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Endangered List Created for Native Foods

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Endangered List Created for Native Foods

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Endangered List Created for Native Foods

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Political boundaries based on ancient treaties often seem artificial. But cornbread nation, salmon nation or clambake nation? Those boundaries are rooted in climate, geography and tradition, and they make a pretty interesting map of North America, too. But many of the food traditions embodied by those names are endangered, as Ted Robbins tells us from chili pepper nation.

TED ROBBINS reporting:

Pinto or black beans? That's the usual choice in Southwestern cuisine. But Kevin Dahl knows of dozens more bean varieties. He heads Native Seeds/SEARCH, an organization which collects, sells and grows traditional crops. He's cooked a crock pot full of tepary beans.

Mr. KEVIN DAHL (Native Seeds/SEARCH): They look not too much different than a white--great white northern bean, but it's an entirely different species. And it has a lot more protein than your common bean. It has as much protein as soybeans.

ROBBINS: Really?

Mr. DAHL: Yeah.

ROBBINS: The tepary beans taste about as plain as soybeans, which is why I end up doctoring them with garlic and dried chili pepper flakes because we are, after all, in chili pepper nation. The real work here is not about tasting beans. It's about saving them. That's brought two dozen botanists, farmers, chefs and anthropologists from all over the Southwest to the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix. They're here to create the first list of Southwestern food plants and animals and then to determine if the species are abundant, threatened, endangered or recovering.

(Soundbite from meeting)

Mr. DAHL: I want you to shout out if you know a nursery or a botanical garden or a seed bank that has these. Because even if they are not out on the landscape anymore, we want to know if they're still in cultivation.

Unidentified Woman: I would add chrysantha, macalviana(ph)...

ROBBINS: Gary Nabhan is leading the workshop. He's founder of the RAFT Coalition, Renewing America's Food Traditions. It was the RAFT Coalition which came up with a map of North America based on food traditions. Chili pepper nation is the Southwest. A previous workshop was held in salmon nation, the Northwest.

Mr. GARY NABHAN (Founder, NAFT): And that group came up with 180 foods distinctive to that region that can only be found there. Two-thirds of them are at risk, either due to contamination, overharvesting, damming or other environmental and cultural factors.

ROBBINS: Globalization of food can be a good thing. It's how we got coffee and olive oil. But protecting species where they originate preserves genetic diversity. Every region has particular foods that grow best in that climate. It also preserves culinary diversity, adding aromas, flavors and textures to cuisine. But Gary Nabhan says the cultural diversity of regional food is just as important.

Mr. NABHAN: If we didn't have the fishing traditions of the 19th and early 20th centuries, we wouldn't have Herman Melville. We wouldn't have John Steinbeck at Cannery Row. Our literature, our songs...

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Group: (Singing) Beans and corn bread, beans and corn bread...

Mr. NABHAN: Every part of our popular culture has had these food themes running through it.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: Like chitlins and potato salad.

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Unidentified Man: Like strawberry and shortcake.

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Unidentified Man: Like corn beef and cabbage.

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Unidentified Man: Like liver and onions.

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Unidentified Man: Like red beans and rice

Unidentified Group: Yes!

ROBBINS: Future workshops will focus on cornbread nation, the Mid-South; wild rice nation, the upper Midwest; and clambake nation, the Atlantic seaboard. By the end of today, chili pepper nation will be on the way to its own list; a list that will include amoranst(ph), mule deer and purple string beans, but probably not Bisby blue beans(ph).

(Soundbite from meeting)

Mr. NABHAN: It's a funny thing. We've got seeds mailed to us from someone who had gotten them from a trucker in Bisby.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. NABHAN: And I think his story was the trucker got them from somewhere in the Southwest or Mexico, so...

Unidentified Man: So if we don't need--really don't have stories...

Mr. NABHAN: We don't have...

Unidentified Man: ...let's drop 'em.

ROBBINS: After getting its list, the RAFT Coalition will come up with an action plan, first creating awareness among chefs and gardeners.

Which brings us back to the tepary bean. At one point, the Autumn tribe of southern Arizona grew tens of thousands of pounds of tepary. Now only a handful of farmers grow them consistently. It's making a comeback, but because it grows best in this climate and is tied to Native American tradition, Kevin Dahl says the tepary should never try to rival the soybean.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Mr. DAHL: We don't want foods of mass domination. We want people to enjoy foods that speak to where they live and how they live.

ROBBINS: And, says Kevin Dahl, enjoyment is what it's all about. The best way of preserving foods and their traditions is not in a museum, it's growing and eating them. Ted Robbins, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You can see a map and photographs of North America's food regions as well as hear some music at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: ...sisters and brothers...

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Unidentified Man: ...every Saturday night we should hang out like chitlins and potato salad.

Unidentified Man: Like strawberry and shortcake.

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Unidentified Man: Like corn beef and cabbage.

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Unidentified Man: Like liver and onions.

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Unidentified Man: Like red beans and rice

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Unidentified Man: Like basil and lobster.

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Unidentified Man: Like sour cream and venison.

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Unidentified Man: Like bread and butter.

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Unidentified Man: Like hotcakes and molasses.

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Unidentified Man: Beans, cold corn bread.

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Unidentified Man: It makes no difference what you think about me.

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Unidentified Man: But it makes a whole lot of difference what I think about you.

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Unidentified Man: We should hang out together like hotcakes and molasses.

Unidentified Group: Yes!

Unidentified Man: That's what bean said to corn bread. (Singing) Because beans and corn bread...

Unidentified Man & Unidentified Group (In unison): (Singing) ...they go hand in hand.

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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