In the Garden:
Southwestern Deserts
November, 2006
Regional Report

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This heirloom onion with the unusual name of "I'itoi" has been grown for hundreds of years in the Southwest.

Saving Food Traditions

"Americans feed our cars better than our bodies," comments Terri Nacke, a Phoenix-area holistic nutrition educator. Her statement sent a ripple of nods (perhaps a few guilty ones!) through members of the Arizona Herb Association at a recent meeting. Nacke's cooking demonstration proved how easy it is to use herbs and fresh ingredients to create healthy, scrumptious food with minimal preparation.

Nacke is co-owner of Garden Territory at The Farm at South Mountain. She strives to educate consumers on the benefits of organic gardening and seasonal cooking, using produce from local farmers when possible. "Food coming straight from the garden doesn't need a lot of fancy fixing -- it already has plenty of fresh flavor," she says.

Gardeners are well aware of the stark differences between what we harvest and what's offered at the typical supermarket. Fruits and vegetables in the national distribution chain are grown not for flavor, but for the ability to handle storage and shipping without bruising. Consequently, the displays in the produce department may look lovely but don't offer much flavor or variety. It's no wonder kids don't want to eat vegetables -- who wants to chew the cardboard masquerading as a green bean, carrot, or tomato!

I lament the loss of joy provided by "juice dripping down the chin onto my clean t-shirt" from a fresh-picked heirloom peach. If you miss this as well, you might be interested in the mission of the RAFT (Renewing America's Food Traditions) project, a combined effort of Northern Arizona University's Center for Sustainable Environments, Native Seeds/SEARCH in Tucson, Seed Savers Exchange, Chefs Collaborative, Cultural Conservancy, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, and Slow Food USA.

RAFT's mission is to (1) catalog America's indigenous edible plants and animals; (2) document which foods have fallen in disuse and are at risk of extinction; and (3) determine which can be restored and revitalized in ways that benefit their stewards. Their Top 10 Most Endangered Foods list includes the Southwest's chiltepin, a tiny pepper (10 or 12 will easily fit on a spoon) whose heat will knock your socks off; and chapalote corn, considered the closest relative of early maize brought north from Central America hundreds of years ago.

On a positive note, RAFT also lists 10 success stories, including the Southwest's Navajo-Churro sheep, the oldest surviving indigenous sheep breed; and white and brown tepary beans, described as the "most drought-adapted annual legume in the world." Tepary beans now show up on restaurant menus where chefs are committed to using local foods. They're also fun to grow, generally requiring little more from the gardener than being released from the seed packet!

What Can We Do?
How can gardeners add to the list of success stories? Nacke practices "conscientious consumerism," saying that "our buying decisions can shift a market place." It can be as simple as frequenting farmer's markets for locally produced fruits, vegetables, and other food products. Join a CSA (consumer-supported agriculture), in which you agree to purchase an area farmer's seasonal offerings on a regular basis.

Another option is to review Slow Food's U.S. Ark of Taste, developed for "Saving Cherished Slow Foods, One Product at a Time." There's a description of the food, including its traditional and cultural uses, as well as a list of producers where you can obtain it. Or start a gardening project with kids. (NGA's kidsgardening.org is a great spot for ideas.)

Finally, as southwestern gardeners, we are lucky to have Native Seeds/SEARCH at the forefront of this issue. There are numerous ways to support their mission of agricultural diversity. Consider giving gifts of seed packets, a membership, or Adopt-a-Crop in someone's name. If you live in the Tucson area, you can even volunteer to clean seeds for the seed bank!


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