SciFri Book Club Digs Into The Foods We’ve Loved To Death

15:50 minutes

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This story is a part of our spring Book Club conversation about ‘Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food.’ Want to participate? Join our new online community space or record a voice message on the Science Friday VoxPop app.

Did humans kill off the mammoths? What happened to the mysterious Roman herb, known as silphium, that was once worth its weight in gold? Can lab-grown meats help save what’s left of our planet’s biodiversity from climate change and habitat loss? 

Food geographer Lenore Newman sets out to answer these questions, and more, in her 2019 book, Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food, this spring’s Science Friday Book Club pick. In the book, she eats her way around the world and through history, examining the stories of the dodo bird, Icelandic dairy cows, the passenger pigeon, the Bartlett pear—and all its cousins—and the food species threatened by the sixth great mass extinction.

SciFri producer and Book Club captain Christie Taylor talks to Newman about some of the surprises from her research, and what might be next for the foods we love.

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Segment Guests

Lenore Newman

Lenore Newman is the Director of the Food and Agriculture Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley in Canada, holds a Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment at UFV, and is a member of the Royal Society of Canada’s New College. She has a PhD in Environmental Studies from York University and has written two books, Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food (2019) and Speaking in Cod Tongues: A Canadian Culinary Journey (2017).

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Mmm, lunchtime– let’s see what I packed today. Yeah, OK, we got an apple, great. Some honey– yeah, that will go nicely with the apple. Ooo, vanilla yogurt.

And a whole bluefin tuna? Now, that’s weird. Wait a minute. A stick of Icelandic butter. OK, I think I know what’s going on. Yo, Christie Taylor.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Oh my gosh, Ira, I think we switched lunch bags by accident. I’m so sorry.

IRA FLATOW: You think? I’m guessing you got my lunch, and I’ve got whatever random mishmosh this is.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Actually, those foods aren’t random, Ira. They have something in common. They’re all the subject of our spring book club pick, Lenore Newman’s Lost Feast, which is a book about the foods that we’ve eaten to extinction or are at risk of being lost.

IRA FLATOW: A-ha. Well, now that makes more sense. The tuna, the honey– given what we’ve been hearing about bees, and lots of varieties of apples– we know they’re history. But, what’s up with the butter– Icelandic butter?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Yeah, that Icelandic butter comes from a cow that only lives on Iceland. Those cows have been bred over centuries to produce uniquely flavorful dairy products from a very harsh environment. And as the demand for Icelandic dairy products goes up, there’s a lot of worry about these cows’ ability to keep up with demand in a way that doesn’t actually endanger them.

IRA FLATOW: Rumor has it that the volcano’s naturally churning the butter.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Truly, it is supposed to be uniquely good butter. And these are just a couple of many stories Lenore Newman tells us in Lost Feast. Lenore and I chatted earlier this week. And the first thing we talked about was why food extinction was such an important concept.

LENORE NEWMAN: One of the things that really inspired me to write the book was realizing that there were species that had gone extinct because they were being used for food. And this seemed counterintuitive to me because a food species should be safe because we care about them. We take care of them. We don’t want them to go away because we like eating them.

And it turns out that’s not exactly true. We’ve actually lost a number of species– by overharvesting them, by consuming them to excess. And so this kind of paradox that we were losing species that we really love inspired me to put together the book.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: One of the first examples that you give is this plant that may sound pretty obscure today, but it was apparently all the rage with the Romans. And it’s called silphium.

LENORE NEWMAN: Yes, silphium is such an interesting plant species. We don’t quite know what it was, exactly, which is one of the oddest things about it. So silphium was a herb. It was used to excess by the Romans.

They put it on everything, and it’s in most of the recipes from the time period. And they used both the leaves and the resin. We think it was a little bit like asafoetida, which is a herb used in Indian cooking. And the Romans noted that silphium was similar but much better. We can assume that it tasted very nice.

In writing, it’s described as being a little like leeks. And if you’ve ever had asafoetida, it is a little bit like a leek. It’s sort of sulfuric, and it’s a very strong taste from what we can gather.

Silphium did have some really interesting properties, such as preventing pregnancy, which must have been of extremely high value among the higher ranks of Roman society. And it was produced in only one tiny region of North Africa. And it’s literally the only place it grew. It was very hard to move. And no one could cultivate it.

And they sold it until it was all gone. And the very last stock was given to the Emperor Nero, which was a big change from a few centuries before when the Roman treasury actually carried gold, silver, and also silphium at all times. And so though it was loved, it went extinct.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Going on to other plants, we’ve talked a lot on this show before about lost varieties of apples– how many we used to have. And if we look at the biodiversity of fruits and vegetables available in the grocery store today, in 2021, how does it actually seem to compare to even 100 years ago?

