Marcel Proust evoked a flood of memories in Remembrance of Things Past by tasting a tender little scallop-shaped cake dipped in tea. We might have to go the same way, savoring and remembering some of the local foods we love before they're lost to us forever. That's right -- kaput, extincto, gone the way of the dinosaur.
According to food conservationist Gary Nabhan of Renewing America's Food Traditions (RAFT), four out of five American apple varieties are no longer on our tables or trees. Slow Foods USA's Ark of Taste works to reestablish more than 200 regional American foods in danger of disappearing from our plates for good from loss of biodiversity or other environmental damage.
One of Proust's contemporaries, the considerably more robust Mark Twain, adored the abundance of America's plate. He even dreamed of it. He found the fare he ate in Europe "as tasteless as paper." He longed for the food of home, like "Saratoga potatoes. Hot wheat-bread, Southern Style. Radishes. Baked apples, with cream. American butter. Hominy. Boiled onions. Turnips. Green corn, cut from the ear and served with butter and pepper. Stewed tomatoes. Hot hoe-cake, Southern style. Buckwheat cakes."
Twain was exuberant and, it seems, ravenous -- his list goes on for pages. "I was struck not just by the breadth of his menu and the vibrancy of the dishes, but how specific he was -- not just mussels, but steamed mussels from San Francisco," says Andrew Beahrs. "That's what led to Twain's Feast."
In Twain's Feast, Beahrs treks across America in search of some of Twain's beloved regional eats. Some have already vanished or are off the menu due to scarcity -- Twain rhapsodized over Philadelphia terrapin or sea turtle. Um, no thanks.
Beahrs takes a page from Twain -- he celebrates America's regional foodways on page and in person. "It's how I've come to understand the variety and diversity of the country," says the Bay Area-based author. " Even after graduating high school, I planned my drive across the country around a visit to Rancho de Chimayo in New Mexico."
Like Twain, Bearhs relishes the uniqueness of regional foods. In today's world of nonstop chain restaurants, unique is harder to find. You know it when you see it, you know it when you taste it. There's a world of difference between the traditional corn bread in New Mexico (grainy and corny from stone-ground masa), and New Orleans (fluffy with a hint of pepper or allspice).
"Local and sustainable are modern catchphrases but been that's the basis for the best of American food forever," says Beahrs.
We need to keep it going. The United Nations has declared 2010 the Year of Biodiversity, so catch the biodiversity wave. Events have been taking place all over the world, including many here. Oddly, none are listed in the center of the country, where thanks to the prevalence of genetically modified crops, twenty heirloom varieties of the corn Twain craved are on the brink of extinction. Also at risk are datil peppers, fabulously spicy mothers native nowhere but St. Augustine, Florida but now in peril after years of flooding and hurricanes have taken their toll. For those of us who like it hot, life without datils is not a life worth living.
You can be Proustian and remember the foods of the past or you can be like Twain, who adored and demanded them. One easy way to get authentic regional food is at your local farmers market. Value your local and heirloom produce now before it's gone. Seek it. Eat it. Grow it. I've ordered datil seeds from a St. Augustine grower, and they're on their way to me.
Corn, datils, "all of these foods that have been feeding people for hundreds of years have a story behind them," says Beahrs. Let's keep telling it for generations to come.
Summer Corn Pudding
Mark Twain loved corn in all its guises -- corn pone, corn on the cob, corn off the cob burnished with butter. Here's a corn pudding that's decadent, easy, and celebrates the sweet taste of fresh summer-bright corn. Go for fresh, local, organic corn, nothing genetically modified.
3/4 cup cream
3/4 cup milk
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 cups of fresh corn kernels, cut off the cob (about half a dozen ears) or, if you must, 3 cups frozen corn kernels, thawed
1 carrot, grated
4 teaspoons flour
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon sea salt
Preheat oven to 350.
Lightly oil a 6-cup ovenproof casserole.
In a large bowl, whisk together milk, cream and melted butter. Beat in eggs, one at a time, until well-combined.
Stir in corn kernels and grated carrot, then flour, sugar and salt.
Pour mixture into prepared baking casserole. Set casserole in a larger pan. Pour water into the pan so it comes about halfway up the casserole. Bake casserole in the hot water bath for 1 hour.
Remove and let sit for 10 minutes. The corn pudding will firm upon cooling.