nutritionist in me. With that in mind, I urge you to incorporate one or two regional varieties into your holiday meals this season. I know I will be dreaming of my “Defiance Rambo Pie.”

(For a complete list of the foods in the Northeast identified by RAFT please go to: http://www.slowfoodusa.org/downloads/raft-new_england_risk.pdf if you would like to become more involved in preserving food traditions please join Slow Food Tufts by contacting Asta Schuette or Jessica Lattif.)

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