LENORE NEWMAN: We have lost, in North America, about 90% of the varieties of plants that we did use. The way to think of that is they aren’t independent species. They’re independent subspecies– what we call cultivars. And it’s a bit like if you’re from a large family, maybe you have a bunch of cousins. We had a whole bunch of cousins of fruit.

Why we did this was because we couldn’t move fruit around the globe. We stretched the local season by growing different cultivars. So we’d have a spring apple, a summer apple, a fall apple, a winter apple, and each little region had local varieties because these fruits– they don’t breed true. Some plants, if you plant a seed, you get the exact same plant. But in the case of an apple, those seeds will not give you the same tree again because there’s genetic material from multiple trees because of pollination.

And so that new apple tree is going to be unique– much as we are. What we’ve lost is a lot of these varieties that were carefully discovered and then cloned, which is how we make new apple trees if we find a good one. So you can think of it like having a library, and it’s like we burned a large part of that library. And yes, we can make new varieties, and we do all the time because the old ones actually wear out. They’re like a photocopy. If we take, say, the Red Delicious–

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: They’re awful. They’re so poorly named.

LENORE NEWMAN: They’re terrible. We have to assume the original Red Delicious was good. Over the century or so we’ve used it, it’s gotten copied so many times that you start to get transcription errors. And it starts to get weaker and weaker over time. And now we have that really terrible thing that we get in conference rooms.

And this is actually important– I mean, yes, it’s sad we can’t go into a store and have 100 different types of apples to choose from, so that would be very cool. But more importantly, if a disease strikes, or a new insect strikes, we need that genetic diversity to go back to– to breed resistance, to breed new varieties. So we do need to maintain variety in our food species. And a lot of that has been lost.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Is there a number– the number of culinary extinctions or the percentage of biodiversity– that we eat that has been lost to time?

LENORE NEWMAN: It’s actually a very hard number to really quantify. And part of that is because there’s maybe, say, 50,000 species on Earth that we feel have potential as food species. And we only eat a few hundred of those– maybe a thousand at most. So over the last couple millennia, maybe a hundred of those have gone extinct that we can point to– with a few really high-value ones that we really noticed, like the passenger pigeon.

Now, that number expands if we go back to the time of the megafauna, the Pleistocene, in which we lost the great bulk of the Earth’s large species due to hunting. A lot of that isn’t even documented, I mean, there’s ones people know about like the mammoth or the mastodon. But what you can really trace is a pattern– as humans moved out of Africa and populated the world, wherever we went, species went extinct. If you count the cultivars, we’ve lost tens of thousands of some species.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: The plant cultivars that you were talking before.

LENORE NEWMAN: Exactly. And including animal cultivars, which we call breeds, a lot of those are gone too.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I feel like the first culinary extinction story I ever heard was the story of the dodo. And it goes like this– sailors landed on Mauritius and proceeded to club a bunch of really dumb birds to death for soup. But you write, in Lost Feast, that it was actually more complicated and nuanced than just, they were dumb and we ate them. How did it really go?

LENORE NEWMAN: The dodo is a bit of a mythical culinary distinction, but it’s a great example of an island extinction. And yeah, eventually, sailors find this island and it has a bunch of really interesting species, including one that is really cool. Most people don’t realize– dodos were big. They were about a meter high, and they weighed 50 pounds. And yes, sailors ate them occasionally.

But from everything we know, they tasted terrible. There’s actually documentation about how bad they were. They were tough. They were fishy.

But the first attempt to colonize Mauritius was largely a failure, but they left a couple of things on the island. They left pigs and rats. Well, the problem with flightless birds is they nest on the ground. And pigs and rats very quickly eliminated the dodo because they ate all the eggs.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, and if we look then to the future of food– because you’re not just talking about past extinctions but what may come– what future losses of food species concern you most? What do you see as most at risk right now?

LENORE NEWMAN: I am most worried about fish populations at the moment. They’re hard to protect because they’re under the water, of course; it’s a wild harvest– it happens in the international waters where jurisdictions are tricky; and climate change impacts the oceans in ways we don’t quite understand yet. I’m also very worried about rainforest ecology.

Because the rainforests contain most of our species, they’re like these giant libraries of beautiful, crazy stuff. And they’re being cleared at a very rapid rate, mostly to produce things for the developed countries– particularly, beef, animal feed, palm oil is another big one. And we need to get a handle on that very quickly because once we lose that, we can’t get it back.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: On the other side of that– I apologize– you are bullish about the future of cow-like foods. And not just advances in fake meat but lab-grown proteins, you mentioned 3D-printed salmon– is it possible to get psyched then about these possibilities?

LENORE NEWMAN: Yes, and I’m extremely bullish on cellular agriculture– the science of creating animal products without animals. It’s moving forward extremely rapidly, and the environmental savings are stunning. You get multiple benefits. First, the environmental savings of 80% to 90% on water, on land, on climate impact– but you also solve the ethical problem.

I’m a fisherman’s daughter. I grew up in the industry. And the truth is animal harvest is a messy business. It’s cruel even when we do it well.

And before people are standing there clinging to their Stilton cheese or their Wagyu beef, look at it this way. About 70% of the beef in America goes into hamburgers. And about 80% of the dairy chain goes into powdered milk products. If we just replaced that with substitutes, so if we use that grown meat technology to produce hamburger and we use fermentation-based dairy technology– which is one that I study– if we use that to produce powdered milk products, we’ve just slashed 70% to 78% to 80% of the industry.

And we can concentrate on higher-end value products if we really want to. But even if we just do that, it’s one of the most massive things we can do for climate change. It dwarfs air travel, for example. It’s going to be the story you’re hearing for the next 10 years– is plant-based and cell-based production of protein.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: I’m Christie Taylor. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. One last question– you went on many adventures, you traveled, you ate a lot of food in the process of researching this book– what blew your mind most to learn in the process of this culinary adventure?

LENORE NEWMAN: I love what I do. One of the things that really keeps me going is meeting people who care about food– the chefs, the producers, people working on ecology– they’re so passionate. For this book, there were definitely some highlights. The screaming frogs of Hawaii were a surprise. That was interesting.

One of the travel highlights for me was going to Canada’s far north– how much wilderness there is, how big it is, how many wild animals there are, and seeing a wild herd of bison, for example, was sort of showstopping. They’re so amazing, those animals. And to imagine what it must have been like to have millions of them roaming the prairies, it’s a little stunning to think about.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Lenore Newman is the director of the Food and Agricultural Institute at the University of the Fraser Valley in British Columbia, Canada, and the author of Lost Feast, Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food. It was really great to talk to you.

LENORE NEWMAN: No worries, it was so much fun and really glad to take part.

IRA FLATOW: All right, Christie. You know, you’re right– I’m ready and, I dare say, I am hungry to learn more about culinary extinctions and whatever the heck Lenore was saying about screaming frogs. OK, how can people get involved in this spring’s reading?

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, Ira, per usual, our website is the best first place to stop– sciencefriday.com/bookclub. From there, you can join our online discussion community, sign up for our email newsletter, and even read a full chapter of Lost Feast for free. And if you haven’t gotten your copy of Lost Feast, now is the time. Our friends at Powell’s Books are offering discounted copies all month, and we’re partnering with libraries to offer unlimited ebook loans as well. Plus we’ll be having events for the next month. And we’re even doing a cooking class that you can enter to win a spot in.

IRA FLATOW: Sign me up, you know how much I like to cook.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: Well, per our ethics guidelines, Ira, you cannot sign up for a free spot. You can join us online as soon as next Tuesday, April 20th, when we’re bringing Lenore back for an audience Q&A, along with Slow Food farmer Mimi Edelman. We’ll be talking about losing agricultural diversity, some of the things being done to reverse culinary extinction, and we’ll be taking as many listener questions as we can. And of course, information on how to join and more on our website– sciencefriday.com/bookclub.

IRA FLATOW: Mmm, terrific, Christie. I can’t wait to chow down. Thanks for stopping by. And if you could just put my lunch back in the fridge on your way out, that would be great.

CHRISTIE TAYLOR: You got it, Ira. I’d rather microwave that tuna anyway.

IRA FLATOW: Thanks to SciFri Producer Christie Taylor for that delicious preview of this spring’s Lost Feast book club. Learn everything you need to know, including how to join author Lenore Newman in a virtual chat on Zoom next week. You can learn all of that on our website sciencefriday.com/bookclub. And as you read Lost Feast this spring, we’ll be listening for your voice memos on the SciFri VoxPop app. Tell us what you’re thinking, discovering, feeling curious about. That’s on the SciFri VoxPop app, wherever you get your apps.

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About Christie Taylor

Christie Taylor was a producer for Science Friday. Her days involved diligent research, too many phone calls for an introvert, and asking scientists if they have any audio of that narwhal heartbeat.

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