Group Fights for Food's Rights

When most people think of endangered species, they probably picture the giant panda, not pumpernickel bread or Gouda cheese.

But a group called Slow Food has classified the farm-made bread and cheese, plus hundreds of other rare, regional specialty foods, as endangered.

Ironically, Slow Food encourages the items on their endangered list be eaten, not preserved.

"Certain foods need a job in order to stay alive," said Patrick Martins, director of Slow Food USA. "And their job is to be eaten."

The group has compiled a list, called the Ark, of a few hundred foods from around the world that are in danger of becoming "extinct" for a variety of reasons. All are considered endangered because they're vulnerable to the effects of industrialization, perhaps because they're only made by one small producer or come from an unusual plant or animal species.

Among the American tastes the group wants to revive: The juicy, flavorful Sun Crest peach from California; a special white corn made on an Iroquois reservation in New York state; and the meaty Delaware Bay oyster from New Jersey.

Internationally, Slow Food has classified as endangered authentic, farmhouse Gouda and raw milk Edam cheeses from the Netherlands; the centuries-old original pumpernickel bread from Germany; and black cherry wine from Italy, among other foods.

The point of the movement is to revive the idea of regional specialties and emphasize the pleasure in eating. It's a philosophy that many chefs and restaurant owners embrace to an extent.

But though restaurants nationwide have begun offering some organically made dishes, a number of chefs agree it would be difficult to run a successful business serving only those kinds of foods.

"It's not like the whole menu can be done like that," said Walter Neuhold, president of the Professional Chefs Association and executive chef at the Wilshire Grand Hotel in Los Angeles. "It's not practical."

Neuhold remembers that when he started cooking in Austria three decades ago, everything was done seasonally and regionally. He would go to the local market each day, buy what farmers offered and whip up a menu based on whatever they had. Modern times, however, are different.

"Today, people are spoiled," he said. "Everyone wants blueberries 365 days a year."

Slow Food advocates insist they don't expect the food industry to do a complete about-face back to the days of yore. They just want to get some chefs to explore other menu options.

"We're not trying to turn the U.S. into the Old World," said Erika Lesser, the group's director of programming.

In New York, the Plaza's Oyster Bar is currently serving a promotional meal in which Ark and Slow Food tastes are used.

"We're trying to encourage a new way of thinking about food," said Tom Norberg, director of food and beverage at the Plaza. "We're attempting to rescue products that are in danger of dying out because there's no market for them."

Part of that process is to do what Neuhold and others used to: find out what's in season locally and go from there.

"Instead of forming a menu first, we're calling producers and creating a menu based on what's available," Norberg said.

Among the dishes offered on the Slow Food menu: raw Delaware Bay oysters; tomato and organic peach salad; fluffy organic corn grits with smoked gouda and shrimp; tender salmon slow roasted in maple syrup with caramelized sweet corn and peach chutney; and a custard-like yogurt-fromage blanc mix garnished with white Hawaiian organic honey.

Norberg admitted that working with small, local producers and unusual foods has its challenges -- especially for an entity like the Plaza New York, which goes through 400 pounds of salmon alone per week.

"Many producers are small producers and are not used to a large account like ours," he said. "We couldn't convert our whole operation to that because it's a small but growing movement."

Additionally, some of the locally produced ingredients are more expensive than those imported from other countries and regions.

Still, Oyster Bar patrons have eagerly wolfed down the tasty dishes on the temporary menu, offered through Oct. 24.

"The response we've gotten is fabulous," Norberg said. "We're sourcing [regional] products that are exactly in season. Eating becomes a much more enjoyable experience."