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Oct 08, 2008

According to the Ark of Taste, the best way to save a growing number of endangered foods is to eat them.

By Matthew Schaeffer

In any register of our national culinary treasures, sheepnose pimiento, Amish deer tongue lettuce and the Tennessee fainting goat—a breed that earned its name for its tendency to freeze up and fall over when startled—may not immediately come to mind.
But they have been identified as three of the 200 or so “endangered” foods documented in the U.S. Ark of Taste. This catalog of regional edibles—ranging from beverages and spices to produce and poultry—are threatened with extinction if they aren’t returned to their rightful places in the American diet.
Call it conservation through consumption.
But this isn’t a movement that relies on altruism. The reason the creators of the Ark believe consumers will readopt these foods into their diets is that they simply taste better than the foods you find at your local supermarkets, which have been grown and bred more for ease of shipping and long shelf lives than for taste and gastronomical enjoyment.
The Ark of Taste is a creation of Slow Food, an organization that was founded 17 years ago by Italian journalist Carlo Petrini.
Upset about plans to open a McDonald’s franchise on Piazza di Spagna in Rome, Petrini organized an activist group based on celebrating all of the qualities he felt fast food restaurants lacked, like heterogeneity, diversity and a sense of community. In his mind, the inexorable spread of homogeneity through globalization is endangering the leisurely and community-based existence he and many of his fellow countrymen hold dear.
Since it’s inception, Slow Food has become a global movement, with over 65,000 members in 45 countries.
It presents a way of understanding food as more than nourishment and is focused on getting cuisine back into the center of not only our plates but also our communities and lives.

Taking eco-gastronomy to the next level, the Slow Food movement has a catalog of tastes to promote foods that are growing increasingly rare. In our interactive feature, we provide a selection with neat facts about each one.

The fundamental idea is rooted in a need to safeguard biodiversity on a global scale by linking the pleasure of food with the community and environment in which it’s grown.
Slow Food has determined that the best way to preserve biodiversity is by finding new markets and consumers—be they growers, chefs, grocers or foodies—for these increasingly obscure edibles.
“Diversity is important for the future,” explains Arie McFarlen, a U.S. Ark of Taste committee member and co-owner of Maveric Heritage Ranch in Dell Rapids, S.D. “If we bring everything down to a monoculture, then a single disease or virus can wipe it out. Diversity gives stability in the gene pool, and it creates variety, so not all tomatoes and not all pigs taste the same. The future depends on having varieties.”

Watch an interview with Erika Lesser of Slow Food on gastronomical biodiversity.

Since 1996, the international Ark of Taste catalog has grown to include some 800 “endangered” foods from over 50 countries that are “threatened by industrial standardization, the regulations of large-scale distribution and environmental damage.”
Its purposes is to inspire renewed interest that will return these foods from obscurity to the viable places they once held in the local diets in the areas where they are produced.
But in the end, it all comes back to taste.
“My great grandmother, who was a little French woman who grew up on the Bayou, used to say that instead of ‘cleaning my plate’ that I should ‘eat it to save it,’” explains Poppy Tooker, committee chair of the U.S. Ark. “This has become a rallying cry of this movement…If we don’t eat these foods and rediscover the pleasure of the taste and the pleasure of the taste memory, we will never be able to save them.”

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