I have, for the last many years, been on personal and professional quest to help preserve regional flavors by supporting farmers’ markets and encouraging local purchasing. When I say flavors here, I refer specifically to the vanishing diversity of ingredients that have been replaced over the last 50 years or so by those great looking but tasteless varieties that have been pushed on us by agribusiness. Perfect example: the red delicious apple that has nothing delicious about it.
Most recently I came across a list of 700 (!) or so food ingredients that are claimed to be disappearing from the American landscape. This list is the result of a project called RAFT (Rediscovering American Food Traditions) created by a coalition of well respected organizations that include Slow Foods America, Chefs Collaborative, Native Seeds/Research (http://www.slowfoodusa.org/raft/overview.html). Amongst those 700 ingredients was one item that hit a little too close to home: The Gravenstein Apple. I am very familiar with this apple. I have baked with it. It makes a great apple sauce. Every year in late summer, I enjoy its fresh crisp short lived flavor (this apple doesn’t store well). The Gravenstein was first planted in California by Russian traders in the early 1800’s and it is mostly commercially grown in Sebastopol, a couple of counties North of where I live. I was shocked to see its name on an “endangered” species list but I suppose I shouldn’t have been. What is happening to this apple is indicative of what’s happened to the 1000’s of apple varieties that have disappeared from our American countryside. Yes, 1000’s. Point of fact: Of 8,000 varieties of apples grown in the U.S. in 1900, 95% are extinct because hybrid varieties are more profitable. I.e.: that not so delicious Red Delicious.
I met an apple farmer in Washington a few years ago who ran an orchard and fruit stand just outside of Seattle, Washington. It was a classic American setting on a cool fall day. The smell of wet leaves. Red barns. Stacked hay. Pumpkin Patch. Hot house made cider. He sold the most beautiful variety of apples, including one called the Pink Lady. Good balance of sweet and tart. Very juicy and yummy! We got to talk and I was astonished when he said he wasn’t sure how much longer he could hold out as a farmer. He had an abundant harvest and a seemingly wonderful lifestyle. Who could give that up? But the reality was that he couldn’t hold on financially. You see, he couldn’t even sell his apples to the local box store because he couldn’t compete with the price of imported apples from China! From China! For Pete’s sake, what are the Chinese doing growing apples? Have you ever seen apples on a Chinese take-out menu? Do they bake pies in China? Do they bob for apples at their community Halloween parties? I was dumbfounded. And, I couldn’t image the impact on local flavors in that region, as well as the loss of American agricultural heritage, should this man close his farms and pull his trees out of the ground for a housing development! Now, it’s happening in my own region in one of the most agriculturally picturesque areas of California. I stewed, feeling inadequate at my in-ability to save this dying apple, in my occasionally typical Don Quixote mode.
Soon after, John Ash (one of my culinary heroes) invites me to attend the annual Gravenstein Apple Festival in Sebastopol, unaware of this newfound cause. A random event, but reminder that I needed to save my Dulcinea from extinction. A few days later, Anya Fernald from the Communiuty Alliance with Family Farmers offers me several bottles of Gravenstein apple juice to taste. Another random unrelated event, but one truly delicious aromatic gulp was all it took to move me forward on a new quest…what can I do to help others re-discover this truly delicious local flavor?
Unlike Quixote, my quest turned out to be easy. No windmills to battle with. No knights to fight. It was a simple matter of connecting the dots: call the farmer, call the operators, call the local distributor and bring them together. On Eat Local Challenge Day at Bon Appétit, Nana Mae’s Gravenstein Apple juice was a featured item at every unit in No. California. More importantly, the infrastructure was put in place to continue selling this truly delicious apple flavor to our guest. ( http://nanamae.com )
I can sleep better now, knowing that at least I did something, however small it was in the bigger picture of this the large agricultural issues we face in the US. But now I’m thinking. How many other “Gravenstein” are there in the rest of the country where Bon Appétit can work to connect the dots? I suspect that through Farm to Fork and Eat Local Challenge we have done some of this unknowingly. But what if we connected the dots knowingly? What quantum difference can we make in preserving flavor? How many dying “apples” can we help rediscover? So, I’m putting out into blogland and I’ll wait to look for random events?. Feel free to send them my way. I’m ready to connect the dots, lance in hand and Sancho at my side.
Yours Truly, Marc Quixote de La Mancha.
— Marc Zammit, Director of Culinary Support & Development