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Rediscovering Up-North Traditional Foods with Gary Nabhan

Posted Oct 30 2008 11:22am


When author Gary Nabhan ( Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods ) led a group of locals—including Paula McIntyre, co-founder of Up North Foodies, and Eric Patterson, chef and co-owner of The Cooks’ House restaurant in Traverse City—around northern Michigan earlier this month, they weren’t entirely confident about what they could bring to the table. With 50 wild foods and more than 300 historically cultivated foods of the region on the list of potentially at risk foods, the depth of agricultural knowledge these little-known foods required seemed daunting.

Thankfully, when the group got together thef discovered their collective knowledge on local foods and foodsheds was actually pretty impressive. Which just goes to show you the value of getting together with people in your community and solving problems cooperatively. Not to mention the delicious foods you can discover ( apple cherry hard cider? yum!).

As Eric…writes in his blog about attending the workshop, “I thought to myself, ‘Just keep quiet and they may think I belong here.’” Yet in spite of our individual doubts, we came to realize how clearly the collective wisdom of the group shone through.

“I was struck first by the vastness of experience of those who were there,” Eric writes. “I recognized many of the faces and knew many of them by name, but did not really know how knowledgeable they were in such things.”

Yes, Eric kept quiet for much of the workshop. But he shared his restaurant’s goal to identify what makes up the Great Lakes Cuisine. And while he already features a lot of local foods on his menu, and will soon open a market selling local foods, he writes, “I feel even more urgency in using local foods than before. Somehow the other restaurants in the area need to be convinced that they also need to buy more locally.”

Local chefs will play an important role in getting these traditional foods into the northern market, just as supportive chefs in Seattle helped bring the Makah Ozette potato back to the table there. And growers will need to step up to create a dependable supply to restaurants and markets so that the rest of us will want these foods and know they’ll be available.

For now, we’re left wondering what’s next. People are excited about the possibilities, and recognize this will be a long process. One next step is a Great Lakes regional workshop to be held this winter in Madison, Wisconsin. It will bring together a few people from locales throughout the region, including northern Michigan, to fine tune the list of at-risk foods. At that point, communities will begin planning recoveries, selecting perhaps a few varieties or species they would like to focus on. Eventually a book and strategy plan will be released, like those already published for other foodsheds.

In the meantime, we can all work together to begin the process. Become a food detective; explore partnerships; come up with creative projects for students; learn and share the stories of our northern Michigan varieties. When I think of how that group wisdom came through at the workshop, casting the net even wider to include everyone else in the community is even more promising. Let’s see what our collective effort will return to our plates!

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