On the Side | Lost foods reclaimed

For a Bucks County man, it has been the pawpaw, brought back from the brink of oblivion. He is part of a movement to restore original American tastes.

Posted: September 27, 2007

Larry Rossi's piece of Eden is situated in a crook of Neshaminy Creek, a floodplain off Bridgetown Pike in Langhorne, Bucks County, where after 10 hard years, his efforts, finally, are bearing fruit: This month he's picking his first crop of pawpaws.

It is tempting to regard him as a single-minded, perhaps quixotic figure - a Johnny Pawpawseed, say - obsessed with reviving the fortunes of America's largest native fruit, storied once for its creamy, aromatic, banana-mango flesh; all but forgotten today.

But in the bigger picture, he is one more foot soldier in a movement determined to bring back the taste of a paradise lost - the luxurious flavor of heritage pork before the fat was bred out, and Bourbon Red turkeys that fly; of heirloom cranberries (from a Pine Barrens bog called Paradise Hill); and, of course, the iconic buffalo (the heart-healthier red meat) that came close to extinction on the Great Plains.

They are distant memories, some, like the Bourbon Red, closer in flavor to America's original wildfowl; others - like imported European apple stock - so bred for uniform color and storage and spotlessness that they lost their inner cider-ness and pie-perfection.

Sometimes you don't know what you've got till it's gone. And getting it back requires untold time, patience, dead-ends and, well, Larry Rossi and his pawpaws stand as an object lesson.

Still, championed by the Slow Food Movement, by Alice Waters, the local-seasonal guru, and the flowering of farm markets, the lust for one more bite has created a market niche, and for the first time in years, the pioneering wholesaler - Heritage Foods USA - has realized a profit.

This is the frontier beyond - or maybe adjoining - the fence of "grass-fed," and "organic," and "humanely slaughtered." (Indeed, "field-harvested" is the new term of art for killing buffalo in their outdoor stomping grounds, sparing them the stress of the slaughterhouse.)

It is not necessarily a cohesive movement, marching to a single drummer. It has put good intentions in tension, pitted "Eat Local" champions against ventures such as Heritage, a mail-order marketer of family-farmed, heirloom breeds of beef, bison, turkey and fruit.

"Eat local is fine if you live in Napa or Vermont," argues Patrick Martins, Heritage's president and the founder of Slow Food USA: "But what about the [purebred pork] farmer in Kansas with no local population? What about getting a taste of wild salmon?"

Until the breeds - the light, sweet Duroc pork, for instance - are reestablished, he maintains, eating locally shouldn't rule out the imperative to "ship nationally."

In that spirit, Heritage was offering this month about 12 pawpaws from a Maryland farmer for $107 (including overnight shipping).

That gave Larry Rossi a chuckle: Locally, he sells his pawpaws for a third of that, mostly to chefs.

But he doesn't have many.

Which is the heritage-food dilemma in a nutshell.

It's one thing to re-create the taste of Original-Recipe America.

It's another to make enough of it to go around.

On a sparkling afternoon last week, Larry Rossi surveyed his pawpaw patch - 750 trees, their beagle-ear leaves drooping, in rows running north-south (to catch the morning and afternoon sun) in the creekside silt loam.

He was the orchardist more than 10 years ago at Snipes Gardens and Nursery in Morrisville, Bucks County, when he became intrigued with the research of Neal Peterson, the godfather of the pawpaw.

Talk to pawpaw apostles and behold its mystical powers - as a cancer-fighter (compounds in the bark), vitamin pill, a link to noble history: Lewis and Clark credited it with saving them from starvation. Indians used its fiber to make cord. It was celebrated in folk song, and served in custard pies in inns across the 19th century.

It still grows in the wild. You can find it here and there along the Wissahickon, and along stretches of the Susquehanna, and in hidden groves beyond the reach of development.

But it is difficult to forage, and a devil to cultivate, costing by some accounts seven times more than an apple tree to bring to harvest. Its shelf life is shorter than a peach's.

