The last male passenger pigeon
For much of the 19th century, passenger pigeon was a staple of American cuisine. The last male died in 1912 (Bettmann / Getty).

The earliest humans favored juicy, meaty mammoth at mealtimes. Ancient Romans loved their favorite herb, silphium, so much that they sprinkled it on everything from lamb to melon. In the 19th-century United States, passenger pigeon pie was a cherished comfort food, long before chicken potpie became commonplace. And for dessert, Americans a century ago might have enjoyed a superlatively buttery Ansault pear, reckoned to be the greatest pear ever grown. What did these foods beloved by previous generations taste like? Well, apart from some written descriptions, we’ll never know: They’re all extinct. Join us this episode as the culinary geographer Lenore Newman takes us on a tour of lost foods—and the lessons they can teach us as we fight to save our current favorite foods from disappearing forever.

“This project started because of a bird,” Newman told Gastropod. “And that bird was Martha.” Newman’s project is a new book titled Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food; Martha was a passenger pigeon and the last living member of her species—an “endling,” as such lonely creatures are evocatively called. Her death, on September 1, 1914, represented perhaps the first time that humanity watched a species disappear, in full awareness of the concept of extinction and our role in causing this particular one. “There was no denying it was us,” said Newman: Somehow, together, we had eaten so many pigeons that we had wiped the most abundant bird in North America off the face of the planet.

But the passenger pigeon wasn’t our first culinary extinction. In this episode, Newman takes us on a tour through the foods we have eaten to their end, such as the Pleistocene megafauna, which early humans destroyed as our numbers spread around the world, and the leek-flavored silphium that was so valuable that its last stalks were hoarded, alongside gold and jewels, by Roman emperors. In each case, we sift through the evidence that points to human appetite as the leading cause of extinction, and unpack the response of a bewildered, bereft humanity.

The Romans clung to the belief that their beloved silphium could perhaps spontaneously reappear someday; the idea that something could be gone forever was simply, at the time, inconceivable. The concept of extinction—along with its mirror, evolution—wasn’t formulated until the end of the 18th century, and it finally gave humans a framework within which to understand their actions. But, as Newman describes, the pace of culinary loss has only increased since then, with thousands and thousands of varieties of plants and breeds of animals vanishing in the early 20th century.

Why have we allowed so many of the foods we love to vanish? What impact has their disappearance had—and what lessons can it teach us for the future? Listen in this episode as Newman helps us tackle these morbid questions, leaving us with some hope, as well as a whole new perspective on chicken.


This post appears courtesy of Gastropod.

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