The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, August 1, 2008


Heirlooms that sustain us and our environment

Martha, the last known passenger pigeon, died in captivity in 1914. Until that time, pigeons

The extinction of the passenger pigeon in 1914 may be related to the recent rise of Lyme disease nationwide. (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian Institution)

had been a staple of the American diet, served in pies and stews, and hunted for sport. Their population from the 17th century until Martha’s demise went from almost five billion to zero. Gary Paul Nabhan, editor of Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods, articulates a new hypothesis about the consequences of the extinction of Martha and her kind.

When the pigeons became extinct through overhunting, he says, “their primary food source, acorns, began to flourish. Shortly after, the population of deer and mice, which also subsist on acorns, began to explode, as did the ticks these animals carry.” Today, therefore, scientists who study the rise and fall of species populations are positing a direct pathway between the extinction of the passenger pigeon and the rise of Lyme disease nationwide. If this is true, we can certainly point to evidence of it here in Carlisle, where there are plenty of tick-bearing mice and deer.

Losses of species affect our ecology

There are thousands of endangered, threatened, or extinct species that were once sources of food, clothing or medicine for the American home. Everything from certain species of quail, rabbits, sea turtles and a number of big cats to Bighorn Sheep and even Woodland Caribou (reindeer) can be found on the U.S. Endangered Species List. These shortages and losses change the food chain and ecology of our continent drastically.

The international Slow Food movement promotes the preservation and use of traditional foods and tastes, eschewing fast food to slow down and savor “a social and cultural heritage.” According to Slow Food USA (, 93% of our continental food diversity has been lost over the last century. It is mind boggling to imagine the effects these changes have made in our diet, our environment and our health and wellbeing. Nabhan’s research has determined, for one example, that from some “14,000 named varieties of apples [once grown] in North America … our nursery trade today comprises only about 1,400.”

Reclaiming our diversity and restoring our melting pot

With a number of scientific and culinary organizations across the U.S., Nabhan has formed an initiative called Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) to study and recover the “diverse, imperiled foods of North America.” RAFT and Slow Food USA have compiled a list of some 1,080 American food sources that have become threatened, endangered or functionally extinct. “Heirloom” is an umbrella term that describes foods raised from strains that are either indigenous to or were brought to this continent at least 50 years ago and may be either rare or extinct today. If they are threatened, endangered, or functionally extinct, their rarity or loss upsets part of the continent’s balance of ecology.

Diverse culinary cultures

The work that RAFT and similar organizations are doing to reclaim the variety of our continental food sources and cuisines has produced a magical mix of anecdotal history, science and cultural multiplicity. Shining the spotlight on our native and early food sources to recover their healthful and sustainable benefits also raises awareness about the diverse culinary cultures that made use of them. Slow Foods USA and RAFT, among others, talk about cultural history in terms of food, its hunting or growing, and its preparation.

A New England chowder recipe, for example, might have been handed down through the generations, using North Atlantic fish, salt pork, and New England potatoes. Another New England food tradition might be a baked bean recipe that uses cider produced from regional apples. Southwestern cuisine shows the influence of Mexico and many of the Native American tribes who populated the area. Today’s gumbos, jambalayas and hoppin’ johns from the deep south and Gulf Coast reflect the planting and cooking of the Creole, Cajun and other inhabitants who used the field peas, okra, and rice that flourished there. Recipes from Native American and immigrant cuisines abound and demonstrate that by increasing our appreciation for regional cooking and preparation techniques for sustainable food, America does not have to be the land of the cheeseburger. Instead, we can become a land of diverse and interesting cuisine-with-a-conscience. The ramifications for this literal melting pot could do much to improve the world’s view of us as consumers, not to mention to our culinary reputation.

Negative reinforcement

After the recent tomato-salmonella outbreak that sickened 1,200 people, national estimates placed the loss to the tomato industry at over $100 billion. However, stock clerks at Stop and Shop, Whole Foods, and some of the other grocery stores in our area report not only plummeting sales of packaged tomatoes, but, interestingly, a significant uptick in sales of the heirloom and local vine-grown tomatoes that were not affected by the salmonella strain. Produced mainly by small-scale farms and cooperatives, these tomatoes have traditionally been more expensive, irregularly shaped and even advertised as “ugly.” When it comes to a choice between ugly and a bout with salmonella, however, ugly has been winning hands down.

