‘Eat to Extinction’ is a celebration of rare foods and a warning of the future

But above all, Saladino wants to highlight the treasures that we risk losing. In Venezuela, he floats a chocolate bar made from rare criollo under the reader’s nose. In Colorado, he tastes a bowl of blue corn porridge cooked with foraged medicinal bear root. The focus is on “landrace” foods, those adapted to thrive in specific locations and passed down from generation to generation. On the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland, Saladino encounters barley that bends rather than breaks in the high winds of the region 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 work with birds to locate a nest of African bees, from which they scoop handfuls of melting liquid.

Credit…Artur Tixilsky

Saladino proves that one path to a reader’s sustained attention is through their stomach. Dwelling on local and individual stories is also a way to counterbalance the macabre pessimism that can grip a person when faced with over 350 pages of evidence about our ongoing ecological crisis. The book is explicitly and passionately educational, but it opts for carrots over sticks. Look at all these earthly wonders! Saladino is crying. We cannot let them perish!

Take, for example, murnong – a root that was once used by hunter-gatherers in Australia’s Western Desert, before 19th-century settlers launched an assault on the abundant tubers. First came the sheep, which searched thousands of miles of land. Next come invasive plant species, which have supplanted the native murnong. Finally, in 1859, rabbits arrived in Australia to complete the job. Recent efforts to revive the succulent and nutritious root have come about through Indigenous community gardens.

But reviving an almost extinct plant is only the first step. As local foods disappear, culinary traditions dissolve with them. A few hundred years ago, a traveler may have noticed that the loaves became noticeably flatter as she traveled north through Europe. Warmer southern climates were better suited to cereals with a high gluten content, which results in more airy bread. The darker, colder climates of the north were more conducive to grains like rye and oats, which found their way into flatbreads, baked crackers, and bannocks – “soft, round flatbreads cooked over a fire” . Innovations such as chemical fertilizers have made it possible to grow modern wheats in previously unsuitable climates. Why stick to traditional baking methods when it’s cheap and easy to buy evenly moist bread almost anywhere?

What is true for cereal crops is also true for livestock. Saladino visits a hjallur on the Faroe Islands – a hut with ‘walls’ of wooden slats 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, the early Faroese could not preserve meat with smoke or by boiling salted water in salt. A hjallur ingeniously captured salt where it lived: in the gusts of sea air. When Saladino tastes a piece of fermented mutton, he detects “just a hint” of rot. “For us, it’s a great feeling,” explains a resident. “It’s a twisted taste but a good taste.”