The concept of culinary extinction came to my attention late last year, and it was one of those very intriguing, “Oh, yeah, I want to know more abou that” moments. I listened to Lenore Newman on an interview with Quirks & Quarks, and I also added Rob Dunn’s Never Out of Season to my to-read list at the same time (my library just happened to have this book and not Dunn’s, so I’m reading this one first). Culinary extinction is one of those unintended and often overlooked consequences of globalization that I thought about as I reviewed The Reality Bubble by Ziya Tong. Topics like GMOs are sensationalized in media, yet we forget that we humans have been reshaping this whole planet and its biosphere for tens of thousands of years now. More recently, globalization and capitalism mean those of us here in North America think of the kiwi fruit as a single type of fruit, for example, when in reality there are a vast number of wild cultivars—most of them just aren’t mass-grown and marketed here. Lost Feast is not just about what we have lost from our tables but also about what we have chosen to replace those lost foods—as well, of course, as which items might be in danger now.
Each chapter deals with a different aspect of food production, sometimes following a specific food item, such as cows or honey or pears, and sometimes tracing more complex agricultural chains. Newman bookends the chapters with anecdotes, mostly involving her friend Dan salivating over getting to cook a themed meal based on what she was researching for the chapter. This structural decision may have been my least favourite part of the book. Your mileage may vary, and to be fair, it did grow on me towards the end of the book.
That’s where I’ll start: Lost Feast feels unfocused. In attempting to discuss a vast swath of human-related or human-caused extinctions, Newman wanders through the garden of our culinary past in a way that left me with an appetite for more (but not in a good way). I’m sure that the author would agree that this book is very much a survey of our culinary past, that entire books could be (and have been) written about individual foods, like silphium or honey or passenger pigeons. So don’t take that as a criticism of the book so much as a description: Lost Feast is a grand, multi-course meal but the portions of each course are on the shallow side. Did you like the dessert? You’ll want to find a restaurant that serves it up as a main course.
So, stylistically, Lost Feast did not satisfy me. In terms of its content, there’s definitely interesting stuff happening here. I like that Newman explores potential futures of food, and while I was aware of some of the differences among “lab grown” meat versus Beyond or Impossible burgers, she really lays this out clearly for newcomers to the subject—it’s very easy to get all these different alternatives to industrially-farmed meat confused, but in reality, there are so many different, competing types of alternatives. Similarly, I like that Newman takes us into the infrastructures beyond contemporary food production, such as her explanation of how modern beekeeping works. As I mentioned at the beginning of the review, this is my jam: tell me all about these complex but overlooked systems that are just chugging along in the background of my life to get me that product that’s sitting in my cupboard.
I’m very intrigued to see how this one stacks up to Dunn’s book and a few others on related topics that I would love to read, should I be able to get my hands on them. With an A+ for information by C for writing style (from my perspective at least), Lost Feast is not a book I would race out to buy or borrow regardless of your interest level. Nevertheless, it is definitely a useful, informative read if you want to pick it up.