Archive for May, 2009

May 26, 2009

>Oregon Local Foods part 2: What’s for dinner?

>Cassava root. Salmonberry. Black Republican cherries.
Never heard of them? There’s probably a reason for that – they are all edible plants native to the Willamette Valley here in Oregon. At one time, native Oregonians (from the Kalapooia and other tribes) ate cassava like we eat French fries today. Berry bushes in hundreds of varieties provided a wild harvest to anyone who knew how to tell a delicious snack from a bellyache. The black Republican cherry tree was introduced as a commercial crop in 1860, producing a plum-like fruit that was known throughout the Northwest.
Today, the cassava is protected as one of the few remaining indigenous plants in the area, our berry diet is limited to the two or three varieties that accompany peanut butter in sandwiches, and the words “black Republican” only bring to mind awful jokes.
But the irony is more immediate than that. Faced with a food culture that has been completely commodified, stripped of all regional identity and packed into neat little boxes (salmon burger, anyone?), chefs and food aficionados around the Willamette Valley are scratching wildly, looking for dishes that we can claim and incorporate into a distinctive local cuisine. I feel their pain – the lack of “American” food, leave alone Oregonian or Pacific Northwestern food is something I’ve long failed to understand. Once, a friend and I brainstormed an entire afternoon trying to think of something to cook for Saudi Arabian friends coming over for an authentic American dinner. We ended up making enchiladas. Close enough –as long as our guests never find their way south of the border.
It’s not that we don’t have material to work with in this region. Heirlooms like the black Republicans, including apple, pear and nut trees, as well as a varieties of beans, vegetables and berries, have been cultivated here since the first white settlers set up camp. The sense of local pride that has evolved around these crops is revealed in some of their names: Gramma Walters bean; Oregon Champion gooseberry. Because they are for one reason or another not commercially viable (delicate fruit, short shelf life, inconsistent production), many are in danger of extinction. Today, only a few, very old black Republican trees survive in the Eugene area and nowhere else, according to a book compiled by Gary Paul Nabhan, a well known ecologist and localization writer. The loss of heirloom varieties would be a blow to local agriculture, not just for cultural reasons but also because locally adapted crops tend to be hardier, better suited to the climate and soil conditions and thus less likely to need chemical inputs to thrive.
Anyway, anyone trying to establish a regional cuisine in Oregon has my full support, especially given some of the difficulties involved. Salmon is no longer an obvious choice for any of the Pacific Northwest. Gary Nabhan splits North America into distinct bioregions based on indigenous food traditions, and names this corner of the continent Salmon Nation. I support the idea behind this effort, but wish we could move beyond this beleaguered fish for its basis. One species is limited as a basis for an entire cuisine, and nobody with an ounce of ecological awareness would (or should) be caught dead eating anything but wild-caught salmon, whose numbers are swiftly dwindling anyway. In addition, any food trend that might eventually filter its way down to the masses (ie broke college students who find cooking an enjoyable form of productive procrastination) must be affordable, but most restaurants that attempt to differentiate their fare from that of Seattle or Portland tend to be in the price range of middle-aged urbanites with real jobs. In this economy, that leaves out roughly half of the population. (Really, though: the poverty rate in the Eugene area is higher than the state average, and Oregon is now has the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation.) Although the efforts of local chefs to get us to eat seasonally and locally with braised lamb in wild mushroom sauce are admirable, they aren’t the American’s South’s cornbread and grits. That is, you won’t see many of us switching from ramen-based diets anytime soon. As I mentioned in the previous post, the industrial food system has gotten most people used to food made from two or three major plants plus meat. It’s cheap and childishly easy to prepare (or pick up at the drive-thru window). Some serious re-education is in order before we can even think about preparing regionally based foods.
That said, I do see some adventurous farmers and blogger/cooks in the area making steps in these directions, first making the food available and then showing people that it’s not rocket science to put it together. Farmers near Corvallis are making serious efforts to reintroduce bean and grain production in the Willamette Valley; one Eugene-based blog has a recipe for black bean brownies. Is that the smell of synergy baking?
I’m not suggesting that Oregon farmers abandon all commodity crops for fields of waving cassava and garbanzos. After all, grass seed production generates $1.6 billion in economic activity in the state, and how else would every suburban home be able to cultivate an overwatered green monoculture without these farmers? Plus, other forms of agriculture are just way too much work, and since there simply aren’t enough illegal immigrants to go around, who will do it? On the other hand, small, organic farms have been shown to provide more ecosystem-like benefits while being more productive per acre than huge operations. And aren’t we facing something like a global food crisis? Wouldn’t it make more sense to give up just a few of those acres for diversified food production rooted in local traditions that we can all take pride in?
It’s all too confusing for me. I think I’ll just head to the kitchen to see if I can make black bean brownies that look as good as the picture on that blog. I only wish I had some black Republican cherry ice cream to put on top of them.