Regional pride takes many different forms—sports teams, music and our favorite component: food. There’s a reason why food from your hometown just tastes better – the stories behind that food, the tradition and the culture associated with it, are woven into the fabric of your life, whether you’re a newcomer just orienting yourself to your new geography, or a person with deep family ties, to whom local food tastes like home.
Slow Food Miami is just one chapter that recognizes the importance of preserving the stories behind regional foods. It just so happens that those foods are uncannily delicious—a fact the Florida chapter counts on when it hosts large dinners like the “Hua Moa Ark of Taste Dinner” featuring these regional delights.
Some of these foods are in real danger, like the Wilson Popenoe Avocado. Its smooth green skin and particularly creamy flesh distinguishes it from the supermarket staple Haas avocado, along with its preference for growing in sub-tropical and tropical areas. Only three Popenone trees are believed to exist in Miami and Honduras today, due to global demand for Haas avocados coupled with debilitating disease that causes widespread root rot.
Time has been a little more generous to the Hatcher Mango, a particularly large, sweet cultivar of mango with a particularly small seed. Grown just miles away from the Atlantic Ocean on Hatcher’s Mango Hill, this mango has developed a fervent following thanks to a nearby road stand and some serious word-of-mouth. Until the work of the local Slow Food chapter, its culinary merits hadn’t allowed the Hatcher to shine in a market dominated by the more readily accessible mangos imported from South America, Mexico or the Caribbean.
In the case of the Pantin Mamey Sapote, the threat is not disease or imported fruits—it’s a combination of uncontrolled land development, hurricane damage, ever-rising property taxes, and escalating land prices. The remarkably bright flesh and complex sweet taste of Mamey Sapotes are grown exclusively in extreme South Florida, where the fruit is often used in ice creams or icy cold milkshakes, batidos.
These foods are an integral part of the region where they’ve found a home, but they are also indicative of thousands of similar stories in every region of the U.S.—stories of food that may have traveled from afar, but found a place to thrive in region-specific climates and culture.
Knowing the story behind your food can mean tracing the journey of the spinach you’re eating from the farmer to your plate, but it can also be about knowing stories that run even deeper, stories of centuries of communities working to keep food and the traditions associated with them alive and well.
Hand-pounded taro probably isn’t something that shows up on the majority of our dinner tables, but on the island of Oahu in Hawaii, the tradition unites the community on a weekly basis. Families gather at Mana `Ai, a local business that specializes not only in providing hand-pounded taro, but also in educating and passing on the tradition of preparing this nutritious food. The methodic, rhythmic pounding of the tuber generate compelling conversations and stories.
The narrative of the Navajo-Churro Sheep, the oldest American farm animal breed, mirrors that of the people who once depended on it for survival. The Latino, Pueblo and Diné communities of the southwestern United States lost massive amounts of sheep twice in the past century. At once a source of lean protein, high-quality wool and fire fighting, brush-controlling machine, the depletion of the Navajo-Churro Sheep affected communities of people in deep and lasting way.
The depletion of America’s only native grain, the Anishinaabeg Manoomin is not one of slaughter, but of environmental devastation. Most commonly known as “wild rice,” Manoomin is actually an aquatic grass similar to corn and is harvested by the Anishinaabeg people who serve as one of the rice’s chief custodians. Unlike Manoomin, which is grown in the shallow waters of the Great Lakes, the vast majority of what most consumers call “wild rice” is a non-native, unrelated species that is grown in California in vast paddies. As the local ecosystem becomes increasingly destroyed due to rezoning and damming, the tradition of harvesting Manoomin becomes increasingly threatened, reminding us that oftentimes as we preserve food, we’re also preserving a way of life, and a way of living with the land in a harmonious way.
Most of us have had an apple before—the mealy red and green globes stacked pyramids-tall on grocery store shelves can’t hold a candle to the thousands of heirloom apples spread out over the whole country. No one knows this better than the myriad of Slow Food chapters that have cooked up ways of keeping our country’s rich culture of heirloom apples alive.
