By Gary Nabhan
Heritage foods are those grown from heirloom seeds, and the historic livestock breeds unique to a particular region. Shaped by the curing and cooking traditions of various local cultures—as well as the feasts, festivals and fiestas they celebrate—these distinctive foods are indeed edible legacies.
Most people recognize Texas as an ecological, cultural and musical crossroads, but may be unaware of the various culinary legacies that converge in the Lone Star State. The Chile Pepper Nation (the arid Southwest), the Gumbo Nation (the Gulf South), the Bison Nation (the Great Plains and Prairies) and the Cornbread Nation (the mid-South) converge here to offer richness, character and diversity found nowhere else. Not only do these food traditions meld and mingle, but over generations they’ve produced rare treasures among the heirloom seeds, fruits, nuts, livestock, fish and game native to our multifaceted state. Yet, some of these gems have been lost, or are in danger of being lost, from our community feasts and family tables.
Over the last couple of years, we’ve witnessed the devastation of many of the food rarities unique to the Gulf South from Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, and the resulting migration away from East Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. These events have brought to light the importance of protecting and maintaining the food, and food culture-bearers, that remain within the boundaries of our own great state.
Delicacies like the Texas Star banana, the Redblush grapefruit, the Texas tart jujube, the Lola Queen peach, the Texas black persimmon and the Texas mission almond have deep ties to our history. And livestock like the Spanish goat, the Red Wattle pig, the Gulf Coast sheep, Criollo Corriente bulls and, of course, the Texas longhorn have been celebrated facets of our landscape for generations. It would be a tragedy to lose our heirloom seeds for the black pindar peanut, Texas Shoepeg corn, Creole butternut squash, sweet potato cushaw squash or Star of David okra, yet they are already uncommon in seed catalogs. And our rivers, oceanfront, forests and prairies have suffered dramatic declines in groupers, redfish, Attwater’s prairie chickens, green sea turtles and rattlesnakes that once provided so many wild flavors to our hunting lodges, fishing shacks and chuckwagon cookouts.
But what is the current status of these heritage foods and creatures? Exactly where do they thrive as the pride of a Texas town or country café? And where might they have gone by the wayside, no longer found in farmers markets, roadside stands or community gardens? What can we do to prevent some of these luminaries from blinking out all together?
This is where you can help. Perhaps you personally know where some of the heritage foods remain alive and well, quietly tucked away in a Texas garden, ranch or market. Or where there might be invaluable seeds, once passed from generation to generation, now without an inheritor. Maybe a back-country festival is still celebrating local recipes no longer made elsewhere on the continent. Edible Austin, in concert with my organization, the nationwide Renewing America’s Food Traditions initiative, encourages you to identify whether these or other culinary rarities continue to dwell in your foodshed, and we invite you to share your stories, memories and legacies of food survival or loss with us. In turn we’ll share some of our favorite entries in upcoming issues and on our website.
Your local knowledge may be the key to saving and safeguarding such foods so that they might be introduced to, and celebrated by, a wider range of our citizenry once again. Join us in the wild search and rescue of the rarest flavors of Texas—the fruits, meats, seeds and breeds of our Lone Star legacy!
To submit a story, go online to our Saving Texas Heritage Foods page on edibleaustin.com, join our online forum discussion, or write to us at: Edible Austin, 1415 Newning Ave., Austin, TX 78704.