WILLIS WHARF, Va. (AP) — An international organization wants to add President Grover Cleveland's celebrated Hog Island fig to a collection of distinguished foods to be preserved for future generations.
Eastern Shore tabletop traditions evoke tastes of waterfowl, fish and shellfish, and locally grown heirloom plant cultivars, such as the highly prized Hayman sweet potato. They are synonymous with local cuisine; part of the very fabric of the region, as reflected in folk art, photographs and literature.
Throughout time, ties can fade, victims of changing tastes or in food or foliage, officials say. The cultural fabric wears thin, and local identity loses its distinctive character.
The Southeast Chapter of Slow Food USA, part of an international organization that seeks to protect the biodiversity of foods, along with their interwoven tastes and traditions, sees those fading ties locally and across the nation.
Now they hope to celebrate a humble fig known to an isolated Atlantic coast barrier island 10 miles from the Eastern Shore of Virginia.
"We have really seen a narrowing of biodiversity," said Bernard L. Herman, professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina, and chairman of a local chapter of Slow Food USA, an organization that helps to develop, preserve and connect local food cultures.
Herman nominated the Grover Cleveland's Hog Island fig for the Ark of Taste, an international registry of foods integral to local heritage, and threatened with extinction in the next two generations. Herman authored the fig's nomination, carefully documenting its historical, culinary and cultural values.
Especially important to the Ark of Taste are foods "that might not survive the industrial food process," said Megan Larmer, manager of biodiversity programs for Slow Food USA.
Never heard of the Hog Island fig? Larmer says that's the point of the Ark of Taste.
"It's part of the story of where we live," she said. "We want people to look around and see the beauty and diversity around them now, and be a part of keeping it."
Slow Food USA says 100 years ago, seed catalogs offered hundreds of varieties of seeds for melons, corn, tomatoes and other garden crops. Ninety percent of fruit and vegetable varietals have vanished since then, and along with them, their unique flavor profiles.
"Taste connects us to memories that move beyond what words can tell," Larmer said. "All senses are engaged."
Taste alone will not get a food named to the Ark of Taste.
"It has to be something so important to the local culture that rituals or rites are made around it. It becomes part of the local identity," Herman said.
David Shields, a professor of English and Southern studies at the university of South Carolina, and also a member of Slow Food USA, considers the Hog Island fig "a worthy and distinctive candidate."
Hog Island, a barrier island on the Atlantic side of Northampton County, was once home to Broadwater, a thriving community with renowned hunting and fishing clubs.
The island hosted president-elect Cleveland in 1892 for a Thanksgiving hunting expedition. Bad weather curbed hunting opportunities, but not appetites, and the island's best cooks joined forces to showcase island fare.
"The repast has never been excelled on Broadwater (Hog) Island," reads the application, quoting from the Nov. 25, 1892, New York Herald.
"At dessert some preserved figs, raised on the island and the club's special pride, were served," the article continued.
No one imagined that within 40 years, islanders would begin relocating to the mainland after two hurricanes decimated Broadwater. Residents relocated to nearby mainland areas of Willis Wharf and Oyster, some moving their very houses, and some taking cuttings of the treasured fig bushes; a taste of the island for their new homes.
Accompanying the application is a yellowed black-and-white photograph, circa 1890, of a Hog Island woman and child, before a backdrop of a flourishing Hog Island fig tree.
Because the transplanted figs were rooted from cuttings, they are genetically identical to the original trees.
Tom Gallivan, who co-owns Shooting Point Oysters in Bayford with wife Ann, is an Eastern Shore member of Slow Foods USA. He believes there is untapped economic potential in reinvigorating the Shore's food heritage.
"People are trying to be more connected with their food and the people who grow that food, and the place it's grown is part of that," Gallivan said. "You're selling a place and the experience of that place."
Distinctive flavors — be they figs, oysters, clams or sweet potatoes — shape the identity of a locale, setting it apart in the minds of consumers and travelers.
"It is the greatest thing we have for heritage-based, sustainable economic development," he said. "The Eastern Shore is uniquely positioned to command a market."
And building a market is a sure way to ensure the survival of the fig itself, which is being propagated by Bill Neal at Hermitage Farms Nursery near Franktown.
"We want people to take them up," Shields said. "If it's going to survive, it needs to spread from Chincoteague to Cape Charles."