Eaten to Extinction


Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food by Lenore Newman (ECW Press) explores how the extinction of food species affects the cuisine we eat, and how the globalization of the current food system threatens culinary diversity and localized delicacies. In each chapter, Newman provides a history of a food that humans have eaten off the planet (what she calls “culinary extinction”)—including the mammoth, the Ansault pear, the passenger pigeon and the ancient Roman herb silphium—and she prepares a complimentary feast with friends inspired by the lost food item. Her accounts of these feasts add levity to the grim news that humans have lost most of the varieties of foods we had previously cultivated; for example, we have lost 97% of asparagus cultivars through modern industrial farming. Zooming in, Newman examines the rise and fall of individual foods, such as the history of human intervention with the pear from the decline of the Roman empire, to the gardens of Versailles, to the pear craze of nineteenth-century England and America. Newman makes the case for localized eating, and travels around her home (the Lower Mainland in BC) to speak to local farmers and scientists, and try fresh-from-the-tree (and sea) foods. There is an undercurrent of urgency as we move from story to story of delicious varieties of foods dying out, being eaten to extinction, or threatened by territory encroachment and ecosystem disruption, usually due to human action. Lest you think this book is all doom and gloom, Newman’s writing is engaging, often hilarious, and her clear delight in discovering new (and, in some cases, previously lost) tastes is infectious. The focus on foods that humans have desired so much they’ve eaten them to extinction is an approachable access point to her real argument: that the current food system must adapt to become more sustainable and avoid the further extinction of both known and unknown species. We’re invited to consider how we, personally, can make changes to our eating habits so we can continue to enjoy the cornucopia of the modern table far into the future. Since finishing Lost Feast, I can’t stop thinking: which food is next?

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Kelsea O’Connor is contributing editor to Geist. She lives in New Westminster.



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