Food archaeologist gives new life to nearly extinct grains, veggies

by Richard Ruelas – Oct. 1, 2011 06:43 PM
The Arizona Republic

PATAGONIA – Gary Nabhan has written stacks of research papers about culture, archaeology and food for academic journals, and has authored at least a dozen books, some meant for popular consumption, others the academic kind whose titles have colons and subtitles that are longer than the main title.

But the gist of his high-minded, dense research is this: People lived here thousands of years ago and they must have eaten something.

To get that something, they didn’t go to the supermarket or big-box discount store. They grew and raised their foodstuffs on arid desert lands.

Nabhan, 59, has made it his life’s work to figure out what those foods were and, if possible, to bring those nearly extinct foods back to life.

In doing so, he has helped reintroduce a veritable shopping list of foods to Arizona: beans, nuts, grains, fruits, vegetables and meats. He also has made his academic work edible, encouraging home cooks and award-winning chefs to actually use these culinary archaeological finds.

“It’s not like we’re saving these as museum pieces,” said Nabhan, in his home north of Patagonia. “They really taste good.”

It’s egghead research that can be made into omelets — filled with Prescott heirloom tomatoes and I’itoi onions.

Nabhan’s work rests on another basic truth of gardening: seeds need to be planted.

Seeds can’t merely be saved. They lose their effectiveness after several years. Somebody needs to plant the seed, make sure it grows and be there to harvest the crop — and the seeds — that keep the cycle going.

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