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.