Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino

Eating to Extinction

What’s the USP? A global investigation into some of the world’s rarest foods in danger of disappearing from our diets, and how saving them could be part of the solution to fixing what the author says is a ‘food system that is contributing to the destruction of our planet’.

Who wrote it? Journalist and broadcaster Dan Saladino will be a familiar name to regular listeners of Radio 4’s The Food Programme  for which he is a producer and presenter. Eating to Extinction is his first book.

Why should I read it? By relating the history of and telling the stories behind 34 foods in danger of extinction (a small sample of what Saladino says are one million plant and animal species under threat)  including Kavilca Wheat from Anatolia; Geechee Red Pea from Georgia, USA;  Middle White Pig from the Wye Valley and Kyinja Banana from Uganda), Saladino amply demonstrates his point that the current monoculture and resultant lack of biodiversity that defines the current global food system is unsustainable as it means, among many other things, crops are ‘at greater risk of succumbing to diseases, pests and climate extremes’. Saladino also considers the cultural impact of losing the heritage behind these foods, what he calls the ‘wisdom of generations of unknown cooks and farmers’.

Is it just going to leave me feeling depressed and anxious about food security? It’s unquestionably an eye opening read, but it’s not all bad news. In Australia for example, murnong, ‘a radish-like root with a crisp bite and the taste of sweet coconut’ that has been in sharp decline since the mid-19th century as the aboriginal population who farmed it has been decimated, is making a slow comeback. It is being grown in aboriginal  community gardens and influential chef Ben Shewry has put it on his menu.

Should I buy it? Eating to Extinction is an important book that documents a turning point in our global food systems. Although Eating to Extinction is a work of some substance and heft (it runs to 450 pages including detailed notes), it’s not written in an academic style and is highly readable. Each chapter is a discreet entity making the book ideal for dipping in and out of, consuming it all in one go might be a little too alarming.

As an individual, the astonishing stats dotted throughout (did you know for example that more than half of all seafood consumed by humans is provided by aquaculture i.e. farmed fish?) might well inspire you to do your bit to help battle monoculture and adopt a more diverse diet that incorporates rare breed meat, wild seafood and heritage varieties of vegetables and grains and even for age for wild foods like seaweed, plants, herbs and flowers.

The good news is that, according to Saladino, it seems the major food producers appear to have begun to recognise how destructive the monoculture they’ve propagated really is. The then head of diary giant Danone told the 2019 Climate Action Summit that, ‘We thought with science we could change the cycle of life and it’s rules…We’ve been killing life and now we need to restore it’.

Cookbook Review Rating: Five stars

Buy this book: 
Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them
£25, Johnathan Cape

This book has been shortlisted for the Andre Simon Food Award. Read more here.

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Nose Dive by Harold McGee

nose-dive-harold-mcgee

What’s the USP? A deep (nose) dive into the world of smell, exploring what creates the smells around us, and what we can learn from them. From the earliest smells in the universe to thoroughly contemporary stenches, Nose Dive opens up every corner of the sensory world, and takes a big old sniff.

Sounds like a Bill Bryson book…  Harold McGee’s initial premise might recall the bold all-encompassing approach Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything and The Body have taken to their respective subjects, but don’t be fooled. Nose Dive is as academic as it is filled with wonder at the world around us. McGee starts at the very beginning, with early chapters on how chemicals formed in space at the very beginning of the universe, and the sulphurous formation of smells on the newly formed Earth. It’s a neatly chronological approach that the author has apparently used to get his head around the science as he took on what must have been a daunting project, but I found myself longing for some more immediately relatable smells.

Who is the book for? It’s a tough question that I asked myself throughout reading. There is no doubt that McGee has put together a remarkable document on an under-appreciated sense, but little compromise is made for the casual reader. Coming in at just over 600 pages, and unrepentantly scientific in its approach, Nose Dive is not an easy read.

What are you looking to get out of a book on smell? If it’s the nuances in the scent of a good blue cheese, you’ll be wading some five hundred pages in. If you’re excited, however, to learn about why some cat piss smells meaty, and other cat piss displays more distinctly fruity characteristics, then you’ll have a much shorter wait. 

Do I have to read it all in order? Not at all – in fact, McGee claims that the book is intended for dipping into at your leisure. A sprawling index means readers inspired by a particular scent are free and able to selectively read around their curiosities. But that does rather beg the question – how many of us are going to smell the unrelenting stench of manure and then both desire and later remember (as presumably nobody will be carrying a 600 page hardback around on the off-chance that their nose asks a question) to look it up, and learn more about concentrated animal feeding operations?

There are useful lessons to learn here for cooks – which makes sense, given the author’s background in food science writing. But too often it feels as though the average reader might only fall upon them by chance. The book gives roughly the same amount of time to food smells (and those immediately associated with food) as it does to everything else – but the result is unnecessarily unwieldy. Perhaps McGee can take all that he has learnt here and create a second volume, focused more tightly on the smells of the kitchen, and what we can learn from them.

Until then, Nose Dive should be filed under ‘Good Intentions’ – a stunningly researched, occasionally insightful title that will appeal mainly to those who are already in the habit of reading lengthy academically-minded science titles.

Cookbook Review Rating: Three stars

Review written by Stephen Rötzsch Thomas a Nottingham-based writer. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @srotzschthomas

Buy this book
Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells
£35, John Murray

Shortlisted for the Andre Simon Food and Drink Book Awards 2020. See all the shortlisted books here.
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