April 30, 2008 9:45 AM   Subscribe

Well, that's one less Carolina flying squirrel, but having it for dinner might actually help keep them around. A list of endangered American species once common on the dinner table has become a book, its author, Gary Paul Nabham, encouraging the reader to keep disappearing local culinary traditions alive. Endangered Dinners.
posted by Kronos_to_Earth (26 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Thanks for the post. Nabham is so awesome. I can't remember what essay made me first fall for him (academically), but if I turn it up, I'll post it. This book by him is worth checking out.
posted by salvia at 9:58 AM on April 30, 2008

Squirrel Melts.

A local restaurant, Burgoo, is named after a Kentucky post-BBQ stew that features squirrel, and of course, whatever else. I'd say that it is to the east as chili is to the west.
posted by mek at 10:03 AM on April 30, 2008

More recently by Nabham is Renewing Salmon Nation's Food Traditions. The first in a series focusing on North American regions named for totem foods, further exploring RAFT.
posted by asfuller at 10:08 AM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

But where can I go to get a nice dinner of Komodo dragon?
posted by Man-Thing at 10:17 AM on April 30, 2008

It might sound like a progressive way to get people concerned about disappearing species but I think it sucks. It says that we only value other species to the degree that we can exploit them. Some years back, people seriously argued that the best way to save African elephants was to privatize them. i.e. if someone owned a herd of elephants they would look after them and make sure they survived and charge people money to see them. Nice in theory but the corollary is that as soon as this "business venture" stops making money the animals can go to hell. The loss of any species diminishes us whether we realize it or not, since they all have unique niches that keep ecosystems running smoothly. And I think there is also a moral issue to causing a species to disappear forever, either by our direct exploitation or indifference. Well, that was my rant and I suppose if eating rare critters works to save them I'd be for it even if it chokes me.
posted by binturong at 10:26 AM on April 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

Excuse me for saying "dinner" so many times in the post. Note to self: PROOFREAD.
posted by Kronos_to_Earth at 10:28 AM on April 30, 2008

It might sound like a progressive way to get people concerned about disappearing species but I think it sucks.
posted by binturong at 1:26 PM on April 30 [+] [!]

If people weren't so down on saying "eponysterical" these days I would be saying it SO HARD right now.
posted by penduluum at 10:31 AM on April 30, 2008

mmm... biltong...
posted by anthill at 10:32 AM on April 30, 2008

oh god and it's been favorited by betta fish

All kidding aside, fascinating post. And salvia's right about Enduring Seeds (eponisshut up) which presents a side of the argument that's probably more readily acceptable: growing rare and endangered varieties of plants for food makes us more likely to protect and nurture rare and endangered varieties of plants in general. Which has positive effects for common, not-endangered plants as well.
posted by penduluum at 10:36 AM on April 30, 2008

What a great idea. On the menu tonight: Blue Whale, Bald Eagle and maybe a little Tiger.

Also: BEES.
posted by loquacious at 10:59 AM on April 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

If "buy local"-style capitalism can preserve biodiversity, I'm all for it. I guess I just don't see this particular strategy doing much more than providing unique, trendy foodstuffs for gourmands to eat in $50/plate city restaurants. How does this aim to affect the diversity of everyday American food habits?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:10 AM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just a reminder: No matter how much we want to preserve local food traditions, many of them (some version of burgoo included) feature brains as one of the ingredients.

Brain is a dangerous, dangerous foodstuff. There is no good reason to eat brains*.

Off the top of my head (ha!) I don't know of any modern substitution, but plain gelatin might do the trick.

* ...unless you're a zombie**, I suppose.
** Rob Zombie excluded. He shouldn't eat brains either.
posted by unixrat at 11:28 AM on April 30, 2008

oh god and it's been favorited by betta fish

Actually, I was waffling, but I refavorited JUST FOR YOU!

I dunno, I see Napham's point, but at the same time, I'm with binturong and Blazecock on the cynicism and whether this is really about the environment.

