Like fashion, food comes in and out of style. Take the coconut. Once considered a novelty drink of the tropics, coconut water has shed its husk and is now packaged in sleek, 14-ounce bottles, selling for $3.50 a pop.
If Diane Ragone has her way, the next food to rise from the ashes of changing cultures and tastes will be breadfruit. What’s more is it just might curb world hunger along the way.
“The goal is to propagate plants for distribution globally,” Ragone said. “For the first time, thanks to micro-propagation and tissue culture, we can produce flats of plugs—small rooted plants—by the thousands, tens of thousands, potentially millions, and ship them anywhere in the world.” Ragone is the Director of the
Breadfruit, you ask? Isn’t that famine food? The reason Captain Bligh and his men sailed aboard the Bounty to Tahiti?
Indeed, it is. It’s also known as a bland food, with no more flavor than a plain, baked potato or white rice. These days, breadfruit might rank as the Rodney Dangerfield of food, but it wasn’t always that way.
Early Polynesians who settled in Hawaii selected the root suckers of breadfruit as one of the precious few plants to bundle up and carry with them aboard their voyaging sailing canoes.
“Many people don’t think breadfruit was important in Hawaii. But it was. There used to be big breadfruit agro-forests,” said Ragone. “On Big Island, where the coffee is now, an extensive two-mile by 18-mile managed forest produced thousands of pounds of breadfruit each year.”
There are also legends. Several tell of the god Ku living undercover as a hard-working husband and father who, during a time of famine, bid farewell to his family and sunk into the earth, from which spot a breadfruit tree grew.
In Mary Kawena Pukui’s ‘Olelo No’eau, there are 21 proverbs and sayings. Many pinpoint ‘ulu, the Hawaiian word for breadfruit, to particular places, including Big Island’s Kona and Maui’s Lahaina. Other sayings read like Zen koans with hidden meanings. Nānā no a ka ‘ulu i pakī kēpau translates to “Look for the gummy breadfruit,” and is understood as marriage advice to a young girl suggesting she look for a mature man of substance.
LOST IN TRANSLATION
So, what happened? If breadfruit was once so important to the Hawaiian culture, how come you only occasionally find breadfruit for sale at farmers’ markets? Why is it a rare sight to see one growing in someone’s backyard?
“Cultural changes swept through Hawaii and attitudes changed,” Ragone said. In the 1920s, people were already saying they don’t grow or eat breadfruit. Breadfruit wasn’t important.”
The Kona breadfruit forest converted to coffee fields. Others gave way to sugar or pineapple or development. In the process, the knowledge was lost. People forgot how to propagate the tree. They forgot when to pick the fruit. They forgot how to prepare it.
Breadfruit trees grow to heights of 50 or 60 feet with a trunk of up to two feet in diameter. Its luxuriant, geometric leaves—inspiration for many a Hawaiian quilt—grow up to three feet in length. Breadfruit is one of the highest yielding crops with a single tree producing up to 200 or more softball-sized fruits per season. The fruit can be eaten at all stages of growth. It can be baked, boiled, roasted or steamed. When ripe, breadfruit can be eaten raw. The key is knowing when to do what in order to capture flavors ranging from something akin to an artichoke heart, potato or a sweet pudding.
If it wasn’t for one of life’s infamous chance moments, much of this knowledge—and numerous varieties of the trees themselves—may have been lost.
Ragone grew up in Roanoke, Virginia. “I never ate a breadfruit. I never heard of breadfruit. I’d never read Mutiny on the Bounty,” she said. “I came to Hawaii in 1979. I ate breadfruit once in a salad at a party.”
But in a graduate class at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, Ragone selected breadfruit as a topic for a term paper. She spent hours at the library reading missionary accounts, Captain Bligh’s logs from the Bounty, and more. She read a paper written in 1920 proclaiming the need to preserve breadfruit biodiversity. She read another one from 1960 that said the same thing—varieties of the 3,000-year-old staple crop of the Pacific were going extinct. The light bulb went on. The bell rang. The seed of a life’s work sprouted.
Ragone went to Samoa and spent 2 years traveling to 50 islands throughout the Pacific, collecting some 400 breadfruit varieties and documenting its cultural uses. From that effort, 120 varieties now grow at Kahanu Garden on Maui, some of which have gone extinct on their home islands, and Ragone’s conservation work has evolved to include propagation and global distribution of breadfruit.
“Again, it was serendipity,” Ragone said. “I was reading about a billion hungry people—how could you not know about that—and the two billion people with ‘hidden hunger,’ who get enough calories but not enough nutrients. And I was talking with a colleague who grew up on a farm in Kenya. He said 90% of the farmers in Africa are women, and they spend 200 to 400 hours a year weeding an acre of field crops. To him, breadfruit is fabulous, because it’s a tree, yet produces a starchy carbohydrate. Labor is minimal, and it can produce for decades. What it comes down to is breadfruit is an annual field crop on a perennial tree.”
CURBING HUNGER WORLDWIDE
In 2003, the Breadfruit Institute at the National Tropical Botanical Garden was formed with the mission to promote the conservation and use of breadfruit for food and reforestation. Since then, Ragone and her team has partnered with a dozen countries as part of a worldwide hunger initiative.
“It may be a starch, but it’s nutritious,” Ragone said. Breadfruit is a good source of dietary fiber, calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, potassium, thiamine and niacin. “The other thing about breadfruit is it’s gluten-free, for those people who have problems with wheat.”
Breadfruit: You may know it as the famine food, but some are calling it the food of the future.