Ethnobotonist Gary Paul Nabhan is following food resilience in the desert Southwest.
Gary Paul Nabhan wears many hats, but when we recently spoke in his hometown of Patagonia, Arizona, he had on a khaki ball cap emblazoned with a caricature of a horned toad.
An ethnobotanist by trade, Nabhan is an enthusiastic desert dweller and a research scientist at the Southwest Center at the University of Arizona, where he helps run the program Sabores Sin Fronteras, aka Flavors Without Borders, a multi-cultural alliance dedicated to preserving and promoting the foods and culture of the U.S.-Mexican borderlands. He has written and co-written several books including a history of tequila and a guide to foraging for wild edibles such as “sand food” in the Sonoran desert. He also founded Renewing America’s Food Traditions, or RAFT, a group that champions endangered, place-based foods such as Meech’s Prolific quince and the eulachon, a fish with an oil content so high it can be dried and used as a candle.
I spoke with Nabhan in April at a pot-luck dinner capping off Patagonia Trail Days, a celebration that included a speech made by Nabhan at the town library about the potential to put Patagonia on the map as a pollinator Mecca: the area is home to unusually high amounts of bats, birds and bees. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped as the author-researcher-teacher-farmer sipped a beer and gazed at the Patagonia Mountains lit by the setting sun. A hummingbird fed close by, dreamily distorted by waves of heat emanating from a charcoal grill, one of the infamous pollinators at work.
Nabhan’s latest book, Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail,  is a collaboration with two other authors, the agroecologist Kraig Kraft, a chile pepper expert based in Managua, and chef Kurt Michael Friese of the Iowa City restaurant Devotay, who also publishes Edible Iowa River Valley Magazine. The book takes a worm’s eye view of the effects of climate change as the writers travel to chile-growing regions, eating tear-inducing local delicacies along the way.
While scientists hesitate to cite single events as evidence of climate change, Nabhan, Kraft and Friese zero-in on the lives of chile producers and consumers who are suffering from bizarre and unprecedented weather patterns, from flooding in the pepper fields of Avery Island, Louisiana, home of Tabasco, to rising temperatures around Albuquerque, where high concentrations of unshaded, paved areas retain heat in an area that already has plenty of it.
Nabhan is optimistic about the role corporations can play in addressing climate change through promoting sustainable food production. “Just about every one of the food service companies has taken on sustainability pilot projects,” he notes, citing the examples of corporations like Sodexo and Aramark, which are experimenting with sustainable food options at colleges and universities.
“I think the coolest things are like Bates College, where if a truck comes up with local produce, it goes back filled with compostable materials, so every truck is being used both ways. They’re figuring that out; it’s not foodies figuring that out,” he said (though food service at Bates is independently run). Nabhan sees such efforts as addressing the question: “Well, what are we going to do if the world continues to change?”
“I think the innovations are involving a lot of people in corporations that really weren’t asked for a while to innovate, and I think that’s really interesting: to say, OK, you guys who don’t do it by default, do it proactively.”
While that concept may seem abstract for some, he hopes to make it every bit as real and engaging as a hot pepper on the tongue.
About Aaron Kagan
Aaron Kagan is a freelance food writer whose work regularly appears in the Boston Globe among other publications. He has also written for Meatpaper, has two articles forthcoming on Smithsonian.com and has just had his first play accepted by the Boston Theater Marathon. He blogs at Tea and Food and lives with his wife and dog in Northampton, MA.