SaltWire's Ask a Journalist: You have questions, let's find some ...
The latest weather columns and browse beautiful photos from Cindy Day
SaltWire's cartoonists bring heart and humour to the news.
NOW Atlantic: Smart thinking for a changing world
The latest on Nova Scotia's mass shooting
What you need to know about COVID-19: June 3
Visit SaltWire.com for more of the stories you want.
'We don't have to end up in a world where there's very little diversity, where most of our foods are just memories'
Masquerading as a humble meat pie, tourtière cuts an unlikely figure for a culinary spectre. With its flaky pastry and aromatic spiced filling, this Quebecois and Acadian classic serves not only as a holiday table mainstay but a profound reminder: While we might assume minced pork — sometimes accompanied by veal or beef — has always been the protein of choice, tourtière represents the vestige of a vanished bird.
“There are footprints of extinct species in our culture,” says author Lenore Newman, whose latest book Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food (ECW Press, 2019) bears an inverted figure of the bygone passenger pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) on its cover. Originally a vehicle for the tasty wild bird, which was known as tourte in Quebec, tourtière is one such trace.
So plentiful they once blotted out the sun when taking wing, the passenger pigeon was vital to Indigenous groups in North America for centuries, especially the Iroquois Confederacy, explains Newman, Canada Research Chair in Food Security and Environment at the University of the Fraser Valley. Boiled, roasted, dried or fermented for grease, which was used to make pemmican, the migratory birds were a dietary pillar.
During colonial times, settlers from Europe recounted eating passenger pigeons in journals as early as 1605. Initially snubbed, along with other local foods, they soon became a lifesaver. “When settlers arrived, for a long time it was a staple,” says Newman. Ubiquitous until the late 19th century, an appetite for pigeon remained even as stocks started to flag.
Newman describes how chef Charles Ranhofer, at fabled New York City restaurant Delmonico’s, prepared them day after day as part of the regular menu: Slow-cooked with cabbage and turnips, or pan-fried with bacon and served on rice. At a 35-dish, eight-hour banquet for Charles Dickens in May 1868, passenger pigeon was used to make truffled pigeon patties and pigeon and peas.
Passenger pigeons once numbered in the billions on this continent, and as Newman details in Lost Feast , several hundred professional hunters may have been enough to spell their end. “It was really that last 50 or 60 years that killed the species: Where you had the railway, the public market and the telegraph,” she says. “Packs of hunters would pour out along the railways to where the birds were roosting. They would cull the entire roost and send it to market, and you can’t do that for very long.” Extinct in the wild since the mid-1890s, the last captive passenger pigeon (Martha) died at the Cincinnati Zoo more than a century ago, in 1914.
“Even when people realized what was happening, they kept eating them,” says Newman, noting the lamenting tone apparent in some of the historical documents she’s read. “People say how much they miss the passenger pigeon, how it was part of life: They would fly over and the sky would go dark, and all you would hear was all these wings. In losing that, you lose part of yourself and part of the landscape. I really feel cuisine is like a language: (When) you knock words out, you lose a richness.”
Through reflecting on culinary extinctions — Newman explores the likes of aurochs (an extinct species of Paleolithic mega-cattle) and silphium (a defunct herb highly prized by the Romans), as well as the current pollination crisis (“if you own even a speck of land or even a balcony, plant something that is bee-friendly”) — we gain a greater understanding of not just where our food systems may be headed, but how to address the very real issues of the present.
There are footprints of extinct species in our culture. — Lenore Newman
As evidenced by the denial wrapped up in the dwindling numbers and ultimate demise of the passenger pigeon, it’s apparently all too tempting to view vanishing foods as permanent and malleable diets as fixed. Paradox plagues so many aspects of food today: We’ve never had more of it for so little, yet we enjoy less variety and eat fewer species than ever before. And somehow, despite the information at our disposal, knowingly endangered species such as bluefin tuna and chinook salmon still show up on the plate.
“I started studying extinct foods mainly because I found them interesting. I didn’t realize how much it would tell me about today’s food system, and more and more that changed the main theme, which is that we could actually learn a lot from where we got things terribly wrong,” says Newman. “You can’t get more wrong than extinction. It’s the ultimate system failure.”
In following the trajectory of the passenger pigeon, Newman draws a parallel between the fate of a flocking animal of the skies and the risks facing those of the seas. And in doing so, she poses a critical question: Is it possible to eat vulnerable foods and protect them at the same time? “At this stage in human history the answer is, for some of these foods, maybe not,” says Newman. A fisherman’s daughter from Roberts Creek, B.C., she spent her childhood clamming and has vivid memories of an abundant ocean at her doorstep. This plentitude has, of course, become a memory within her lifetime.
“I’m very worried I will live to see the day where there are no commercial fisheries left on earth,” she adds. “There are some things we may just have to (accept as) a once in a lifetime kind of experience. If we don’t stop eating bluefin tuna at the rate we’re eating it, it will be gone and it will be like the passenger pigeon — no one will ever have it.” Newman recalls her first bite of the apex predator, as a teenager at a Vancouver hotel brunch buffet: “I love bluefin tuna. I remember it very fondly. I won’t eat it now because it just feels wrong. Some of these foods, we’re loving them to death.”
Culinary extinction is, admittedly, among the heaviest of food issues, but there is also a levity to Lost Feast . As a means of decompressing with friends while she was writing the book, Newman held “extinction dinners”: Veggie burger comparisons, turducken and tourtière, and Roman “pears patina” were a few of the thoughtfully prepared feasts with which she punctuates chapters.
These meals also served to highlight a unique strength when it comes to approaching food-related issues: Individuals can make a difference. Many of us have a visceral attachment to food — preferences, recollections and stories help form deep connections — and any dietary changes people choose to make in the name of sustainability will be highly individual as a result.
“I’ve lowered my own footprint since I wrote this book and I’ve cut out some foods that I knew were kind of harmful for the environment, or were maybe really rare. You realize that you can actually make change and if everyone did it, it could be enough. We don’t have to end up in a world where there’s very little diversity, where most of our foods are just memories,” says Newman. “We can start any time with any meal, and that does make food a lot different than some of the more intractable problems. I left (writing the book) hopeful but a bit haunted. There are big changes we have to make individually, as industries and as societies, but they’re possible. We can learn from those mistakes, and we can see where we need to make adjustments to make sure we don’t lose more crops, more animals.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019