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The Lost Ark 

Restoring local foods to our tables

click to enlarge DAVID BALDWIN
  • David Baldwin

Elissa Rubin-Mahon, a Forestville foodie, preserves the sweetest part of local history in small batches. Her heirloom fruit preserves are only one part of her efforts, personally and as a Sonoma County Slow Food member, to restore flavorful foods lost in recent decades by convenience-driven market pressures.

From stone fruits to pork, the region-specific flavors that once made eating so delightful (and so, well, local) are being brought back to the table, thanks in part to the Ark of Taste, a collection of the best heirloom offerings that travels like a museum trunk show from place to place. The result is that we can see and taste our culinary heritage and map it along with our local history.

If your relatives were early miners, chances are they feasted on the Petaluma Gold Rush bean, according to Rubin-Mahon, who introduced them, and herself, to the Bodega Historical Society in the neighborly way—she cooked up a pot and gave everyone a taste. The bean, lost to Sonoma County, was tracked down in the Midwest by a Slow Food member and returned to its namesake place.

The pot of beans did the trick, and historians agreed to help Rubin-Mahon search for a local spud thought extinct. After being told by experts that it no longer existed, Rubin-Mahon and others persisted. Now Sonoma County is once again in possession of the Bodega red potato, a crop that used to feed San Francisco and outlying cities to the tune of 60,000 bags a year. In fact, Spud Point in Bodega was named after a potato shipment once sank there. Local history resurfaces as foods do.

"There's a lot of saving heirlooms going on," says Rubin-Mahon. The Ark of Taste only contains foods with a taste worth saving. "Creating the demand for a food is what will save it."

Bob Gligorea, of the Napa Slow Food group, agrees. "I want to help protect the heritage varieties of animals and plants, and make sure people who grow and raise them have market support." Since factory farming, livestock breeds have been reduced mostly to the few that tolerate cramped conditions and digest the genetically inappropriate grain. Tastier meats disappeared, though now some are returning.

Napa's Longmeadow Ranch has reintroduced heirloom livestock breeds, pasture-raised. "You look at barbecues now and high-end restaurants," says Gligorea, "and everybody's cooking heritage hogs."

Restored historical foods and flavors enrich local history, good meals and our sense of place. Napa County has a special cherry. Lake County has a special walnut. Who will get these treasures back to market, with the juicy history that comes with each heirloom?

For more, see The Petaluma Gold Rush bean, as well as many other plants and seeds, can be obtained from the Natural Gardening Company in Petaluma, the oldest certified organic nursery in the U.S.

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