It's worth pointing out that there's a certain conflation of "endangered animals" in this book. An endangered breed of cultivar is NOT the same as an endangered wild species, and a domestic chicken going extinct is not the tragedy on a biodiversity scale that losing the Carolina flying squirrel would be (no offense to chickens of the world).

In fact Napham isn't even advocating eating squirrel; he's just bringing them into the spotlight a bit and saying they used to be eaten, and now they're endangered. I'll give him the beneft of the doubt there because I haven't read the book, but that seems a bit like pointless "awareness-raising" - they're endangered because of habitat loss, and even once they rebound a bit, harvesting a few is unlikely to help them in any way unless the population explodes and they need culling.

Also, permits for wild bison number less than 200 a year at this point, so I'm sure most cuts of wild bison go to fancy restaurants just as Blazecock suggests. Yep, sustainable local living!

Basically, I think his premise is nice but a bit, "Rah rah capitalism can solve everything!"
posted by bettafish at 11:30 AM on April 30, 2008

Fry: OK, my friends, get ready for the most delicious extinct animal you've ever tasted.
Amy: I don't know, I've had cow.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:33 AM on April 30, 2008

loquacious: "What a great idea. On the menu tonight: Blue Whale, Bald Eagle and maybe a little Tiger. Also: BEES."

Bats are the new Bees.
posted by Toekneesan at 11:34 AM on April 30, 2008

Markets can be pretty powerful things and I don't agree that this is just rah rah Capitalism. Yes squirrels are losing habitat, but if they were still eaten, might not folks care a bit more that a food source was disappearing, not just a tree, and thus change the approach to the habitat? Being invested in the food might make folks invested in where it comes from. It's easier to develop the woods when no one depends on them.

As for heirlooms and exotic breeds, I would say these are incredibly important resources that should be protected and invested in. I suppose it will require the loss of an entire species like the Banana for us to realize this but in the meantime, using the market to promote diversity seems like a good first step. I'll be doing it in my garden as well.
posted by Toekneesan at 11:54 AM on April 30, 2008

> might not folks care a bit more that a food source was disappearing, not just a tree, and thus change the approach to the habitat?

I doubt it. Why would they do that, when if they want to eat squirrel, the obvious solution is just to capture a few squirrels, and farm them in some sort of ultra-high-density squirrel CAFO? I'm sure if there was a market for squirrel meat, I'm sure Smithfield and the other usual suspects would put their minds to the task and figure out exactly how many square inches each squirrel needs to not cannibalize the squirrel next to it, and how quickly you can fatten one up to slaughter weight when you pump it full of drugs, etc.

Put it this way: the fact that people like to eat pork hasn't done a whole hell of a lot to preserve the habitat of wild pigs (although hunters probably have); it's just ensured that a whole lot of pigs live ugly, brutish, and short lives in deplorable conditions in factory farms.

Given the way the 'market' views and treats animals, I'm not sure that I would want to attract its interest to any species I was looking to protect in its current, wild form.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:44 PM on April 30, 2008

I was protectin some groundhog the other night over a roaring fire.
mmmm.... whistlepig.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 12:56 PM on April 30, 2008

Markets can indeed be powerful things but I don't think you want to leave the preservation of species and habitats, not to mention food production, totally in the control of such short-sighted and selfish mechanisms. In a realistic market economy, based in the real world, economists would include the value of natural ecosystems, biodiversity, and unpolluted air, water, and soil. Right now they're treated as if they're both free and inexhaustible.
posted by binturong at 1:17 PM on April 30, 2008

So, a funny story about eating bees. A friend of my husband lives in the countryside outside of Hiroshima and makes his own moonshine, moonshine with BEES in it. He raises the bees in a little hive and when he prepares a new bottle he takes a few bees and puts them in the bottle. The bees themselves are enormous, about the size of the top joint of my thumb. They drown after not too long and when you swish around the bottle the dead bees swirl around like dead leaves. Eventually the alcohol absorbs all the goo inside and only the exoskeletons remain. The bees aren't meant to be eaten, but after a few shots it's easy to dare someone to. Apparently it's just like eating a shrimp shell; I have a shrimp allergy so I wouldn't know.

