Friday, August 8, 2008

Terroir - A Taste of Place

Gary Paul Nabhan spoke in Highlands last night for the conclusion of the 2008 Zahner Lecture Series. I've followed his work as an ethnobotanist for a couple of decades and knew that I was in for an inspiring evening. Nabhan sees the potential for food production to nurture the land and all that lives on it. The subtitle of his latest book is "Saving and Savoring the Continent's Most Endangered Foods."

He and his colleagues have established RAFT (Renewing America's Food Traditions) to document and perpetuate heirloom crops, along with the stories and customs that have accompanied farming and cooking in every region of America. That work has already revealed that the Southern Appalachians contain the richest inventory of old-timey fruit, vegetable and livestock varieties in North America, similar to the unparalleled biological diversity of wild plants and animals in the mountains.

As an introduction to his work, Nabhan shared the Terroir-ist Manifesto. Terroir is a French term meaning "a taste of place." In a limited sense, terroir refers to a discernable difference, such as that in wine made from grapes grown in a particular locale. The Terroir-ist Manifesto suggests a broader and deeper meaning for the word.

A Terroir-ist’s Manifesto For Eating in Place
Renewing America’s Food Traditions

Know where your food has come from
through knowing those who produced it for you,
from farmer to forager, rancher or fisher
to earthworms building a deeper, richer soil,
to the heirloom vegetable, the nitrogen-fixing legume,
the pollinator, the heritage breed of livestock,
and the sourdough culture rising in your flour.

Know where your food has come from
by the very way it tastes:
its freshness telling you
how far it may have traveled,
the hint of mint in the cheese
suggesting what the goat has eaten,
the terroir of the wine
reminding you of the lime
in the stone you stand upon,
so that you can stand up for the land
that has offered it to you.
Know where your food has come from
by ascertaining the health & wealth
of those who picked & processed it,
by the fertility of the soil that is left
in the patch where it once grew,
by the traces of pesticides
found in the birds & the bees there.
Know whether the bays & shoals
where your shrimp & fish once swam
were left richer or poorer than before
you & your kin ate from them.

Know where your food comes from
by the richness of stories told around the table
recalling all that was harvested nearby
during the years that came before you,
when your predecessors & ancestors,
roamed the same woods & neighborhoods
where you & yours now roam
Know them by the songs sung to praise them,
by the handmade tools kept to harvest them,
by the rites & feasts held to celebrate them,
by the laughter let loose to show them our affection.

Know where your foods come from
by the patience displayed while putting them up,
while peeling, skinning, coring or gutting them,
while pit-roasting, poaching or fermenting them,
while canning, salting or smoking them,
while arranging them on a plate for our eyes to behold.
Know where your food comes from
by the slow savoring of each and every morsel,
by letting their fragrances lodge in your memory
reminding you of just exactly where you were the very day
that you became blessed by each of their distinctive flavors.

When you know where your food comes from
you can give something back to those lands & waters,
that rural culture, that migrant harvester,
curer, smoker, poacher, roaster or vinyer.
You can give something back to that soil,
something fecund & fleeting like compost
or something lasting & legal like protection.
We, as humans, have not been given
roots as obvious as those of plants.
The surest way we have to lodge ourselves
within this blessed earth is by knowing
where our food comes from.

Gary Paul Nabhan, January 2007

National Public Radio broadcast a report on RAFT in 2005 and features a webpage with the broadcast, music, a list of endangered foods and links to many of the groups that have partnered to create RAFT:


Kathryn Stripling Byer said...

Thanks so much for this post! I will order this book right away. I've long admired Gary Nabhan.

GULAHIYI said...

It's a gorgeous book that does justice to the concept behind it. Along with his science background, Nabhan takes great delight in the language of the old-timey fruit and vegetable varieties, as those names are so evocative. He cites the "Seek-No-Further" apple as one of his favorite names. I will have more follow-up from Gary Nabhan's talk.

I'd been questioning why I've spent so much time canning beans and pickles this month(given their relatively low cost at Ingles), but Nabhan's talk reminded me that I've been preserving more than just food. In a small way, perhaps, it's a protest against a culture gone mad...that has lost its roots.

But Nabhan's call for a return to those roots is a positive and hopeful message.