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May 5, 2008

Disappearing Foods

Filed under: American Food,Books — Mr. Henry @ 8:26 am

renewingamericasfood.jpg In a New York Times article “Disappearing Foods,” Kim Severson reviews the new book by Gary Paul Nabhan, Renewing America’s Food Traditions.

Accompanying the article is a marvelous interactive graphic illustrating areas of the United States organized by “gastronomic regions.”

With one finger on the touch pad Mr. Henry wandered interactively around the country. In “Gumbo Nation,” the Gulf Coast region, he read the words “clay field peas” and memories sprouted like magic beans.

Not since the middle 1960’s had Mr. Henry tasted these delicacies. Field peas look like pale green black-eyed peas or greener versions of white acre peas. Normally they are dried and used as fodder. When served fresh, however, boiled with ham hock as Mr. Henry remembers them, they taste creamy, mildly nutty, and divinely sweet. Mr. Henry’s favorite boyhood vegetable, one day about 45 years ago they simply disappeared from the market. Were these the disappearing “clay field peas?”crab.jpg

In “Crabcake Nation,” the southern Atlantic Coast, during Mr. Henry’s youth blue crabs ran thick and wild on Florida beaches.

For spring vacation this year Mr. Henry took the kids to Florida. Promising them a bonanza of blue crab, he bought six flashlights and six poles with crab nets. After dark the hunting party set off after its nocturnal, side-striding prey. They found not a single blue crab on the beach. Mr. Henry hung his bush hat in disgrace. Are blue crabs disappearing?

In “Chestnut Nation,” the Appalachians, Mr. Henry once stopped at a roadside farm stand high in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Spying mason jars of something mustard yellow in color, he read the label: “chou-chou.”

Thinking the name was derived from French, he asked, “Is this ‘shoo-shoo’ a pickled cabbage?”

“Naw,” said the tiny young woman. “That’s chow chow.”

“Hmmm,” said Mr. Henry. “Is it sweet?”

“Well,” she said pursing her thin lips, “It’s got right smart sugar in it.”

In Appalachian argot, “right smart” means “quite a bit.” The pickle, although a little too sweet, was crunchy and delightfully flavorful. Indeed, it was not cabbage but Jerusalem artichoke pickled in mustard. Was this Jack’s copperclad Jerusalem artichoke, one of America’s disappearing foods?


  1. Chow chow was also made in Northeastern PA by my grandparents. Their version had green tomatoes, cauliflower, peppers and green beans (I think.)

    They also called green peppers “mangos”.

    Comment by Phyllis — May 5, 2008 @ 9:02 pm

  2. Chow Chow’s a staple in the Maritime provinces of Canada too (had it in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia) but I also see it for sale here in the Toronto area, sold by a brand name that seems to specialize in Indian pickles and chutneys. It’s very sweet and very sour, always served at barbecues.

    Jerusalem artichoke grows everywhere! But I only–very rarely–see it at organic or farmer’s markets here. Lots of people make soups with it when it’s around, and people love the flowers in their gardens. As for Blue Crab–last time I was in Florida I stayed mainly on the eastern side of the state, near the Fort Lauderdale area between Fort Pierce and W. Palm Beach. There were a number of secluded little beaches all along the edge of Hutchinson Island, often with wooded areas around them: we’d see hundreds of blue crab on a sunny morning, after a rainy night. But I haven’t been in FLA for over 10 years now. I sure hope they’re still around there!

    Maybe these foods aren’t really disappearing so much as forgotten. Thanks for the link to that graphic, this is a fascinating topic (and I think the whole idea of food “terroire”–foods particular to regions and the cultures who’ve developed there– is really underexplored).

    Comment by ChaChaHeels — May 8, 2008 @ 6:35 am

  3. Funny, I see Jerusalem artichokes at my friendly corner grocer’s all the time. I keep thinking one of these times I’m going to try them out, but I never have. Probably because I fear that Mr. Twistie’s food fear will make him turn up his nose without trying them leading me to regret wasting the money.

    Maybe I’ll pick some up and do something lunch-like with them first.

    I’d love to try blue crab. I love almost anything that swam or inhabited a shell in life. Snails and oysters are my two exceptions, thus far. Oh, and eel doesn’t do much for me. Everything else I’ve tried, I’ve enjoyed tremendously.

    And now I shall go play with the map…well, when I get done with work.

    Comment by Twistie — May 8, 2008 @ 9:21 am

  4. As Chachaheels points out, Jerusalem artichokes are usually found in soups, but they can be prepared mashed or roasted, too.

    Twistie might be amused to learn that in ancient Greece the most expensive of all foods were sea eels.

    Comment by Mr. Henry — May 8, 2008 @ 9:47 am

  5. Thank you for linking to this, Mr. Henry. It’s wildly cool.

    And Twistie – I envy you your first blue crab. I’m a Marylander and my grandfather went crabbing in his backyard every day during the season, so I can’t even remember a time when I wasn’t cutting my delicate fingers on sharp claws and adding extra Old Bay to everything in sight.

    Blue crabs are really delicious. I’m sure I’m biased, but I’ve always totally preferred blue crab over lobster.

    Comment by kit pollard — May 9, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

  6. Field peas, crowder peas, pinkeye peas, purple hull peas, english peas, baby limas, Mr. Henry get thee to the southland; here we have these peas fresh, fresher, and freshest! Right now too. My favorite way is to simply saute them in some nice olive oil with some fresh corn, some chopped up tomatoes, nicely shaved garlic so it melts away, maybe a little of your homegrown basil, and you have just the loveliest, freshest meal ever.

    Comment by Nancy — May 12, 2008 @ 8:40 am

  7. They only disappear where people allow them to. We, as cooks, can revive any recipe, and those of us with a little land can grow many of the things we miss. I don’t miss crowder peas.
    I am instead growing runner beans, swiss chard and spiny little cucumbers for pickles.

    Comment by Judith in Umbria — May 14, 2008 @ 2:27 pm

  8. Chow chow is something I remember my grandmother making. It is in her church cookbook (the one with 34 pages of entrees and 187 pages of desserts).

    Comment by class factotum — July 8, 2008 @ 12:57 pm

  9. Mr. Henry, everyone in Mississippi has a grandmother, aunt, or neighbor who makes chow-chow. My 30-something niece makes it. They have it in the grocery stores. They also have mayhaw jelly, pickled okra, fresh okra, etc etc, not to mention the already mentioned kinds of peas and beans. You should think about moving . . .

    Comment by Hermione — July 18, 2008 @ 10:03 pm

  10. I have been living in Philippines for the last 20 years. Once i visited India along with my parents and the food culture there was really amazing and very diversified. Each and every state there has it’s own speciality in especially in food (language cloths, and tradition would be other terms). I enjoyed many recepies their, some of them i remember Chola bhatoora, shahi paneer, matar paner i like most. If in future i will get a chance to visit India, I would not like to miss it, exclusively for Indian Food 🙂

    Comment by tragaperras — August 14, 2008 @ 5:08 am

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