Three thousand miles from my Napa Valley hometown, I have landed in the city of Birmingham, Alabama. Like thirty five other country-wide preservation leadership participants, we have all come to learn more, network a bit and for some of us, begin to better understand the extraordinary civil rights history to be found in this city. To that, history may be seen and felt from the wrenching events that took place but 48 years ago.
For me though, a micro fruit farmer and culinary focused Californian, my attention is also food-focused. On this trip that attention will focus on the culinary traditions of the deep south, truly a unique and distinguishable cultural pathway. So what do regional food traditions have to do with preservation?
On a historical basis, we saw civilizations evolving, dominating and being defined based upon natural resource availability. Agriculture was king, eating was (and is) fundamental. It is the ghost of those past landscapes, economies and food resources that have come to define the food traditions that we now rely upon, that we seek out on a daily subconscious basis.
In the south, you see the legacy and evolution of African-American food traditions: b-b-que, greens, fried chicken, lots of pork, stews, preserved meats and vegetables and unique gravies. This legacy has defined the African American southern food tradition; a reflection of place, experience and history. These traditions have been brought forward as the new wave of Birmingham cooking manifests itself in hip restaurants that bring elements of old, new and fresh all together.
I have seen these most delicious plates of living history, from pulled pork sandwiches with macaroni and cheese to ribs, trigger fish with turnips, coconut cake and peanut butter ice cream using local peanuts. Put simply, food can quickly tell you where you are. And if you want to understand where you are, go back 100 years and you will begin to really understand why that turnip is on your plate next to the boiled greens and chopped pork.
So if preservation has to do with celebrating, revitalizing and educating, than surely this must include realizing that the very foods we pick, eat and enjoy have a long story to tell as well. And like an endangered church, bridge or house, we can easily loose the very food traditions which so subtly but surely defined place and culture.
Yes, there is history to food. Bon appétit.
-- Wendy Ward
Wendy Ward is the director of Preservation Napa Valley, she also has an extensive background in sustainable farming and is the current owner of a micro-farm. She is a participant in this year’s Preservation Leadership Training in Birmingham, Alabama. If you are in Birmingham on Friday, January 17, 2009 please attend the public presentations which will take place at 5:30 at the Prince Hall Grand Lodge in Birmingham, Alabama. Click here to view the flier. For more information on PLT visit our website.
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