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The Quest to Create the Next Quinoa

Can Americans be convinced to eat ancient foods they’ve never heard of?

A dish of fonio, tomatoes, by chef Pierre Thiam. Photo: An Rong Xu
A dish of fonio, tomatoes, by chef Pierre Thiam. Photo: An Rong Xu
A dish of fonio, tomatoes, by chef Pierre Thiam. Photo: An Rong Xu

When contemplating human extinction — a fun pastime! — we tend to imagine it in spectacular terms: nuclear holocaust, a life-destroying impact event, robots that finally outsmart us once and for all. But the truth is that humanity’s real undoing may be our dangerously monotonous diet. U.N. data released this month shows that world hunger is climbing for the first time since 1990. By 2050, the planet’s population is expected to grow by one-third, and experts say we’ll need twice as much food as we have now in order to feed everyone. Meanwhile, rising sea levels, erratic weather, and disease epidemics make it unlikely that humans’ current diet will be able to scale to feed everyone.

The big problem is that we just don’t eat enough of what’s available. Earth is home to, by at least one estimate, 300,000 varieties of edible plants. Most humans consume around 150, and a mere 4 — wheat, corn, rice, potatoes — account for 60 percent of the world’s daily calorie intake, feed the livestock that we eat, and dominate our cropland. (Wheat and corn alone occupy half of America’s farm acreage.)

By growing and eating such a small percentage of what’s available, we endanger our own food supply and threaten the very existence of the food we could eat instead. Consider this story: One-third of the corn in Mexico, where corn was first cultivated around 10,000 years ago, is now American yellow corn. According to a report from Parts Unknown:

American yellow corn, which never used to be eaten in Mexico, now makes up a third of the country’s overall corn supply and is used mostly as animal feed, though it can be found in human food products as well. Local production chains have been so demolished that, during the 2016 teacher protests in Oaxaca, corn had to be airlifted into the state to ensure people had enough to eat throughout the blockades. [Now ] 59 varieties of heirloom corn native to Mexico are on the verge of extinction, as are the many regional dishes they are supposed to be made with.

It’s just one example, and there are countless others (pity our poor bananas), but the good news is that awareness of this danger is growing, and biodiversity activists now have a platform with which to promote the idea of eating so-called “ignored” or “forgotten” crops. It might seem impossible to convince millions of Americans to eat something they’ve never heard of before, but think about quinoa, a plant that practically no Americans knew about 30 years ago, let alone imagined eating, that’s now a staple of home kitchens and grain-bowl destinations alike. The same goes for things like açaí and goji berries. Now, imagine a world where you can head to your grocery store to also pick up some bambara groundnut, stalks of moringa, and bags of teff or tepary beans.

This is the aim of the new Rediscovered Foods Initiative, a collaboration of several activist groups, including Crop Trust (which also runs the famed “doomsday seed vault”) and the Lexicon of Sustainability, which is committed to “aspirational stories of real people sharing sustainable solutions to help drive behavior change.” Rather than simply promote the idea of eating all the different types of food that are available to us, the Rediscovered initiative has selected 25 individual crops, with the goal of getting them on restaurant menus and into grocery aisles around the country within the next two years.

And to help with that goal, Lexicon co-founder Douglas Gayeton says chef involvement will be crucial. Chefs, Gayeton says, “are the ones who teach people how to use ingredients.” Just look, for example, at the spread of kale, which has, of course, been available to eat as long as people have needed food, but only gained traction as a nationally popular go-to ingredient after being prominently featured on farm-to-table restaurant menus. The hope, in short, is to create more kales and diversify Americans’ diet in the process.

Instead of waiting around and hoping that talented chefs in major cities just happen to come upon, say, Peruvian ulluco, sugar kelp, or Kernza on their own, Crop Trust and Gayeton jump-started the movement by working with several partners — Google, Oxfam, Erik Oberholtzer, the co-founder of the salad chain Tender Greens, among them — and inviting a number of talented chefs to Google’s High Line Cafe for a “Rediscovered Foods” cook-off, essentially a coming-out party for these marginalized crops, which each chef tasked with highlighting a specific ingredient.

Loring Place chef Dan Kluger turned breadfruit — a prickly volleyball-size pod sold on roadsides in Hawaii — into a spin on sliders that treated the breadfruit as a bun with a tomato-peanut filling to replace beef. Broken Spanish’s Ray Garcia made chochoyotes (traditional Mexican dumplings) from ulluco and whole crickets. Bombay Bread Bar chef Floyd Cardoz offered Indian street food, the burrito-esque Frankie, made with jackfruit and amaranth. Google culinary director Michael Wurster went for broke with tortellini that involved Ethiopian finger millet, the Andean tuber oca, Japanese saltwort, arrowroot, salsify, and truffles. Meanwhile, Pierre Thiam, a Senegalese chef and cookbook author who’s done as much as anyone to introduce African food to Americans, made a simple salad of cucumbers, grape tomatoes, and fonio.

In fact, fonio, which is possibly West Africa’s oldest cereal grain, is something like the poster child of this entire movement. Since at least 2014, it’s been called the next quinoa, and it’s already available in Whole Foods and on Amazon. (Although everyone involved with Rediscovered Foods who spoke with Grub Street explained that quinoa was also something of a cautionary tale, since its rapid popularity explosion created a number of ethical concerns that nobody wants to repeat.)

Fonio’s main advocate, in America anyway, is Thiam, whose company Yolélé Foods is to fonio what Quaker is to oats. It’s poised to break big: Early next year, Oberholtzer will begin to feature fonio at Tender Greens. The trendy chain has a reputation for specializing in sort of neo–comfort food. They’ve grown to 29 locations, with plans to open hundreds more nationwide. Oberholtzer says that size is an important tool for introducing Americans to new foods. “People who have influence or audience need to get people out of their comfort zones,” he explains. “Go to a market or spice store, buy something that seems a little unusual, and take it back to their kitchens and experiment. It’s the only way we’ll get people to order something beyond the chicken or salmon.”

The objective, however, is not to simply create new food trends for the sake of profit — the last thing the world needs are kale barons — but to instead lend a sense of cachet and maybe a bit of prestige to ingredients that have been overlooked for too long. Yes, even if it sounds like a stretch, convincing more people to eat more diverse diets could stave off some catastrophic food-destroying event, but even before that, it can also just make dinner a little more exciting.

The Quest to Create the Next Quinoa