And that is my story of eating bees.
posted by Alison at 2:46 PM on April 30, 2008

Why would they do that, when if they want to eat squirrel, the obvious solution is just to capture a few squirrels, and farm them in some sort of ultra-high-density squirrel CAFO?

You are so right, Kadin. I laughed till I cried.

It might sound like a progressive way to get people concerned about disappearing species but I think it sucks. It says that we only value other species to the degree that we can exploit them.

I disagree. I think his point is exactly what Toekneesan said - that if we have a relationship between ourselves and the animals, then we care more about the ecosystem where we live, and we work to protect it. It's about making ourselves a part of the local ecosystem again, and therefore having a stake in the whole system's survival, rather than as we do now, extracting resources from afar without having much actual dependence in its long term health. In The Geography of Childhood, Nabhan explains (part of) the current problem:
The very plants and animals upon which the O'odham once depended are now increasingly out of sight and out of mind. Robert Michael Pyle elaborates on the "cycle of disaffection" that is triggered by the extinction of experience: "as cities and metastasizing suburbs forsake their natural diversity, and their citizens grow more removed from personal contact with nature, awareness and appreciation retreat. This breeds apathy toward environmental concerns and, inevitably, further degradation of common habitat... [leading to] the total loss of rarities. People who care, conserve; people who don't know, don't care. What is the extinction of a condor to a child who has never seen a wren?" (96).
In contrast, the story goes, if you get people outdoors and eating local foods, they start to care about nature, they call their senator, and environmental problems go away. God how I love that idea and wish it were true. I have believed it since I read bioregionalism stuff when I was 15. I have loved the idea of the Salmon Nation for years (I once asked metafilter about it).

My problem with this idea is that it's empirically disproven. We eat salmon but they're going extinct. No really, and where is that groundswell of grassroot support to take down the dams that are killing the salmon? Seriously, where? (Deep breath. Maybe there is this groundswell and I'm not closely enough involved in the activism on this issue to have seen it. If so, please tell me.)

Maybe our problems are worse now because we're disconnected from the animals, but even back in the 1800s when people had just started taking trains across the Great Plains, they were still shooting buffalo just for the fun of it. Though they had begun eating commodity grain, they were still eating a lot more locally than we do now. In some ways, their "interconnection with the ecosystem" was making things worse. Afraid of wolves, and/or defending their livestock they were poisoning buffalo carcasses to kill the wolves. Another study found that since the 1850s, fishing has depleted one type of seafood after another, and people responded by simply switching to eating a "lesser" type of fish. Do we have to actually have no other food options to start protecting a certain kind of animal and its habitat? Or is there another core problem and key solution? The relationship created by hunting, eating, or interacting with animals isn't enough. Or at least, it wasn't in the past, though maybe this book can be part of a positive shift now.

I also don't think that a better answer is to suggest we not care about animals for our selfish purposes and instead simply care about animals for their own existence. I mean, they do deserve to just exist, but the love of animals for their own sake has no better track record. We used to eat whales. Now we don't. But we do now really love them. The southern resident orcas (the ones off of Washington State) are probably the most beloved whale community ever. And it's down to.... 88 individuals, and last I heard (might be out of date now), the Fish & Wildlife Service wouldn't list them as endangered because it wasn't quite distinct enough from other whale populations. Or take the polar bear. Could we love any species more? And yet, the US government is outright violating the law in not yet having responded to a petition requesting it be added to the endangered species list (they simply have to say yes or no). The Fish & Wildlife Service has had to be ordered by a court to take that simple step. Environmentalists have been trying to get the polar bear on the endangered species list since the beginning of this decade if not sooner, and even that hasn't happened, much less any positive action to actually help the bears.