Latest media reports say that the tomato has been maligned, and that imported jalapeño peppers may have been the culprit carrying salmonella all along. Hopefully, however, it will not take an outbreak of salmonella or some other dreadful germ to continue piquing people’s interest in buying the so-called “heirloom” foods. Looks aside, they tend to be tastier and healthier than their more processed and insipid cousins, and perhaps their price just might induce people not to overbuy.

One sizable success story

One heirloom food that has made a real comeback is the bison. Survivors of the last Ice Age but hunted to virtual extinction in the 19th century, the bison’s plight resulted in what amounted to an ecological genocide in the western plains where they once thrived. Nabham reports that some government officials actually encouraged the hunting of bison in order to

The bison has come back from the edge of extinction and today herds are thriving in the western plains. (Photo from the Audubon Nature Encyclopedia, volume 2)

threaten the Native American populations in the plains who depended upon them for food. The disappearance of the bison wallows (circular soil depressions created by repeated dust bathing) which had created rich, moist soils, also led to the near-extinction of certain wildflower species, prairie turnips, American groundnuts, onions and prairie chicken. These losses created an ecological crisis that forced the animals and human beings who relied on these resources to seek elsewhere for food.

Fortunately, the bison did not go the way of the passenger pigeon. Today, through careful testing, free-range bison descended from the early herds are multiplying and assisting in the resurgence of some of those plants and flowers once thought to be lost from the plains. They are being separated from the hybrid commercial herds, and even those hybrids with cattle genes (originally introduced to create a better beef cow) have been shown to have fewer cattle genes than originally thought. Despite the similarity of feeding methods between commercially raised beef and bison, scientists are demonstrating that bison meat is still a healthy, low-fat, omega-3-rich alternative to beef. Because the spotlight of environmental science is trained on them and their commercial use is regulated to be sustainable, survival for the bison seems assured.

Losses in New England

Here in New England, we have lost several varieties of apples, cranberries, blueberries and other fruit and several birds, including some varieties of turkey (although here in Carlisle turkeys seem anything but rare). The demise in the last century of several species of whales off the Atlantic coast is legendary, and a number of food fish have disappeared as well.

Most recently, New Englanders are coping with the endangerment of the sugar maple tree. Trees are another problem altogether, of course, but they fit neatly into the supply lines for our sustenance and that of other species of woodland inhabitants, and threatened species will set off yet another chain of ecological costs.

Mighty micros

However, New England has at least one significant advantage in the effort to preserve many of our traditional food sources. In this part of the country, farms have always been small in comparison to those in other regions, and so they remain today. The size of the New England states and the short growing season limit us in some ways, but here there has been a resurgence of the small family farm, now called a micro-farm or micro-dairy.

In a photo taken last summer, Tricia Smith and some of her Oberhasli dairy goats share a quiet moment at their Carlisle farmstead. (Photo by Mollie McPhee Ho)

One such farm is our own Carlisle Farmstead Cheese, operated by Tricia Smith of Indian Hill Road. Her Shadowfax American Oberhasli dairy goats are descended from a Swiss breed over 200 years old. Visitors to the Farmers Market on Saturdays can attest to the availability of other locally-grown food items from beef to honey (see “Back to our roots: Homemade in Carlisle,” Mosquito, July 20, 2007), but the Oberhasli dairy goats are probably the closest thing we have so far to an heirloom species.

The good news here in town is that Carlisle’s beekeepers, cattle, dairy and chicken farmers and fruit and vegetable gardeners are, pretty much universally, organic growers, using sustainable techniques and the efficiency of micro-sizing to produce their products. Even if the food sources produced here are not specifically heirloom, surely Carlisle cooks can use them to create regional recipes that will contribute to the food diversity of our continent. Perhaps someday these foods will become heirlooms themselves.∆

For more information about heirloom foods and endangered species, see:

Karen Keb Acevedo, and Carol Boker, Cooking with Heirlooms: a Collection of Recipes with Heritage-Variety Vegetables and Fruits

Juliette Rogers and Barbara Radcliffe Rogers, Eating New England: A Food Lover’s Guide to Eating Locally

Gary Paul Nabhan, Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods. This book has a wealth of further reading recommendations.

Also see the following websites:

© 2008 The Carlisle Mosquito