Saving Endangered Species One Mouthful at a Time

Gary Paul Nabhan i i

Author Gary Nabhan, a conservation scientist, wants to motivate Americans to play an active part in conserving rare species by eating them. Courtesy of the author hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy of the author
Gary Paul Nabhan

Author Gary Nabhan, a conservation scientist, wants to motivate Americans to play an active part in conserving rare species by eating them.

Courtesy of the author
Renewing America's Food Traditions Book Cover

Conservation scientist Gary Paul Nabhan knows how to save endangered species: Slice them up and slap them on the grill.

There are more than 1,000 plants and animals once commonly eaten in the United States that are threatened or virtually extinct, Nabhan says, and saving them means creating market demand for flavors that have fallen off American dinner plates. His combination cookbook and history, Renewing America's Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods, documents many of these once-common foods that reflect our culinary heritage. It's also a call-to-action on how to recover foods at risk before they go the way of the passenger pigeon.

Nabhan cites grass-fed bison and the Tennessee fainting goat — a breed that literally passes out when it's startled — as examples of lost meats that have started to reappear at the dinner table in recent years. Professional chefs are experimenting with them, and in Tennessee and surrounding states, people have taken to grilling the succulent goat meat. But "you can't fix these heritage breeds as if they're a frozen angus steak," Nabhan warns.

"If we create local market demand for these — if we take these place-based heritage foods and make them the pride of our fairs and festivals and thanksgivings and picnics again — they will come back from the brink of extinction," Nabhan said in a conversation with Andrea Seabrook.

Finding the foods isn't always easy, Nabhan says, but local farmers markets and the Internet are good places to start. Local Harvest and Slow Food USA provide resources on how to gather many rare items, he says.

"By reminding people that these foods have been an important part of the historic dietary of America, we think we can motivate people besides self-described environmentalists to play a part in this conservation," Nabhan says.


Crow Bison Cattail Stew

1 pound bison meat

6 cups water

1 bay leaf

1 chopped cattail stalk bases (Typha latifolia)

1/2 cup chopped prairie turnips (Psorelea hypogaea)

1 cup flint cornmeal

5 cedar or juniper berries, crushed

1 teaspoon salt

Black or red pepper to taste

In a 2-quart saucepan, place 1-inch cubes of the bison meat and add water until it sits 2 inches above the level of the meat. Add the bay leaf and simmer, uncovered, over medium heat for two hours. Next, add the chopped cattails, prairie turnips, cornmeal and crushed juniper berries. Cook for at least 30 minutes more, stirring regularly, until the cornmeal is viscous. Add salt and red or black pepper to taste and serve in warm bowls.


Ponche de Vino de la Mision (Mission Wine Punch)

2 cinnamon sticks

2 cloves

2 (dai dai) sour oranges, peeled and pulped

3 tablespoons grated peel (zest) of one of the sour oranges

2 quarts Angelica wine from Mission grapes

6 tablespoons sugar

In a large jug, soak the two cinnamon sticks, the cloves, and the sour orange pulp and zest in the Angelica wine. In the morning, strain the wine, spices and pulp through a colander into a saucepan. Place the saucepan over low heat and gradually stir in the sugar. As soon as this punch reaches the boiling point, remove it from the fire, pour into a heat-resistant pitcher and serve.

Reprinted from Renewing America's Food Traditions, copyright Gary Paul Nabhan, with the permission of Chelsea Green Publishing (www.chelseagreen.com).

Books Featured In This Story

Renewing America's Food Traditions
Renewing America's Food Traditions

Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods

by Gary Paul Nabhan, Makale Faber and Deborah Madison

Paperback, 304 pages | purchase

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Renewing America's Food Traditions
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Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods
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