HOG ISLAND, Virginia — Rain was threatening as an Eastern Shore oysterman recently left Quinby Harbor on a fast-rising tide in search of a survivor.
He pointed his bow eastward and raced into the wind, past Sloop Channel and across Hog Island Bay. A half-hour later, he throttled down, easing past a hunting lodge perched high on stilts and into the shallows leeward of long-deserted Hog Island.
"There it is," Tom Gallivan said, pointing to scruff of scrub.
And though he'd seen the venerable Hog Island fig tree twice before, it still seemed a magical sight.
The tree rising from a salt grass savannah — and a precious few others that thrive on the mainland — recently earned a spot on Slow Food International's Ark of Taste. The highly selective registry catalogs native plants, animals and prepared foods that hew closely to the history and culture of a region and face extinction within two generations.
Think Ostrich Fern Fiddleheads from Canada, Italy's Adamello Blonde Goat and India's Sha Shiahkrot tea.
Virginia is well represented on the list, which includes the Norton, America's oldest cultivated grape, first grown by a Richmond doctor in 1820. This year, the Hog Island fig was ordered to the registry along with the Hayman, a white sweet potato that has been a sort of culinary secret among Eastern Shore residents and the province of small farms and backyard gardens for generations.
More Virginia applications are in the pipeline, including one for the Hewes Crab Apple, once grown exclusively to supply cider houses. Gallivan is working on one for the terrapin.
"The list is really a way to recognize and stress the preservation of these heritage cultivars," said Bernard L. Herman, professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina and an Eastern Shore resident who worked on the Hog Island and Hayman nominations. "Part of it is about making sure that diversity continues to exist in an era in which we are seeing a kind of narrowing and even patenting of the genome."
The rigorous review process begins with scrutiny by Slow Food USA, an organization bent on protecting the biodiversity of native foods. Applications are vetted in Italy, the ark's international headquarters.
The Hog Island fig was a natural, said David S. Shields, a professor at the University of South Carolina and Southeast regional chairman of Slow Food USA Ark of Taste.
"In terms of terroir, it doesn't get more mystical than that, the kind of remnant cultivar of a lost community," he said.
In the years following the Civil War, Hog Island was home to the thriving community of Broadwater. In 1892, president-elect Grover Cleveland made a Thanksgiving hunting trip to the island and feasted on fig jam, the hunt club's "special pride," according to a newspaper article quoted in the application.
In the 1930s, violent storms and rapid erosion forced residents to flee the tiny strip of land in the Atlantic for the mainland. Many floated their homes on oyster barges. Some carried Hog Island fig trees with them, and several plants still thrive near homes in Willis Wharf and Oyster.
But the survivor on Hog Island is special. Its splotchy, split trunks support a canopy of hand-shaped leaves, and it still produces fruit in a place so prone to salty overwash that a buoy rests in the grass and muck at its base.
For plants such as the Hog Island fig, the Ark of Taste can be a lifesaver. Inclusion "immediately gives a vegetable or a fruit a kind of conspicuousness," Shields said. "All of a sudden, chefs wonder: What does that taste like?"
For Carolina Gold Rice, the list made the difference between extinction and survival. Shields said that, for generations, South Carolina was famous worldwide for the crop. After the Great Depression, Carolina Gold virtually disappeared, eclipsed by newer varieties.
But after being ordered to the Ark in 2009, "every chef in the South wanted to use it," Shields said. Today, "substantial quantities are grown."
It's the same with the Hog Island fig. Shortly after it made the list, Hermitage Farms Nursery, a wholesale-only operation on the Eastern Shore, fielded scores of calls from along the mid-Atlantic coast seeking trees. Owner Bill Neal said he is "slowly getting stock built up."
Meanwhile, Herman is considering submitting applications for Hog Island oysters, bay scallops and even the lowly spot.
"These things have sort of fallen off the wagon," Herman said, "and to recognize their role in the culinary histories, or the histories in the middle Atlantic foodways, is pretty crucial now."
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, http://pilotonline.com