Book Review: Lost Feast, by Lenore Newman

Prologue: I read an interesting article about reading Companion Books. Written by a teacher, she suggested that fiction and non-fiction texts can compliment each other. The author recommends that pairing books can deepen our understanding of a topic by engaging our minds and hearts. In preparation for this article, I read the main book The Lost Feast by Lenore Newman along with Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Culinary Journey Through Canada by Lenore Newman; Seeds of Germination or Termination, by Hugo Bonjean, (the genre is near future science-fiction); Classic Canadian Cooking for the Seasons, a favourite cookbook with historical recipes by Elizabeth Baird and Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall-Kimmerer. All address the same question- what is the future of the food we eat?

“It began with butter, a surreal amount of butter, glistening with tiny pinpricks of fat. It was studded with fragments of fresh herbs and whipped nearly to a foam. There was bread as well, but it was a supporting character. It too was excellent, a dark rye loosely stacked in rough slices on the right-hand side of a plate-sized slab of black lava rock. The butter was mounded upon the left side, a lump the size of a Christmas orange, melting gently where it lounged against the warm stone slab.” P. 3

This quote is the opening paragraph of Lost Feast, Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food by Lenore Newman. Newman is the Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment, and is Associate Professor of Geography and the Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley.

In the book Lost Feast Newman looks at the history of the foods we have “loved to death”, from the megafauna of the Paleolithic world to the Passenger pigeons of the last century and what that means to culinary paths and food security for the future.

I loved this book and highly recommend it to everyone. I also loved Newman’s first book Speaking in Cod Tongues.

The book is divided into four Sections: The Beginning of Endings which deals with foods and animals which have become extinct; Beef or Chicken – sustainability of our North American dependency on beef and chicken; The Burning Library, the loss of variety in our food chain; and The Twilight Garden, where we are now, which includes the future of bees and our oceans.

Although the topic of food security is serious, Newman manages to make her book accessible and fascinating, and, I think will encourage everyone who reads it to be more aware of where our food originates and how it is grown.

The quote at the beginning of this paper was setting the scene by Newman of where the idea to write the book came from. She was in Reykjavík, Iceland, to study the food of hard places – comparing the food of Iceland to the food of Newfoundland. In her words “the world has found Iceland”. Skyr, the yogurt made from the milk of Icelandic cattle is an increasingly prized export – so prized in fact, that the cows of Iceland cannot keep up with demand.

“Many of the unique foods that help to make the world a diverse and interesting place are in danger. The forces of globalization, industrialization and ecological collapse threaten the wealth of culinary products that make our cultures distinct. Some of these foods are becoming rare, some are becoming much more expensive and some face outright extinction. Some have already become extinct.” P. 7

This is the paradox of the lost feast.

Farmers, fishers and wild foragers all share a growing sense of concern. Our diverse food systems are increasingly under threat.

Newman moves into what happens when foods disappear – an extinct food is more than a lost source of calories it is a break in the chain. Our ecosystems are not in balance and the loss of food species is almost certain to grow.

Section 3, The Burning Library covers the area of lost fruits and vegetables.

“The pear … is an excellent lens for understanding the transition from a regional food system to an industrial one and what we have lost along the way. We have a wider range of culinary species available to us at all times of the year than ever before, yet variety within food species is dropping rapidly. There were once thousands of pear varieties, but now only a dozen or so are common.” P. 144

Before global transport fruits and vegetables were seasonal. Strawberries picked fresh and warm from the sun; the first corn of the season sold by a local farmer or Market. People dried, canned, pickled and stored in root cellars.

Plants and vegetables have been hybridized over the last several decades to increase yield and to last better during the transport. But this has also thinned genetic diversity.

“When it comes to fruits and vegetables, we have access to only a fraction of the diversity that existed a century ago. We’ve lost between 90 and 95 percent of named vegetable cultivars and 80 to 90 percent of fruit cultivars.” P.131

This loss is due to the shift from local seasonal production to a global food system.

