DiALOGUE - ISSUE #14
Food extinction: how memories of appetites past connect us.
Thick black string holds together pearls of red, drops of green and waves of yellow. I couldn’t look away. “What is your necklace made of?” I asked. “Oh, this?” she replied, yanking a green drop. She brought it to her mouth and bit down. “I make one every morning. I pick whatever vegetables are ripe in my garden, string them together, and snack on them throughout the day.” The red pearls were tomatoes, the green drops peas, the yellow waves beans.
This was more than 10 years ago and yet I thought about this conversation with a shopkeeper in a small town in Nova Scotia when I read Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction. She details how words hold things in a particular and powerful relation to each other and to us, which is to say that they bear meanings. I remember the necklace and the pea because I remember the story.
The pea is also a carrier for other stories, for other questions. And the one that I keep asking is: How do we relate to environments through the foods we eat and the stories we season them with? Food is an interlocutor between bodies and environments. A cuisine is defined by what it pins down to the plate, or if it forgoes the plate all together, selecting other carriers instead. The pea is a carrier for stories about the relationship between eating and ecology.
Eating is an intimate, ecological encounter. And the foods we make and eat weather the climate. In her collaborative writing, feminist scholar Astrida Neimanis uses the concept of weathering to bring “climate change home”. This reimagines climate not as something that we are in, but something that is in us. The weather is something we make and our appetites weather the world.
Unlike our other senses, taste requires the most active participation. Smells and sounds do not need permission to enter our noses and ears. We can rush to close our eyes, but cannot unsee what they have already scanned. Without our consent, the wind tickles our skin and tangles our hair. Taste, however, requires us to open our mouths, to engage actively and intimately. To study food, which is what I do as a cultural historian, is to take account of how eating dissolves boundaries between one’s self and others, between humans and the worlds they weather.
From lost ingredients to forgotten dishes, menus document historic foodways. Memories of appetites past. But where does a dish begin? In the kitchen, at the market, or in the field? It matters where stories begin and end. Cookery books suggest that recipes have clear beginnings and endings, a first step and a final one.
Extinctions are about endings. We are now experiencing what scientists call the sixth mass extinction. Because of the high number of species being lost across a diverse range of life-forms and in a compressed time frame, human behaviour differentiates the sixth extinction from the previous five. Humans eat some species to the point of extinction, such as the Ansault pear and silphium, a beloved herb in classical antiquity, but their appetites for others - and the lands and waters required to produce them - push some to the status of endangered.
Extinction is a collective death, but, ironically, it can happen before an individual one. A species can be extinct even if its final survivor is alive, like Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who died on 1 September, 1914, in the Cincinnati Zoo, US. Only a few decades earlier New York City’s celebrated restaurant Delmonico’s was serving passenger pigeon pie. Food one day and a culinary ghost the next.
Anthropologist Anna Tsing writes about mushrooms and love in a time of extinction - about how what she calls “plantation science” is extinction-oriented and threatens the cosmopolitanism of the underground cities that fungi build. If extinction is “the end of futures”, what does the environmental crisis mean for our culinary present? Eating is messy. Making a meal is also an act of unmaking, it assembles ingredients by dissembling flora and fauna and ecosystems. Eating is extractive, but it can also enact ethics of care and efforts to restore and eat with environments instead of just eating them all up. It can tell new stories, occupy new carriers and propose new relationships. After all, I remember the necklace and the pea - which is to say that I remember how the body connects to the garden, how appetite connects to the environment - because I remember that story.
The Necklace and the Pea