‘Eating to Extinction’ Is a Celebration of Rare Foods and a Warning About the Future
Citrus is a sex-positive genus. All of our commercially grown citrus varieties derive from three ancestors — the mandarin, the pomelo and the citron — that were (and are) capable of being fertilized by one another’s pollen, a flexibility that has brought us limes, oranges and grapefruits. Add to this fiesta of gene-swapping a propensity for mutation, and you can end up with the clementine — which a farmer in 19th-century Algeria spotted growing on a branch of his mandarin tree, tasted and presumably thought, “We’ve got a winner.”
For the BBC food journalist Dan Saladino, the genetic mayhem of citrus stands in contrast to the homogeneity of (many of) our diets. Saladino doesn’t downplay the achievements of the scientists and industrialists who, over the past half century, have increased global food supplies as part of the “Green Revolution,” but he insists that the resulting loss of crop diversity and dependence on a handful of livestock breeds will leave us, if allowed to continue at full speed, ecologically and culturally destitute.
Almost as soon as the Green Revolution began, it was criticized as a short-term solution to a long-term problem, and Saladino’s project is not to reiterate those arguments. Instead, “Eating to Extinction” is a celebration in the form of eclectic case studies. There is an ode to a maverick seed collector in London, a microanalysis of Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax” and a capsule biography of the influential Russian botanist Nikolai Vavilov, who emphasized the link between plant diversity and food security (and who starved to death in a Soviet prison under Stalin’s regime).
But most of all, Saladino wishes to showcase the treasures we risk losing. In Venezuela, he wafts a chocolate bar made with rare criollo under the reader’s nose. In Colorado, he tastes a bowl of blue maize porridge cooked with foraged medicinal bear root. The focus is on “landrace” foods, those adapted to thrive in specific locations and passed down over generations. On the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland, Saladino encounters a barley that bends rather than breaks in the area’s harsh winds and thrives in sandy, alkaline soil. In an Anatolian village, he tries Kavilca wheat, a grain first domesticated by Neolithic farmers. In Tanzania, he watches Hadza hunter-gatherers collaborate with birds to locate an African honeybee nest, from which they scoop handfuls of melting liquid.
Saladino proves that one path to a reader’s sustained attention is through her stomach. Dwelling on local and individual stories is also a way to counterbalance the ghoulish pessimism that can overtake a person when she confronts more than 350 pages’ worth of evidence about our unfolding ecological crisis. The book is explicitly and passionately pedagogical, but it opts for the carrot over the stick. Look at all these earthly marvels! Saladino cries. We can’t possibly let them perish!
Take, for example, the murnong — a root that once sustained hunter-gatherers in the Western Desert of Australia, before 19th-century colonists launched an assault against the plentiful tubers. First came sheep, which nosed through thousands of miles of soil. Next were invasive plant species, which outcompeted the native murnong. Finally, in 1859, rabbits arrived in Australia to finish off the job. Recent efforts to revive the succulent, nutritious root have fluttered into existence by way of Aboriginal community gardens.
But coaxing a near-extinct plant back into existence is only the first step. As landrace foods vanish, culinary traditions dissolve with them. A couple hundred years ago, a traveler may have noticed breads growing distinctly flatter as she voyaged north through Europe. The hotter climates of the south were better adapted to cereals with high levels of gluten, which produces an airier loaf. The darker and colder climates of the north were more favorable to cereals like rye and oats, which found their way into flatbreads, baked crackers and bannocks — “soft, round biscuity flatbreads cooked over fire.” Innovations such as chemical fertilizers made it possible to grow modern wheats in climates previously unsuited to the task. Why preserve traditional baking methods when it’s cheap and easy to buy uniformly fluffy bread almost anywhere?
What is true of cereal crops is also true of livestock. Saladino visits a hjallur on the Faroe Islands — a hut with “walls” of wooden strips designed to allow winds to rush inside, where sheep carcasses hang in various stages of fermentation. This method was developed out of necessity. With no trees on the island, and therefore no firewood, early Faroese couldn’t preserve meat with smoke or by boiling saltwater into salt. A hjallur ingeniously captured the salt where it lived: in gusts of sea air. When Saladino tastes a piece of fermented mutton, he detects “just a hint” of decay. “To us, that is a nice sensation,” a local explains to him. “It’s a twisted taste but a good taste.”
As the Faroe mutton demonstrates, what gives a food resilience does not necessarily align with what is considered palatable to the taste buds of the masses. Tribes in northeastern India enjoy memang narang, an intensely sour wild orange rich in bitter-tasting compounds that defend the plant against pests — but that might easily repel an eater habituated to the sugary sunshine of navel oranges.
What Saladino finds in his adventures are people with soul-deep relationships to their food. This is not the decadence or the preciousness we might associate with a word like “foodie,” but a form of reverence. And yet his book is also a form of dark tourism, with doom hovering over each edible miracle. That Saladino is able to simultaneously channel the euphoria of sipping pear cider that smells of “damp autumnal forest” or tasting an inky qizha cake in the West Bank while underscoring the precariousness of these foods makes for a book that is both disturbing and enchanting.