Lost Feast: A Review
Food forms an essential connection between humans and the environment, linking us to place, to culture and, as Lenore Newman explains in Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food (ECW Press, 2019), to time. Our diets have always evolved in tandem with the extinctions and growth of other species. As climate change threatens the current global food system, Lost Feast provides a light and informative look at what we eat, why, and how we can adapt before drastic change becomes inevitable.
This is not a diet book: replete with lush descriptions of meals eaten and imagined, Newman’s account touches on the past, present, and future of all the major food groups. In addition to thorough research, Newman conducts her exploration through taste test, because really, how else can you study food? Though mammoth meat, the vaunted Alsault pear, and the Romans’ favourite herb Silphium were unfortunately removed from our collective menu long ago, Newman samples plenty of fascinating foods that are not (yet) extinct.
Newman starts by discussing the meat industry. The domestication of cows from ancient wild aurochs and the replacement of tasty, huntable passenger pigeons with cheaply-raised chickens define much of modern carnivory. Historically, many of our favourite food animals have faced extinction, but beef and poultry are currently thriving. However, these industries are so large that their attendant pollution and resource use pose a serious threat to the environment. Could future meat come from low-footprint laboratories? Delving into a veggie-burger taste test and sampling diverse birds, Newman ponders how the protein of the future can be both sustainable and delicious.
Though plant-based eaters like myself may not be too caught up in the future of meat, the next section of Lost Feast gives us plenty to chew on as well. Since the turn of the twentieth century, roughly 90% of crop diversity has been lost. Though we still have many of the major types of food (think apples and asparagus), each fruit or vegetable has been reduced to only a few cultivars from the dozens our ancestors grew. With a healthy dose of botany, Newman explains how cultivars (cultivated varieties) of different plant species are developed and abandoned.
Of course, not all cuisines have fared equally. Newman touches on how the Columbian Exchange brought new crops to both the old world and the new, but cannot be treated as a mere culinary curiosity because of the devastation wrought on Indigenous Americans. The genocide of Indigenous peoples and cultures did not spare foodways or non-human life, and today, the resurgence of traditional food practices is an important trend in Indigenous communities. Newman also describes how island people in Hawaii face a tough battle in defending their unique cuisine from invasive species.
Despite the incredible variety of human diets, the fate of two common resources will affect us all: the bees and the oceans. Colony Collapse Disorder should concern everyone, not just beekeepers and honey-lovers, because of the vital importance of bees in crop pollination. In our collective hunger, we have plumbed the depths of the seas, and fish stocks are at dangerously low levels. By closing with these two issues, Newman leaves us on a solemn note: protecting the environment is of urgent importance to our dinner tables (not to mention the fate of the planet). Serious without being too heavy, Lost Feast invites us all to appreciate what we eat and contribute to the food security of the future.