Flavors for a Rainy Day

How can good taste survive in a graceless age?

The “slow food movement” believes it has identified the heart of the matter: Make preserving nature’s ancient cornucopia a celebration, a global moveable feast that awakens consumers to unique and surprising flavors, creating a demand that may ensure their survival.

The project is called the “Ark of Taste,” and its mission is to save endangered grains, fruits, vegetables and more from the rising flood of homogenized, hyper-processed foods favored by today’s mass retailer. Many of nature’s most exquisite creations are unlikely to find their way into the titanic Costco shopping carts that careen daily through canyons of shrink-wrapped boxes, cans and drums. Booking safe passage on the slow food movement’s metaphorical ark may be the last best hope for such sublime tastes as American antebellum peanuts, Harrison cider apples and Ojai pixie tangerines.

On its Web site, www.slowfoodusa.org, the American coordinating organization describes the goals of the project: “The Ark is an international catalog of foods that are threatened by industrial standardization, the regulations of large-scale distribution and environmental damage. In an effort to cultivate consumer demand — key to agricultural conservation — only the best tasting endangered foods make it onto the Ark.

“Since 1996, more than 800 products from over 50 countries have been added to the international Ark of Taste. The U.S. Ark of Taste profiles over 200 rare regional foods, and is a tool that helps farmers, ranchers, fishers, chefs, retail grocers, educators and consumers celebrate our country’s diverse biological, cultural and culinary heritage.”

As the project gathered force, Michael Pollan, the nation’s most literate omnivore, took notice:

“Of course seed-saver groups have been around for a while now, preserving heirloom varieties from the onslaught of patented hybrids, but Slow Food takes that project a step further. The movement understands that every set of genes on its Ark of Taste encodes not only a set of biological traits but a set of cultural practices as well, and in some cases even a way of life. Take the example of Iroquois white corn. By working to find new markets for this ancient cultivar, Slow Food (along with the Collective Heritage Institute, its partner in this particular project) is ensuring the livelihood of the Native Americans who grow, roast, and grind this corn. . . . Save the genes, and you help save the land and the culture as well.

“Slow Food recognizes that the best place to preserve biological and cultural diversity is not in museums or zoos but, as it were, on our plates: by finding new markets for precious-but-obscure foodstuffs.”

Much more in our next post.

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