Take Slow Food Chicago, which partners with organizations like Chicago Rarities Orchard Program (CROP) for a single mission: to get heirloom apples into the hands of the masses by planting organic orchards in the city of Chicago. The orchards will resemble a community garden that specializes in growing rare and endangered varieties of fruit.
Chapters like Slow Food Russian River focuses on one of those rare and endangered apples: the much-heralded Gravenstein. Described as perfectly sweet and tart, the once widely consumed Gravenstein has become and has remained an exceptionally active US Presidia project because of the united efforts of invested parties (farmers, restaurateurs, consumers) that the Slow Food chapter initiated. These individuals have come together to address the loss of orchards, difficulty of harvest, and pressure from overseas markets that have driven the Gravenstein into decline. SF Russian River actively works to increase awareness in Sonoma County—not only about the deliciousness of the Gravenstein, but also of the farmers who grow (and consequently preserve) this delicious fruit.
Similarly, Slow Food Wisconsin Southeast (WiSE) has banded together to take back some of the more historied and delicious apples of the Great Lakes, including the green and red marbled Milwaukee apple, the Pewaukee, the Oneida, the Ashmead’s Kernel, and the Autumn Beauty apples.
Another apple receiving a boost from an active Slow Food chapter is the Newtown Pippin. This apple, a multi-purpose fruit (suitable for cider, baking, and snacking), once indigenous to Queens, New York, is strongly backed by Slow Food New York City. The chapter partners with NYC Department of Parks and Recreation, the New York Restoration Project, and financial benefactor Green Apple Cleaners to get the Newton Pippin planted in school gardens.
Former Slow Food NYC leader and current regional governor Ed Yowell, speaks to the overarching importance of preserving heirloom apples. “Apples are the canary in the coalmine. The decline of traditional, American varieties exposes the impact of our industrialized food system. We are losing our delicious, edible history. Local and unique foods are becoming extinct as food designed for travel and shelf life dominate the market.”
Several of these chapter-driven projects were inspired or supported by publications from an alliance of which Slow Food USA was a part: Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT). The comprehensive Forgotten Fruits Manual & Manifesto: Apples and the guide to inspire and deepen chapter projects, Noble Fruits: A Guide to Conserving Heirloom Apples allow more people than ever to read more about projects in their communities, the stories behind each variety apples, and how they, too, could have an heirloom orchard.
Sometimes tomatoes just want to have fun. Most days of the week, the tomato humbly fills in—in sandwiches, in marinara sauces, in an omelet or two. With such a low profile job, it’s easy to forget about what the trusty tomato is capable of.
One could argue that, if any vegetable could use a festival to pep up its public image, it’s the reliable old tomato. That’s precisely what Slow Food Columbia, South Carolina did when it partnered with Sustainable Midlands and City Roots to create the Palmetto Tasty Tomato Festival.
The festival includes plenty of fun, light-hearted activities, from “bobbing for tomatoes” to the “chuck the commercial tomato skee-ball game,” but it also included something much more serious: some serious tomato eating. Side-by-side taste testing of commercial and heirloom varieties had the over 500 participants seeing the beauty of heirloom tomatoes like the wonderfully contorted and bulbous chocolate stripe.
Slow Food Columbia is not alone in realizing the power of a good festival to educate and inspire hundreds of individuals. Slow Food Connecticut’s Tomato To-mah-to: An Heirloom Tasting Feast features organically-grown heirloom tomatoes, hearth baked breads, artisanal virgin olive oils, and gourmet tomato dishes made by Connecticut chefs.
According to Slow Food Columbia chapter leader Kristin DuBard, festivals are more than just an excuse to overeat. “Our festival really gets the community involved—from farmers to chefs to artists to hungry people. If we can make one person think twice about buying commercially produced tomatoes, we’ll be happy.”
Celebrating locally-grown tomatoes is one way to be an ethical eater; industrial tomato farms are notorious for poor treatment of farmhands. So many Slow Food chapters also support or have hosted events with the Coalition of Imokelee Workers (CIW), a worker-led organization that advocates for better compensation, working conditions, and human rights for the individuals that bring us our tomatoes.