Food advocates fight to keep this Caribbean-native staple of Gulf Coast cuisine alive, in the post-Katrina landscape
Nearly lost in the aftermath of Katrina and Rita, the traditional Louisiana mirliton has been a key ingredient in Creole and Cajun signature dishes (such as shrimp-stuffed mirliton pirogues (literally, “canoes”) for over 120 years. After their historic introduction from the Caribbean during the 1804 Slave Revolt in Haiti, “backyard mirliton vines” became a common sight crawling over fences and into trees all over New Orleans, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, and smaller rural communities.
But even before the storms and floods, traditional heirloom varieties declined as people attempted to grow the new commercially imported varieties, unaware that these cultigens were nearly impossible to grow in the sub-tropical climate of the Gulf South. Acadiana, the Cajun region of the Gulf Coast food-shed, was one of the last-remaining sources of the original line of seeds.
Now, thanks to community groups and university researchers, the heirloom mirliton is once again finding fans and advocates. Volunteers throughout the region are finding remaining seeds, distributing them, and increasing the market demand for this regionally-adapted version of a Caribbean staple. Not ones to stand idly by, the Market Umbrella of New Orleans initiated an Adopt-A-Mirliton project. Thanks to their efforts, authentic heirloom seeds are once again being shared among gardeners throughout Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas. In 2010, the Adopt-A-Mirliton project was converted into a stand-alone non-profit called Mirlitons.Org, whose mission is to promote the conservation of Louisiana heirloom mirlitons and the development of horticultural science of mirliton growing. Mirliton seed can be obtained by signing up for alerts at http://www.mirlitons.org which, also provides free mirliton growing information
Mirlitons grow on a vigorously climbing vine with long stems and a tuberous root that, each fall, produces single-seeded pale green or white pear-shaped fruits akin to summer squashes. Mirlitons are larger, paler, spinier, more ribbed versions of the commercially hybridized Latin American and Caribbean chayotes or chocos, but more flavorful and better adapted to Gulf Coast climates, soils and cultural uses. Different family heirlooms are now being given particular names such as ‘Papa Sylvest’ to keep various selections or breeding lines distinct.
Their particular biology presents challenges to conservation. In contrast to multi-seed curcurbits like watermelon, Sechium edule seeds are enclosed within a fleshy fruit that undergoes no dormancy period, and the seed cannot be dehydrated and stored apart from the fruit. In effect this means that unless steps are taken to preserve a specific cultigen from crop to crop (through germplasm, propagative cuttings, and controlled pollination), it is easy to lose an entire landrace.
Mirlitons are available in mid to late fall at the Crescent City Farmers Market in New Orleans, and occasionally in roadside farmstands in rural areas.
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