Top | The Culinate Interview

Gary Paul Nabhan

(article, Twilight Greenaway)

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p(blue). The director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University, Gary Paul Nabhan is one of the founders of Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT), a coalition of nonprofit food, agriculture, conservation, and educational organizations dedicated to safeguarding and revitalizing “authentically American” foods. He is also the author or co-author of numerous books, including Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods.

You advocate what you call a “bio-regional” approach to eating. In your opinion, how did we get to the point where regional foods have to be re-introduced?
In the era of cheap fossil fuel, it seemed that sourcing food from all over the country and all over the world would reduce the monotony of our diets. Oddly enough, that seeking of more diversity at some point undermined the diversity of regionally adapted foods, in the sense that plant breeders then tried to breed for crops that could be grown in a wide variety of places.

[%image nabhan float=left width=275 credit="Photo courtesy Gary Paul Nabhan" caption="Gary Paul Nabhan on a farm in Arizona."]
What brought you to the Southwest originally? It sounds like the region has really shaped your work.
I’m from a family of Arab immigrants and there was something about deserts — being of Arab heritage — that really pulled on my heartstrings. So I moved to Arizona when I was 19, and for the bulk of the last three decades I have lived here. I think it’s the mix of cultures you find in the southwestern United States and their different approaches to farming and ranching that interests me so much.

Your project has broken the country into what you call “food nations,” each named after a food item that is deeply tied to the history and culture in the area. What advice do you have for someone who grew up in, say, Salmon Nation (the Pacific Northwest), but moves to Chile Pepper Nation (the Southwest)? Do you think we bring a sense of our food nation with us?
I actually think knowing how food is grown or harvested within another area of the country helps us be a conscience for our neighbors in our newfound homeland. For instance, a friend of mine who now lives in Arizona grew up in Minnesota, and he is very careful to tell people why they should buy wild rice from the Great Lakes and not industrially produced wild rice from California. He doesn’t have anything against California farmers, but there are additional taste and cultural benefits to the way wild rice is produced in the Great Lakes region.
RAFT does a lot of work with indigenous people. Can you say a little about what that work is like?
Our main goal is to see that the original stewards of the unique foods on this continent benefit from the current interest in them. Some of them may benefit economically through fair trade, but (these foods) also need to be in their communities to prevent diabetes and other nutritional diseases. 

There’s tremendous intellectual and culinary interest in regional foods at this time, and I have the honor and pleasure of getting to work hand-in-hand with many Native American fishers, farmers, and gatherers. I was just down south of the border in Mexico helping the Seri Indians harvest wild oregano to offer to fair-trade outlets through the Center for Sustainable Environments website.

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What are some of the biggest challenges in doing that work?
When doing cross-cultural work, you can’t be too pushy or too economically focused. A lot of these communities have reasons to keep these foods going other than the economic benefits. Some of them don’t want sacred foods to be commoditized. For instance, I know the Hopi farmers would like to see more of their young people farm, but they don’t necessarily think that growing blue corn for the corn-chip market is the way to go, because it might diminish some of the sacredness that comes with using blue corn in their ceremonial cycle.

How does RAFT plan to reach out to the larger population, to folks who may not feel an innate connection to the indigenous foods in their own areas?
RAFT is launching a campaign to designate a national holiday in September that would be called the Great American Picnic. It would be a week in which local communities choose to have celebration of their regionally produced foods that are linked to the particular place where they live, the history and the culture. Half our holidays honor great men and women, but we don’t honor the unique foods and the communities of farmers and fishermen that may be anonymous to most of us but who are just as much a part of the essence of America as George Washington or Martin Luther King are.  

How has raising your own livestock and growing your own food impacted your work?
I raise Navajo-Churro sheep and Black Spanish Turkeys and 20 to 30 native crops each year for home use and to sell in farmers’ markets. And I have never been involved in livestock production before, but knowing where my meat comes from, being responsible for butchering it, and taking care of the animals during the year I think makes me respectful of what it takes to get any animal product in the market — rather than having someone do the dirty work so that I can eat. I’m constantly humbled when I have to do that for myself.

You’ve written about your belief that eating something is one way to ensure that it will continue to exist. Can you say more about that?
We feel that a participatory kind of food conservation and celebration is a much more effective way of saving the rich diversity of foods unique to this continent than telling people, “Hands off!”  Until there are food communities that care enough to invest more in the people who are sustainably producing them, we’ll still be losing foods that have such incredibly unique flavors and textures and fragrances that future chefs will regret that we ignored them.

What’s the most interesting or unusual food that you’ve eaten?
Tomato hornworm larvae that you roast or fry and then string them on necklaces. And when you’re hiking or walking along to get your exercise, you can just nibble off the larvae as you go. It’s another native tradition and it’s not for everyone, but I’ve done it many times over the years. It’s a little extra protein and crunch. 

p(bio). Twilight Greenaway is a writer and editor in the Bay Area.

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