So, what is the core problem? What are the real solutions? I really don't know. I do know that the US government is not going to do it for us; maybe other countries are different, but here every battle is hard fought, with the government leaning on the side of industry (with maybe a few exceptions) if not outright distorting the science. A lot of people don't know or care, but even when a lot of people do care, some link in the chain is missing. I don't know what it would take to shift to a culture where restoring local ecosystems is an integral part of what we do. So, even with what I said above (eating locally is not enough), I do have the feeling that Nabhan's emphasis on native seeds and local foodways may be part of that shift. At least for now, it can't hurt to get individuals to know more about the plants and animals, to feel they have a personal stake in their survival, and to help however they can in their own backyards.
posted by salvia at 3:06 PM on April 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

posted by binturong at 3:46 PM on April 30, 2008

salvia - I hear ya. There are no solutions. Education. Market pricing. Legislation. All been tried. All important. Personally, I think we should start eating people. Mmmm... Stewed Senator, Charbroiled CEO...
posted by binturong at 3:50 PM on April 30, 2008

I believe it's Nabhan. His book Enduring Seeds should be required reading.
posted by OmieWise at 6:16 PM on April 30, 2008

I'm not convinced there's much relationship between eating animals and preserving their environment. Maybe preserving the animals themselves. For example, cows. We don't really work on preserving some sort of natural environment for cows, and in fact our raising of cows is harmful to the environment as a whole, not helpful. Any animal that becomes sufficiently popular as food will suffer the same fate, as we can't hunt enough meat for everyone to eat it (at least not with anywhere near the frequency Americans, for example, do today).

Personally I don't see a big advantage to keeping animals if they can only be sustained in captivity, which is why I'd be fine with cows going extinct, for example. Usually the idea with species preservation is to preserve the habitat and natural "lifestyle" of the animal, which is inconsistent with it being eaten on any large scale. Except maybe fish, since we've been a lot slower about destroying their habitat (although we're getting there). Pretty much all land-meat we eat is farmed (organic/oldstyle or factory), not hunted.
posted by wildcrdj at 2:27 PM on May 1, 2008

Interesting stuff, but something that may lessen the impact is that it looks like he's also focusing not just on entire classes of animals/foodstuff, but also on specific variants in some cases, and the lay person may not see the distinction.

In other words -- cranberries and quahogs are on the list, but only a particular kind of each. There's plenty of other strains of quahogs and cranberries, so the lay person hearing that cranberries and quahogs are endangered may say, "pffft, no they're not!" (My parents even grow cranberries -- the family is an Ocean Spray supplier -- and so I was very surprised to see this, because if this past year's crop is anything to go by, whatever strain they grow sure ain't the strain that's endangered.)

But this actually makes this article all the more important, because even though if this one strain of cranberries, or whatever, goes bust, we may still have cranberries, but cranberrydom will be less diverse -- and the more homogenous a species, the more vulnerable. One of the reasons that the Irish Potato Famine was as bad as it was was because the potato grown in Ireland was almost exclusively one particular strain of potato -- a strain that just happened to be especially vulnerable to the particular fungus that caused that particular potato blight. That potato crop went down worldwide, it's just that other strains of potato were more resistant, and if you had other potatoes in the fields, you still had those to eat, so you just went a little hungry. Grow only the one strain, and if it all gets wiped out, you're screwed. Something similar is happening to bananas, as I've heard -- nearly all bananas being commerically grown are of the Cavendish variety, and right now there are four diseases which target the Cavendish that are clobbering the banana industry right now, to the point that supermarkets could go totally banana-less within 20 years.

But that only happened because other banana varieties have petered out; tell people that another strain of banana is endangered, and people will look at all the bananas in the supermarkets and then look at you like you're nuts.

How to overcome that misconception, I'm not sure. Hope articles like this help, though.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:38 AM on May 2, 2008

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