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Food fads: the sudden, seeming contagious craving by the public for some unlikely food, beverage, or combination thereof. How about kombucha, kale, or anything gluten-free? Or quinoa, sriracha, or food trucks?

Food fads are not new. Either early Saxons or a 12th century Anglican monk first baked buns marked with crosses, a symbol of Eostre, goddess of spring or light. Eostre evolved into Easter and hot cross buns became a Good Friday staple, a culinary fad. In 18th century America, syllabubs were the rage, a mixture of cream, wine, sugar, and lemons served at parties and other social occasions. And, as recently as 1947 liver loaf was an American culinary essential.

Some food fads are not quite as benign as fondue or quiche. Diamondback terrapins, Maryland’s state reptile and the University of Maryland’s mascot, were considered a delicacy, especially as turtle soup. By the late 19th century, 400,000 pounds of turtle were taken annually from the Chesapeake Bay to satisfy the demand, both in the United States and Europe. But by 1920, terrapin populations had dwindled, and the harvest was less than 1,000 pounds.

After a brief comeback, a growing demand for turtle meat in Asia led to an increase in the number of turtles harvested from the Chesapeake. Finally, in 2007, catching terrapins for food was banned by the Maryland state legislature. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), an authority on the status of the natural world, categorizes diamondback terrapins as “Near Threatened”.

Newly Discovered to Rapidly Disappearing

Diamondback terrapins are a right-next-door example of an iconic creature suffering because of its culinary popularity. Their trendy culinary reputation twice pushed the population close to extinction. Ramps are another newly “discovered” wildfood, iconic in their home range and now facing the peril of getting loved too much.

The word ramp comes from "rams," or "ramson," an Elizabethan English term for wild garlic. Ranging from South Carolina to Canada, primarily in mountains and forested uplands, their pungent taste and belligerent odor helped to launch this traditional woodland onion into its current gastronomic celebrity and fad status.

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Throughout their range, ramps are one of the earliest wild edible greens. Traditionally a source of Vitamin C--much needed after a winter diet heavy on preserved foods. For many Native Americans, the ramps are more than food; they are part ceremony, spirituality, and medicine. However, more people are gathering ramps, and not everyone practices sustainable harvesting. A recent report by the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission found that some commercial harvesters, answering increased demand from restaurants and grocery stores, dig up entire patches, without thought for future returns.

Sometimes culinary fads are freighted with tradition. Iceland’s national menu offers some foods eaten in the time of the island’s Sagas, a millennium ago. Three of those foods--fermented sleeper shark, whale blubber, and puffins—became fads during Iceland’s tourism boom. But, gastronomic curiosity can contribute to declining populations.

Tradition and Tourism

Developed by Icelandic Vikings, fermented shark, or kæstur hákarl in Icelandic, has a stinky cheese texture and ammoniac flavor but has become something of a “check-off” for culinary tourists. While sleeper sharks seem relatively abundant, scientists caution that we don’t know enough about the sharks to assume they are safe from overfishing. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization; “…it has not yet been possible to assess this species...Because of its size and habitat, it is expected to be a very slow growing shark that probably deserves a more careful approach for exploitation”.

Whale blubber is another tourist check-off. Iceland follows a strict whaling quota system that the country’s marine experts claim is sustainable. However, Iceland has drawn international condemnation for the practice. Ironically, Icelanders are said to consume only a tiny percent of the meat, while curious tourists consume 40 to 60 percent. Much of the rest goes to Asia.

How can anyone even think of eating something as engaging as a puffin? Evidently, quite a few people do eat the seabirds, with the older generations favoring raw puffin heart as the best part. A volcanic archipelago off of Iceland’s south coast hosts the largest Atlantic puffin breeding site in the world. However, five species native to Iceland, including the iconic Atlantic puffin, are now on the BirdLife International/IUCN’s Red List as near-threatened or vulnerable. Though climate change appears the primary problem, over-harvesting exacerbates the decline.

Food fads can be fun, but they can also prove fatal to a species. Several tourism information sources, including the Lonely Planet guidebook, now post about eating some of Iceland’s culinary check-offs. Eating like the locals do may be an exciting part of travel, but, as in Iceland, be aware that it can also stress the local resources.

Reed Hellman is a professional writer living in Alberton, Maryland. E-mail your questions and comments to

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