“A food historian searches for ingredients disappearing from American cuisine, on the verge of extinction.”
The American buff goose, Amish deer tongue lettuce, Nancy Hall sweet potato, and mulefoot hog are all rare ingredients found in a database called the Ark of Taste. Food historian Sarah Lohman embarked on a cross-country journey to uncover more forgotten ingredients and culinary traditions.
This undertaking was the most recent addition to a distinguished profession that has involved preparing recipes from the 19th century at a museum showcasing living history, as well as recording the evolution of American cuisine in her book Eight Flavors. The book discusses how ingredients such as black pepper and sriracha have influenced and altered the American diet.
During her trip throughout the US, she published her most recent book, Endangered Eating: America’s Disappearing Foods, in October. In order to gather information for the book, she climbed up ladders in Coachella Valley to observe rare dates hanging from palm trees. She also collaborated with locals on Indigenous land in the southwest to slaughter and cook a Navajo-churro sheep. Additionally, she traveled to South Carolina to visit a farm where a food historian was cultivating a type of peanut believed to be extinct.
Lohman discussed with the Guardian the significance of these almost-forgotten foods in terms of culture and politics. The conversation has been edited for brevity and understanding.
What is a food that is in danger of extinction?
I became interested in this project due to the fact that we don’t often consider endangered foods. Typically, the label is given to certain animals like manatees or pandas. It’s not common to hear someone say, “Let’s protect the Long Island cheese pumpkin,” even though it’s a lovely pumpkin native to Long Island and listed on the Ark of Taste by the non-profit organization Slow Food International.
Slow Food International focuses on endangered foods, cataloging both international and national varieties that are considered delicious, unique, and in need of protection. Some of these foods may not be in immediate danger, but are important in their local communities and deserve preservation. However, many of the foods listed are facing threats such as dwindling numbers or lack of cultivation. My book delves into the various reasons why these foods are at risk of disappearing, highlighting that even those considered stable may not be completely safe.
What could cause a food to be placed on the list of endangered species?
The reason for this varies. In the case of Coachella valley dates, farming is a challenging industry. The next generation may not be interested in continuing the family farm, leading to the loss of crops. For Hawaiian sugar cane with a legacy, development has had a significant impact. The growth of Hawaiian resorts has resulted in the displacement of native and agricultural plants as homes are bought up and backyards are destroyed. The endangerment of Indigenous foods, such as the Navajo-churro sheep, is a direct result of colonization and cultural genocide. This occurs when Indigenous peoples are forced off their land and their traditional foods are deliberately replaced with European American staples like white flour, pork, and coffee. This is often due to government interference and the belief that empty land must be cultivated with permanent structures, rather than allowing for traditional nomadic practices.
The Carolina runner peanut, though small and tasty, was replaced by a larger peanut that is easier to harvest with machinery. This change has been influenced by various factors and reflects our history of shaping the American landscape. However, it is important to preserve our culinary traditions by revisiting this decision.
Why is understanding culinary history significant? What is the significance of preserving these foods?
The significance of individual foods varies depending on who you ask. Personally, I value them because they hold cultural significance. The brain processes flavor in the same area as memory, and we often associate certain tastes with our sense of home, whether it be our family’s cooking or a regional dish from our childhood. Losing the ability to experience these flavors can have a deep psychological impact. It is crucial to preserve these foods and support diverse cultures across America, including indigenous, Black, migrant, and immigrant communities, to ensure that everyone has access to their unique cultural foods for generations to come. As stated in my book, it is essential to safeguard these foods and their caretakers.
In 2016, I evaluated your previous publication, Eight Flavors, which posited that American cuisine is continuously evolving to incorporate new culinary customs. Has your recent research prompted you to challenge or elaborate on this theory?
In my book, Eight Flavors, I delve into some of these concepts and ideas. The focus is on the origins and reasons behind our food choices, such as the use of black pepper and the history of vanilla. Throughout the book, I examine how American cuisine evolves over time. It is still fascinating for me to observe these changes.
However, there exists a lengthy inventory of items that have been eliminated from our food production processes. This literature poses the inquiry: why? What does it reveal about our society that we are deliberately removing certain foods from our diets? Where do these foods end up? Often, it can be challenging to ensure their preservation, but the effort is undoubtedly valuable.
Which food do you like the most from the ones discussed in this book?
The Newtown pippin, an apple originating from Long Island, has largely been forgotten. However, unlike other heirloom apples, it has not faced the threat of extinction due to its popularity as the main ingredient in Martinelli’s cider. Martinelli’s pays a premium for the planting of Newtown pippin, which holds a special nostalgic significance for me as it was a staple in my family.
Instead of simply seeing an apple, I now consider the story behind it. The ingredients seem to be present everywhere. It almost feels like familiarizing oneself with a new language.
I enjoy the sensation of discovering a fresh perspective. It’s akin to trying on a new pair of glasses.
The purpose of this book is to alter readers’ perspectives on American cuisine and the significance it holds.
What actions can individuals take to preserve these foods once they adopt that perspective? What is the remedy in this situation?
I believe there is no single solution. A significant consideration is determining who should be allowed access to these foods and at what cost. I have observed individuals profiting from Indigenous foods and others benefiting from Black American food traditions without belonging to those cultures or providing support to the original caretakers of these plants. We should see preserving these foods as an opportunity for those with financial and social power to redistribute resources to those in need. For instance, this could mean purchasing authentic wild rice from the Ojibwe tribe in the American Midwest, who have been cultivating this crop for thousands of years. This not only supports the tribal community but also benefits the individuals who harvested and sold the rice. It is a meaningful investment in the community and can be as simple as buying a bag of rice.
While traveling, consider connecting with the local food scene. I rely on the Ark of Taste book as a resource for finding unique foods. For instance, when visiting the Coachella Valley for vacation or a music festival, why not explore a date farm and sample some delicious dates? This supports local farmers and allows you to experience one of the most delectable foods in the world. The book can also lead you to hidden gems within a 30 minute radius. These foods offer a chance to learn about your own region and culture, as well as the opportunity to discover and appreciate other cultures.