Sometimes we love foods so much that we have eaten, hunted or over-harvested them into extinction. In her new book, Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food, Lenore Newman—the research chair in food security and environment at the University of Fraser Valley in British Columbia—issues an environmental wake-up call by exploring the history of the foods we have loved to death.
The book explores thousands of ingredients humans have eaten into extinction—from silphium, an herb as common in ancient Roman cookery as parsley, to the North American passenger pigeon, once sold for mere pennies, as well as the fruit that once reigned above all, the buttery Ansault pear. Then, just like that, these foods were gone forever.
In the ancient world, the idea that something could be gone forever was inconceivable. We now know otherwise. Our beloved cacao, coffee and vanilla are vulnerable to extinction. Fish and bees too. With that in mind, Newman also takes readers into the kitchen in which she invites friends to recreate meals that approximate extinct foods. She calls them “extinction dinners.”
I spoke with Newman in an interview that yielded insights not only into the loss of past ingredients, but into some surprising possibilities for the future.
Where did the idea for Lost Feast come from?
I’ve been thinking about extinction for a long time. I was in Cleveland sitting outside the West Side Market eating a snack and there were all of these pigeons around. That day happened to be the one hundredth anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon; it was in the newspaper because the last passenger pigeon died in Ohio. I knew they’d existed; I just didn’t think much of them. And then I realized it was a culinary extinction. I started thinking about what else we’d lost that we used to eat.
The passenger pigeon was a staple in Colonial America and well into the late nineteenth century. What did people do to adapt to their disappearance?
That’s the fascinating thing—it paved the way to the industrial chicken industry. Wild bird was a major part of East Coast cuisine. Before [the passenger pigeon’s extinction], chicken was not eaten that much. The passenger pigeon was this high-end product. When it vanished, a lot of New Jersey farmwives started to raise chickens industrially and sell those birds into the New York market, which had seen a decline in wild birds.
How can we avoid repeating the fate of the passenger pigeon?
We have to get better at understanding our impact on the planet. The elephant in the room right now is climate change and how much it threatens our food system. Climate change is making it harder to grow outside; it’s challenging our biodiversity. Our footprints are expanding so much. The number one land use of humans is agriculture, and that can’t grow forever because if it does we’ll have no nature around us.
What should we be doing individually and as a culture?
The number one thing you can do for the climate is to shift to a plant-based diet. I tell people that it doesn’t mean you have to do it every day. It’s not all or nothing. If you want to ease into it maybe you’re still going to have Thanksgiving dinner, but the next few days you’re eating vegan.
On the policy level, we have to address climate change. If we don’t, it’s game over for us. Addressing it twenty years ago would have been cheaper and easier; but we’re not there, we’re here. We really do need to look at how we cut emissions. We also need to embrace and embolden agricultural technology to shrink the land footprint of farming.
How do we do that?
By making sure our policy makers are supporting innovation, putting money into research, and supporting farmers. Sometimes we’re a bit knee-jerk in rejecting technology and may look at all GMOs and say, “No, we’re not going to do that.” But maybe we should look at individual technologies and say, “This set of technologies is really useful and has proven to be safe.”
We also sometimes vilify big foods. We need to be discerning. Don’t accept everything, but don’t throw it all out either.
In your book, you touch upon the fact that the world’s population growth could not have been supported without the use of GMOs. If you can’t shop at a farmers market, how can an average person know what’s safe to buy?
We all should do a bit of research, but we should also push corporations to do their research and to make sure they’re telling us what’s what with our food. We have to remember that all of our food has been highly engineered by humans over generations. The example I like to give is the banana. People think that the banana is a perfect piece of fruit—and it is one of the most popular fruits—but the wild banana is a terrible thing. It’s starchy and full of seeds that break human teeth. We’ve selected for the nice bananas over the last thousand years or so. When you pick up that banana, it’s not natural; it’s a creation. And that’s true of every crop except wild harvest crops.
“We have to think about what we eat and be aware of the impact it has on the environment. We have
to preserve the natural world—the wild spaces of earth—if we’re going to have a food system that works, because they’re not separate and we see them as separate.”
You say we’ve lost about ninety percent of all cultivars. How did we do this?
That blew my mind. Before global shipping we had to grow locally, so every location bred different subspecies of fruits and vegetables that we call “cultivars.” They’re like cousins. We have apple cousins and pear cousins, and what they were trying to do was make the season longer so you had apples as close to all year. But we reached a point where we could bring apples from South America, and a lot of these varieties fell by the wayside because farmers shifted to whatever grew and traveled best. We lost so much diversity.
