Photo Credit: Shrimp farming in Aceh, Indonesia. Photo by Mike Lusmore/Duckrabbit, 2012 via Flickr.com user WorldFish

Rescuing Fruit Diversity

As mentioned in last week's post, Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT), of which I am founder, learned that at least seventy of the heirloom apples unique to New England that remain are so infrequently featured in nurseries, farmers markets and roadside stands that they can be considered threatened or endangered. One additional source of heirloom fruits is often overlooked—the abandoned orchards lost amongst the underbrush on old homesteads, in national parks and historic farms. Perhaps as many as half of all the trees surviving in remnants of historic orchards and hedgerows are what we call "forgotten fruits"—heirloom apples that have been orphaned, losing their original names, as well as the horticultural and culinary traditions which went with them. And yet they have genetic, historic and perhaps gastronomic significance, just as much as Johnny Appleseed's original plantings in the Ohio River Valley, or as the ancient apple forests of Kazakhstan first explored by Nikolay Vavilov and Aimak Dzangaliev, and recently heralded by Frank Browning and Michael Pollan. This autumn, folks from the RAFT partnership are teaming up with the staff at Old Sturbridge Village outside Worcester, Mass. to explore what can tangibly be done with the forgotten fruits of such abandoned orchards and hedgerows. The oldest trees out on the landscape may be well over a century old, and the last of their kinds that have not perished. We are also sponsoring a similar forum in the Grand Traverse foodshed of northern Michigan, where cherries as well as apples also abound. We are hoping to form local workgroups in each of these foodsheds to inventory, protect and share "scion"-wood cuttings from these neglected reservoirs of food diversity. But such rescues of old-timey varieties form only the first of many steps needed to bring the diverse fruits unique to American landscapes back into our kitchens, public festivals and community feasts. We also need to taste them when fresh, to document their keeping qualities, to bake with them, to press their juices and to ferment them. We need to see which are best used in blends to make hard ciders, and which are best savored as alone distinctive flavors. If you love apples like we love apples, we need your help. Millions of people in this country need our guidance and encouragement to experience the simple fact that apple encompasses more than what Jonathan or Granny Smith can offer. We need to bring back a wider range of fruit diversity into American landscapes, and return their forgotten flavors to our tables. What do you think? Leave us a comment. ———- Gary Paul Nabhan is a world-renowned ethnobiologist, conservationist, and essayist. He is the author of the new book, Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine.