This article was originally featured on the Santa Cruz Heritage Food Project blog. The original title of this piece is “Preserving Rare Foods through the Ark of Taste“. The author is Elizabeth Birnbaum.
The Ark of Taste is a project of the international Slow Food movement, which is broadly focused on supporting communities through food that honors local culinary traditions and uses high quality ingredients. The Ark of Taste is a catalog of endangered heritage foods which are delicious, historically significant, sustainably produced, and rare. The official criteria are the following:
The food products must be . . .
- Outstanding in terms of taste – as defined in the context of local traditions and uses
- At-risk biologically or as culinary traditions
- Able to be sustainably produced
- Culturally or historically linked to a specific region, locality, community or traditional production practice in the U.S.
- Produced in limited quantities, by farms or by small-scale processing companies, for home consumption, or, in the case of endangered plants and animals, for the purpose of regeneration
The committee for the Ark used to evaluate nominations by hosting events where they came together and evaluated each item by tasting each one that was on the roster. There has since been a shift away from this tasting model because it was criticized as biased to one’s own cultural preferences—which could cause someone to dislike an item—and bar it from inclusion on the Ark. Specifically, if the item was delicious and special to folks in one place, it did not necessarily mean that it would pass muster on the tasting panel. There is still an element at question no matter how you slice it—how do you evaluate something based on taste when taste is subjective?
As complex as the question of evaluating what is subjectively good about any food can become, the Ark of Taste project is what brought me to Slow Food five years ago. I was teaching a class called Biodiversity and Agriculture, and when I learned about the Ark and about the other aspects of Slow Food building community through food, it hit at the core of what the class was about. Plus, I really like to try rare foods to discover new flavors and revive the status-quo of flavor profile expectations.
All Ark products are submitted by community members and are evaluated by regional committees. I was recently appointed to be on the California Ark of Taste Committee, and we just received a bunch of submissions from the Felix Gillet Institute, started by Amigo Bob Cantisano who I am fortunate to work with through the Ecological Farming Association as well. Amigo and Jenifer Bliss submitted the following in their nominations:
“The Gold Rush established towns, cities, farms and ranches throughout the Sierra Nevada foothills of Northern California, but the fantasies of getting rich turned out to be only a dream for most. Huge towns, populated with small wooden cabins and young fruit trees were largely abandoned. Gillet and other horticulturists propagated some of the best fruit and nut trees which established the foundations for the major agricultural industries of the Pacific Western states. These included: walnuts, almonds, filberts, prunes, table grapes, wine grapes, apples, cherries, pears, strawberries, nectarines and peaches, to name the more prevalent. Many old homestead trees and orchards were simply left to the care and whims of Nature. Now, 125 plus years later, arboreal archeologists, such as those of us from the Felix Gillet Institute, are searching for the true treasures of the Sierra Nevada: those old forgotten fruit and nut trees.”
The Felix Gillet Institute exemplifies how the story of foods can be surprising, and how a discovery can unfold into a bigger narrative. Their discoveries have reminded me how much we still have much to discover and preserve, in terms of our American food heritage.