Certain varieties, though, can be incomparably, silkily sublime, their flesh a rich, natural custard akin to creamy banana, but infinitely more delicate and complex. Cut one in half and spoon it out, and you pick up whiffs of tropical vanilla, or mango, or pineapple, or coconut. (Pawpaw, by the way, is not short for papaya.)

Rossi almost gave up.

He planted his first saplings 10 years ago on land donated by his day-job employer, a local contractor.

Marauding bucks rubbed off the bark. Drought killed a third of his trees the first year. He put in drip-tubing irrigation. Then in 1999, Hurricane Floyd sent seven feet of water over the patch, flattening trees, tearing up the buried irrigation.

But he got stubborn; stuck it out.

Old, original flavors come and go, sometimes fading away as their habitats (like the pawpaw's) shrink: The soft, walnut-y flavor of the butternut is all but gone, and the wintergreen note of teaberry.

Pollution wrote an end to the Delaware's shad, terrapin and oyster trade.

Some flavors were consumed to death: In the 1880s, Inga Saffron writes in Caviar, the tiny port of Caviar, N.J., near current-day Greenwich, supplied more caviar than anywhere in the world. But within 29 years, sturgeon had been fished out of Delaware Bay.

The sturgeon haven't revived. But other species have fared better. Heritage breeds of turkeys - associated with America's most nostalgic food holiday - have become the profit center for Heritage USA.

Now, Princeton's Griggstown Quail Farm has gotten into the act: Its slow-growing Bourbon Red turkeys ($7.25 a pound!) range free in outdoor pens, not far from the quail and pheasant.

But the most visible success story is the revival of America's original "cattle," the bison, once pushed to the edge of extinction.

In The Worst Hard Time, his chronicle of the Dust Bowl, Timothy Egan notes that in 1872-73, seven million pounds of buffalo tongues alone were shipped out of Dodge City, Kan.

Two years later, Texans were implored to exterminate every last buffalo in the Panhandle to deny Indians their chief foodstuff, and make the world safe for "speckled cattle."

Brave new buffalo ranchers have cropped up locally - at Hillside Farms near Telford, Montgomery County, and Backyard Bison in Coopersburg in upper Bucks County, among others, part of a trend that has restored 500,000 buffalo to the range.

But as with other aspects of the heritage movement, major suppliers (such as Ted Turner, who backs Ted's Montana Grill at Broad and Spruce) don't always see eye-to-eye with small-time local yokels.

Smaller operators favor grass-feeding, respecting the animal's natural biology. But former cattle ranchers who've come to dominate the industry favor finishing bison, like beef, on grain diets.

So it goes, the struggle between popularizing a newer breed of eco-gastronomy, and keeping it true and pure.

Near Union Mills, Md., an hour north of Baltimore, Jim Davis, the pawpaw farmer who wholesales to Heritage USA, straddles the two worlds.

He has built his Deep Run Pawpaw Orchard up to an estimable 1,200 trees, supplying local farmstands. But he has had to make some un-green concessions to ship nationally: Fragile pawpaws require sturdy boxes, packing in multiple layers of bubble wrap, and individual foam sleeves.

He's thinking of adding another wrinkle: wine grapes.

Larry Rossi? He has his own ideas.

He sees a future in the bramble business; he's heard of a new way to grow blackberries.


Buying Heritage Products

 

Pawpaws: E-mail Larry Rossi at thepawpawguy@msn.com

Meats, produce, seafood and fruit: Heritage Foods USA, www.heritagefoodsusa.com; 212-980-6603

Heritage turkeys: www.griggstownquailfarm.com; 908-359-5218

Locally raised bison: www.hillsidefarms.biz; 215-723-8499 or www.backyardbison.com; 610-346-6640

Heirloom cranberries: Paradise Hill Farm, 64 Mill St., Vincentown, N.J., 609-234-9241


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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