Renewing America’s Food Traditions: Saving and Savoring the Continent’s Most Endangered Foods by Gary Paul Nabhan


Renewing America’s Food Traditions is a wonderful highlight collection of food traditions and their culinary-cultural ties, including recipes and historical uses. The book separates the country into eco-regions each named for their traditional keystone food: Acorn, Bison, Chestnut, Chile Pepper, Clambake, Cornbread, Crabcake, Gumbo, Maple Syrup, Moose, Pinyon Nut, Salmon, and Wild Rice Nations.

What I Learned from Renewing America’s Food Traditions

Many of the keystone foods and foodways have been discarded in favor of industry production and shipablity, disregarding flavor and selecting against anything other than a uniform product. In the process of a few years, we have lost thousands of varieties. This loss of historically carefully selected or cultivated by our ancestors is devastating. Many heritage breeds bred for homesteads are low maintenance, excellent foragers, easy-going with high pest resistance, and dual-purpose or more. Example: A cow breed that is useful for milk, meat, and draft work. Preferred flavors and extended harvests were also behind the breeding of both heirloom plants and heritage breeds. 

This loss has robbed us of tasting what the author calls REAL food. All too commonly dismissed now, REAL is a unique sensory and spiritual experience. Reasons for such dismissal include “too expensive, too hard, too time-consuming, etc.” I liken it to the first time you eat fresh bread. Not just bread out of the oven, but truly fresh bread, with the grain ground to make the flour to bake the bread that day. Even rarer, when you grew the grains, harvested them yourself and then made the bread. Trying to eat stale, days old, dollar per loaf bread afterward is beyond disappointing. 

The Thing I Found Most Interesting and Why

Renewing America’s Food Traditions is a collaborative effort of seven founding organizations. It was the first of its kind for the North American continent. The endangered foods list notes, “At least 1,060 food varieties unique to North America are threatened, endangered or functionally extinct in the marketplaces of the United States, Canada, and Northern Mexico.” 

It is fascinating that there is so much variety we could be eating. Most Americans use less than 30 foods for their diets. Just 5 staples make up over 90% of that: Wheat, Rice, Corn, Potatoes, and Legumes. 

What I Didn’t Like about Renewing America’s Food Traditions

The organization lists the chapters alphabetically to make it easier to locate your particular bio-region. I can appreciate this, but since the boundaries are not hard boundaries, many regions blend foodstuffs and preparation. These crossovers simply give a shout out for a reference back to the listed chapter instead of integrated. 

Final Thoughts on Renewing America’s Food Traditions

A great read to get you more in touch with foodways, traditions, and the cultures that helped shape the culinary aspects of the North American continent and its ecoregions. 

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