Food keeps us alive, of course, but a theme of Saladino’s deeply humanistic book is how many of the things we consume cannot survive without us. Ancient vegetables and grains like the O-Higu soybean that once grew all over Okinawa will be unknown when we stop planting them. Livestock breeds like the medium white pig, also known as the London Porker in the days when it was the ‘pig of choice’, will become extinct if we stop breeding them. Georgian wines are fermented by wild yeasts in so-called clay pots qvevri that existed before the wine casks dry up when we stop drinking them.
Of course, other foods rely on us to clean up the mess we’ve made. Greedy fishing fleets and lazy police have nearly drained stretches of sea that were once so crowded that sailors in the 18th century reported getting stuck in giant cod jams. Factory methods applied to agriculture have polluted rivers, cleared forests and replaced poor-yielding but nutrient-rich local crops with milder, less-fortifying plants. And we’re just beginning to calculate the threats of climate change, which didn’t go into Sokolov’s notebooks at all.
Saladino’s eye for detail is photographic when describing places and things; it is less so when it comes to his human subjects. He introduces us to dozens of people — behind every idiosyncratic food product is an even more idiosyncratic producer — but they rarely come to life in the small, vivid character sketches that Susan Orlean or John McPhee might have given us.
However, he leaves no doubt that the diversity he wished to record includes very prominent figures such as Sally Barnes, who runs the last smokehouse in Ireland to preserve only wild Atlantic salmon. Barnes adapts her technique from fish to fish and can “read” each individual’s needs. “I feel like I’ve become a wild salmon myself,” she says, “a creature that swims against the tide.”
As global markets have eroded communities that were once self-sufficient, an opposing idea has taken hold: reclaiming ancient foods as a form of resistance. For these people, swimming against the current has political overtones.
Mexican group Sin Maíz, No Hay País (Without Corn There Is No Land) is promoting indigenous corn varieties over the commodity corn that has flooded Mexico after NAFTA, which the group wants to renegotiate. Later in the book, Saladino meets Vivien Sansour, a Palestinian who was inspired by the group to scour the West Bank for ancient varieties of pumpkin, tomato, wheat, and sesame.
“Telling me that our seeds are not worth saving and planting is like telling me that we as human beings have no value or future,” says Sansour.
She searched particularly hard for a watermelon named jadu’i, which once sweetened tables from Beirut to Damascus but is believed to be extinct. Eventually she met an old man living in the West Bank who had given up farming and thought the world had forgotten jadu’i. But he kept a packet of seeds in the back of a drawer, just in case.