Most folks don’t throw parties for sweet potatoes. But on a recent sunny March day at Franny’s Farm in Leicester, that is precisely what Slow Food Asheville was doing. There were some 30 community members gathered at the event — farmers, hobby gardeners, teachers and others — all of whom had participated in Asheville’s first Heritage Food Project and were on hand to celebrate the Nancy Hall heirloom sweet potato with a potluck at the picturesque farm.
“This was a culmination of the past year of engaging our community around this heritage variety of sweet potato that has been a story line for this region and the Slow Food Asheville chapter for a number of years,” says Ashley Epling, a member of the board of directors of the local Slow Food International chapter, which works to promote and preserve Western North Carolina food culture. The party guests had all contributed to the Heritage Food Project and the revival of the Nancy Hall by growing and donating slips for planting, cultivating and harvesting the variety, educating and demonstrating cooking methods. They then honored the vegetable at the event by preparing it in many different forms for a potluck meal.
As part of the project, Slow Food Asheville also nominated the Nancy Hall to Slow Food’s International Ark of Taste, which, Epling explains, is aimed at preserving endangered varietals of vegetables, fruits and other foods. She describes the Ark of Taste as “a living catalog of foods that have culinary value and are potentially facing extinction.”
Foods are nominated and inducted into the Ark under the criteria that they taste good, are legitimately in danger of becoming extinct, are not engineered and don’t endanger the environment and are not commercial or trademarked. “These are varietals that could blip out of existence in the next generation without the efforts to keep them around and alive in our food systems,” says Epling.
The Nancy Hall “was a potato that wasn’t traditionally commercially successful because of its low yield and the long growing season that it required,” Epling explains. Although it never gained any national clout, the small, white-fleshed tuber stuck around for generations, preserved mainly by farmers to grow for themselves because of its superior and surprisingly complex flavor.
The Rural Advancement Foundation International conducted a study in 1983 that compared U.S. Department of Agriculture listings of seed varieties sold by U.S. commercial seed houses in 1903 with those found in the National Seed Storage Laboratory in 1983. The research showed that 93 percent of the 66 crops surveyed had gone extinct. In 1903, there were more than 497 varietals of lettuce in the U.S., but by 1983, there were only 36. At one time, 307 types of corn were grown in U.S., but by the time the 1983 study was conducted, all but 12 had vanished completely, their flavors lost forever.
For its first Heritage Food Project, Slow Foods Asheville bought 500 slips of the Nancy Hall potato and distributed it among the 20 or so farmers, home gardeners and schools interested in participating in the initiative. “There were growers in Rutherford, Polk, Henderson and Buncombe counties, Black Mountain, Fairview and Barnardsville, which made it really interesting to see the diversity of the different areas, different soil types and microclimates [in which] these potatoes can grow,” says Epling.
The 2016 project will focus on a heritage bean variety. “We are opening it up for the community to help us decide which variety to feature and grow together,” she says. “It’s about sharing the history of these varietals and what makes them important, then sharing that work of keeping them alive and then sharing that food together in the end.”
For more information on Slow Food Asheville and the Heritage Food Project, visit slowfoodasheville.org