One of the saddest things about the shift to global transportation is that the one or two cultivars of each species that were hybridized focused on shelf life, uniformity and durability during transport – not flavour.

Tom Bauman is a professor, agricultural expert and farmer who lives near Vancouver. He suggested that there are many fruits and grains that we should be cultivating that were grown and used by Indigenous people. European settlers discounted and sometimes actively prevented the Indigenous people from cultivating and harvesting their local foods.

Work is being done to protect the biodiversity of the planet’s ecosystem. As well as the Global Seed Vault, Carlo Petrini, founder of the Slow Food Movement also began a project known as The Ark of Taste. This project seeks to preserve regional and local specialties by encouraging the cultivation and production of these foods. To become an entry in The Ark the product must meet five criteria:

“the food must possess a distinctive quality in terms of taste; be linked to local memory and identity; are environmentally, socially, economically and historically based in a region; are produced in limited quantities; and are at risk of extinction.” P.186

The Canadian entries include: the Chantecler chicken, the Tamworth pig, a melon grown only in Montreal, the Gravenstein apple and Red Fife wheat. Also included, Bay of Fundy dulse, the Saskatoon berry, highbush cranberries and the camus lily.

The Twilight Garden, the final section of the book, reminds us that the potential extinction of pollinators is one of the greatest threats to our food systems. Around the world, our bees are in trouble. Mankind’s hunger for honey is ancient – an 8,000 year old rock painting in Spain depicts a team of honey hunters; a painting from India 3,000 years ago shows a similar image; Africa, Egypt, Greece all portray bees and honey in their art and mythology.

Bee pollination plants are responsible for one quarter of all our calories. However, bees thrive on diversity and attachment to place – modern agriculture creates a very different environment.

Newman explains the transport of bee hives from place to place and the inevitable collapse in health of the bees which has resulted. In the early years of this century Colony Collapse disorder spread throughout the traveling hives. A collection of challenges, including pesticides and the unnatural travel by truck from location to location have contributed to CCD, as well as climate change and habitat loss.

And so, we are left with a challenge.

What can each of us do in the face of these potential food and culinary crises and extinctions?

In Classic Canadian Cooking – my edition was published in 1995 and it is still a Canadian bestseller, Elizabeth Baird writes in the introduction:

“Canadian cuisine has experienced losses the last twenty years, some of them serious – such as the tragic disappearance of the East Coast cod fishery and the serious threat posed to wild salmon on both coasts. We have lost varieties of fruit and vegetables that don’t ship well or have short shelf lives. Cooking instruction in school’s is disappearing, industrialized food growing and processing blunt the nuances of taste. For too many of us, overwork and stress cut into the time we spend sitting down together to build culinary memories and traditions. But there is still room for optimism for the future.”

In Braiding Sweetgrass the author writes:

“I wonder if much that ails our society stems from the fact that we have allowed ourselves to be cut off from that love of, and from, the land. My daughter Larkin is in graduate school now, studying food systems and working with urban gardeners, growing vegetables for the food pantry on land reclaimed from empty lots. At-risk youth do the planting and hoeing and harvesting. The kids are surprised that the food they harvest is free. They greet fresh carrots, straight from the ground, with suspicion at first, until they eat one. She is passing on the gift, and the transformation is profound.” P. 126

Newman does provide some hope also. The 1980’s and 1990’s saw an increase in culinary culture around the world, including the Slow Food Movement and a huge rise in the popularity of Farmer’s Markets. Local foods eaten in season taste better and contain higher levels of vitamins and nutrients.

I will leave it to Newman to provide the last word. She says that although we are faced with overharvesting, habitat loss and climate change, she feels a strong sense of ‘wabi- sabi’.

Wabi-sabi is a concept from Zen Buddhism which embraces the idea that nothing lasts, nothing is finished and nothing is perfect. Basically, to mourn and accept what we’ve lost and do the best we can to protect what’s left.

“I drained the last of my merlot. A little tipsy, I watched the embers of the dying fire. Some things might be lost to us, but the future of culinary extinction is still to be written.” P.279

Submitted by Susan McLennan