I was once asked what I would do if I had to choose to eat just one of America’s distinct heritage cuisines exclusively. Would I head to the Mississippi Delta to try the crayfish, rockfish and gumbo of Creole and Cajun dishes, or to a New England Yankee farmstead to savor one of the region’s many heirloom cider apples, roasted root vegetables, mutton or cheeses? Would I travel instead to Puget Sound for Chinook salmon cooked over a smoky fire on alder sticks and topped with a huckleberry sauce? Or hunker down in a canyon in the Southwest for grilled, range-fed goat, Hatch chiles and tomatillos?
As my imagination raced around the continent, my mouth watered. I thought about the question during a long, long pause, then replied, “I think I’d cry…” I would cry with joy at the astounding diversity of native foods we still have. And I would cry with sorrow at what we have lost and may still lose.
A century ago, when my Lebanese grandparents immigrated to the Great Lakes region, they were amazed by the country’s fertile soils, rich waters and the unfathomable diversity of foods. There were hundreds of varieties of cherries and plums being grown on neighboring farms; and lake perch, smelt and pike were abundant in the waters in front of their home in the Indiana Dunes. At the time, most U.S. households were still involved in some kind of gardening, farming, foraging or fishing and my grandfather became a fruit peddler and fishmonger. When I would visit, “Papa,” as I called him, would appear with a fresh-picked heirloom plum hidden in his fist. He would open his hand and present me with a purplish red gift ready to explode with flavor.