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Bison Nation offers new old tastes

April 25th, 2008 · 4 Comments · Books about food, local food

What’s your favorite local food? If you live in the Great Plains, it might be—or could have been—bison, aka buffalo. Bison is the iconic foodstuff that Gary Nabhan and Kelly Kindscher (and probably other collaborators if I understand correctly) have identified as the namesake of our regional foodshed, Bison Nation.

American bison

Nabhan, noted conservation scientist, promotes the idea of supporting not just local foods, as in locally grown, but also of advancing the conservation and use of native food plants and animals of the diverse geographic regions of the United States.

He spoke Tuesday at Spooner Hall at the University of Kansas. His talk corresponded with Earth Day and with the prospective release any minute now of his latest book, Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods.

The idea of using native plants and animals—which is to say those perfectly adapted to a region’s climate—makes all kinds of sense, and I look forward to reading the book. The more I thought about it, though, the more questions I had.

USGS map of Great PlainsFor instance, it’s all well and good that native, often wild, foods fed the original prairie people, but weren’t there a lot fewer people living on the Plains then? And isn’t it going to be hard to get people who’ve never heard of prairie turnips, for instance, to start eating them? (Come to think of it, even “regular” turnips don’t have a giant fan club.) And how is such a transition going to come about?

I spoke today to Kindscher, whose Edible Wild Plants of the Prairie: An Ethnobotanical Guide, details 122 edible plants in Kansas and Colorado along with their uses among indigenous people. His work there is major contributor to “Renewing the Native Food Traditions of Bison Nation,” (PDF) which he and Nabhan wrote.

Kindscher said that foods like the prairie turnip (which also goes by several other names), if cultivated or if their use at least were expanded, are most likely to benefit people such as American Indians, both in terms of preserving cultural heritage and of improving their diets. Thanks to our messed-up agricultural system (too many things wrong there to think of an apt single link) and Indians’ poverty, they suffer an especially high rate of diabetes (PDF). Prairie turnip is among the native foods that Kindscher described as “great food for antidiabetes” due to its complex carbohydrates and higher levels, compared with refined foods, of various micronutrients and macronutrients.

On the other hand, Kindscher thinks that foods like heritage apple varieties and wild plums might not be such a hard sell to the population at large. Although the indigenous Plains population centuries ago was tiny compared with today’s population, he said, there nevertheless are sufficient supplies of many wild foods that their use could be expanded greatly among us today.

PawpawI mentioned that I had from time to time seen vendors at the Lawrence Farmers Market selling pawpaws and wondered whether there could be sufficient supply if we wanted to hold a Pawpaw Festival or some such. “There would be plenty,” he said, adding that he’d eaten pawpaw ice cream at the Free State Brewing Co.

Can’t say I’ve had the pleasure, although I have tried pawpaw raw and would have to say it didn’t exactly grab me. I gather, though, that the flavor varies from one variety to another, and I’m sure I could learn to like it. And numerous heritage varieties of familiar fruits, such as apples, probably could find a market, just as heirloom tomatoes have. I’m certain I’ve seen Arkansas Black apples available, for instance, at the market.

Meanwhile, in his talk, Nabhan ran through a list of Bison Nation foods that have fallen out of favor (many listed in his and Kindscher’s “Renewing” guide). I was amazed to see Turkey Hard Red Wheat on the list, as it’s the basis for Kansas’ eminence in winter wheat production. There were squashes, melons, chickens, cattle, all out of favor largely because of their inadequacy for industrial-style agriculture.

Will they make a comeback? Maybe. My guess is that we are going to have many opportunities to try “new” old foods in the coming years. I, for one, can’t wait.

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