Features and Occasionals

The Ark of Taste

By Katherine Pioli

Food connects us—to feelings, memories, seasons

Over 100 years ago, the citizens of Charleston, South Carolina noted the beginning of summer with the appearance of street-side vendors selling groundnut cakes, little cookie-shaped sweets made of molasses, peanuts, butter, eggs and sugar. Starting around the 1830s these iconic street candies were sold all along the town’s shady street corners by the “maumas,” free black women. They sold for a penny a piece and were found nowhere else in the United States, nowhere else even in South Carolina. They were a truly local delicacy.

Today, however, few people, even Charlestonians, have tasted a groundnut cake. That’s because sometime around 1930 the maumas were shut down, casualties of a larger national sanitation effort initiated after World War I. This sweet piece of southern, and black, history might have been lost if it weren’t for a few remaining recipes (first printed in Miss Ellen Parker’s The Carolina Housewife, c. 1847) and the Slow Food Ark of Taste.

Since 1989, Slow Food, a global organization first established in (not surprisingly) Italy, has been dedicated to preserving local foods, food cultures and traditions. Everywhere you look there are unique and interesting foods, like Charleston’s groundnut cake, that make our world, and our diets, more interesting and our lives richer — not to mention the benefits of biological diversity that comes along with varied regional agricultures.

The Ark of Taste, started by Slow Food in 1996, is essentially a registry of foods that, like the groundnut cake, are in danger of extinction — being lost and forgotten. The groundnut cake is listed in the Ark’s catalogue, which is how I came across it, along with hundreds of other foods with fascinating stories. The Ark now has more than 3,500 products from over 150 countries. There are fruits and vegetables, livestock and birds, fish, vinegars, salts, breads, herbs and more — with over 200 of these foods coming from the United States.

The Capitol Reef apple

Anyone who has visited Capitol Reef National Park has driven by, and some may have even tasted, an Ark of Taste treasure that has roots (literally) in our own soil, and in the Mormon history of our state. That treasure is the Capitol Reef apple, first planted by Mormon settlers in the town of Fruita. Little remains of the town today, which lies within the boundaries of Capitol Reef National Park, except for a one-room schoolhouse and the apple orchard. After many generations the apples these settlers grew became perfectly adapted to the canyon’s microclimates and soil. You can still pick the Capitol Reef apple each fall in the Park.

The Ark isn’t for just any food. Like the groundnut cakes and the Capitol Reef apple these foods are being immortalized on the Ark, protected and propagated, because they provide important links to our individual histories and cultures. Some of these food histories, like that of the Nevada single leaf pinyon, go back beyond the written word.

The Nevada single leaf pinyon

The Nevada single leaf pinyon (Pinus monophylla), another Utah food on the Ark, is a seed of culinary importance — culturally, historically and nutritionally — for American Indians of the Great Basin region. This small, olive pit-sized, pine nut was exceptionally nutrient rich, high in fats and carbohydrates. Tribes harvested the nut in the late summer and early fall and ate the food throughout the year, as a mash or gruel or frozen like ice cream.

Support the Ark: Buy, grow

The Ark of Taste is always seeking more nominations for its list, says Gwen Crist, board chair for the Utah chapter of Slow Food.

It could be a cultivated crop, like the Mayflower bean, or a livestock breed, like the Pineywoods cattle, or a traditionally processed food, like the pa’akai traditional sea salt from Hawai’i. Products and foods must adhere to strict standards set up by the Slow Food organization. What is the food’s story? Who uses it? Is it endangered—produced in limited quantities and at risk of disappearing from use in the next generation? Is it clean—no engineered foods, not harmful to the environment—and is it fair? Is it linked to a place and community?

While Utah could undoubtedly come up with a number of good additions for the Ark of Taste, in the meantime Gwen Crist and the people at Slow Food Utah are coming up with other ways to encourage the survival of Ark of Taste foods. Crist, who is well connected with Utah’s local growers and ranchers, says that part of keeping the Ark going is buying from those producers who raise Ark of Taste foods and animals.

One local grower raising Ark of Taste foods this year is Green Urban Lunch Box (GULB). Though this group may be better known for their work organizing community fruit harvests  from trees around the city, they also run a CSA program.

This year, Green Urban Lunch Box is partnering with Slow Food Utah to bring 11 Ark of Taste foods to CSA shareowners. Among these are the Cherokee purple tomato, Seminole pumpkin, tennis ball lettuce (a small head lettuce that grows no bigger than a tennis ball), yellow-meated watermelon (known as the Sikyatko by the Hopi people), Beaver Dam pepper and Aunt Molly’s ground cherry.

“It’s important to have diversity in all we eat, especially as we experience climate change,” says Shawn Peterson, executive director of GULB as well as the CSA’s head farmer. “Some of these foods that we no longer grow are extremely resilient and will become very valuable.” And, as if we needed more of a reason to support growers using Ark of Taste foods, as part of the GULB/Slow Food Utah partnership, Slow Food members will receive a discount on their Urban Lunch Box food share.

Crist knows a handful of local producers, in addition to GULB, who are raising Ark of Taste foods and animals. Likely, she says, there are even more than she’s aware of. So when you go down to the farmer’s market, or you order your animal from the rancher, says Crist, “ask them if they are raising Ark of Taste breeds and varietals. We must create a demand for these things in order to keep them.”

And who knows, maybe an increased interest in these local historical foods, animals and products will bring even more treasures back into our lives. Treasures like the Navajo-Churro sheep. A desert-adapted species, and North America’s earliest domesticated farm animal, it was introduced to native peoples by Spanish explorers in 16th century but was almost completely wiped out by the US government during a shameful and effective campaign in the 1860s that sought to destroy native (Dine) culture by destroying their traditional foods and agricultural practices. Today the Navajo-Churro sheep is no longer considered endangered. There is even an association and registry for trusted breeders and regulation for breed standards. Today, the Navajo-Churro sheep, alongside many other plants, animals and culinary traditions on the Ark of Taste, is making a comeback.

Katherine Pioli is CATALYST’s assistant editor. In 2011 she received a grant from Slow Food Utah to purchase and raise two North American heritage breed birds (American Buff ington geese and Cayuga ducks) that are on the Ark of Taste.

This article was originally published on March 31, 2018.