In North America, the real battle days for that were about 1980. In my childhood, I remember there being two flavors of apple: red and green. I see a few movements that start to reverse this. One was in Japan [with the government-sponsored idea of Shokuiku, a program of food education that begun in 2005]. There’s Slow Food in Europe, and in North America it’s really California that pushed the needle on this, especially around the Bay Area with people like Alice Waters fighting to source varietals. So we kind of turned a corner. We’re getting more varieties instead of less finally, but we still lost so much. We really have to wonder what some of that food tasted like.
Do you think scientists and farmers will be able to bring cultivars back?
Some we might rediscover, we might breed something that’s close, or we’re going to make new things. The real key is diversity. The food system is safer and healthier if we have a wide range of crops. And also, it’s more fun. We have to protect the wild biodiversity that geneticists use to strengthen our plants. We have to have pools of wild varieties to strengthen our food systems.
It’s critical that we preserve our wild lands with our wild food crops so we can continue to grow our food system. And as I mention in the book, we’ve barely scratched the surface of what the earth has to offer. In Papua New Guinea, there are hundreds of fruits that have never made it into the global system. In the forests of the Amazon, there are fruits and vegetables that we’ve never even seen. We don’t want to lose those because those are tomorrow’s big hits. We can have entirely new crops emerge.
In the book, you point out that in the past fifty thousand years the world has lost half of its large mammals. I’m fascinated by the “extinction dinners” you prepared with friends as part of the book’s narrative. What was the inspiration behind them?
The extinction dinners were a way to make sure I didn’t get totally depressed—and more importantly, that my reader didn’t get totally depressed. I like to describe myself as a realistic optimist, and I really do feel we’re going to tackle these challenges and have a greener world in the future than we do now. I truly believe that. But reading about all of the extinction, I was like, “I can’t handle it,” so the dinners were a little respite from it.
Did you have a favorite meal?
The [poached pears with vanilla ice cream] were a definite highlight. I also liked the [Beyond] burger taste test. I thought it was fun seeing how people responded to that. My father is a fisherman and he’s a big, tough guy. He tried the Beyond Burger and loves them. That was the real surprise, and I think it is about having an open mind.
When I first read about Beyond and Impossible burgers I was skeptical too.
The developer of the Impossible Burger has said outright that he’s not building a product for vegans; he’s building a product for meat eaters to try and get them off of the burger. And hamburgers matter particularly in the U.S. About sixty percent of beef goes into burger form, and the average American eats three burgers a week. The amazing thing is that this one food has a huge environmental footprint, so solving the burger problem is really critical. I think eventually [the Impossible and Beyond burgers] are really going to take a big chunk of market share because they’re going to be cheaper, healthier and hopefully tastier than the animal product. It’s really interesting, because one of the ingredients [heme] that make it taste a bit like blood is a plant-based ingredient; it’s bacteria taken from soy root and growing yeast. It makes it [taste and look] so realistic.
You mentioned that your father is a fisherman, which makes me think about passenger pigeons again and comparing flocks of birds to schools of fish. Can what happen to those pigeons happen to fish?
The world’s fish stocks are the most vulnerable to extinction, and we haven’t had a lot of oceanic extinction because we didn’t get onto the oceans in a serious way until World War II when we could really be out there in big boats fishing and having factory ships. In the book, I talk about the tuna and how we’ve fished that down eighty percent to ninety percent [of their population]. If we want to have fish in the ocean we’re going to have to drastically scale down fishing or we will simply extinguish them. We’ve seen sturgeon being driven out of river after river. Salmon stocks are down. It’s a matter of time before we start pushing species over the brink unless we pull back.
There’s an argument for a moratorium on ocean fishing for a while. And we know it can come back. We just about drove the whale species of the world to extinction—and we did actually push a couple into extinction—but we know whale populations have rebounded over the past hundred years and they’re starting to be healthy again. Fish are a wild food. We can’t see the damage directly because we don’t know how many are actually there; we can’t see them. It’s just too easy to push them into extinction.
Do you find it difficult to live a lifestyle accommodating for this?
A person just has to do it. We just do what we can. A good case can be made for mindful eating. People shouldn’t get so serious that they lose the fun, because food is fun and important culturally.
What is the most important takeaway from Lost Feast?
We have to think about what we eat and be aware of the impact it has on the environment. We have to preserve the natural world—the wild spaces of earth—if we’re going to have a food system that works, because they’re not separate and we see them as separate. We tend to see things as the cute animals that we pet, the animals that we eat, and the wild animals that we go on safari to take pictures of. And they’re all intertwined. It’s only one system. We have to preserve wild spaces and think about what we eat. Eating plant-based is a really good, really easy thing that everyone can do to some degree. Any time you substitute plant-based for meat, you’re helping lower your environmental impact.