Eating keeps us alive, sure, but one of the themes of Saladino’s deeply humanistic book is how much of the stuff we consume can’t survive without us. Heritage vegetables and grains, like the O-Higu soybeans that once grew across Okinawa, will go unheard of if we stop planting them. Livestock breeds like the average white pig, also known as the London Porker when it was ‘choice pig’, will die if we stop raising them. Georgian wines fermented by wild yeasts in clay pots called qvevri that existed before the wine barrels dried up if we stop drinking them.
Of course, other foods depend on us to clean up the mess we’ve created. Greedy fishing fleets and lazy police forces nearly drained stretches of ocean that were once so crowded that 18th-century sailors reported being stuck in traffic jams of giant cod. Factory methods applied to agriculture have polluted rivers, cleared forests, and caused low-yielding but nutrient-rich local crops to be replaced by more bland, less fortifying crops. And we are just beginning to calculate the threats of climate change, which did not enter Sokolov’s notebooks at all.
Saladino’s sense of detail is photographic when describing places and things; he is less so when it comes to his human subjects. It 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 kind of lively little character sketches that Susan Orlean or John McPhee might have given us.
He leaves no doubt, however, that the diversity he has endeavored to record includes distinct people like Sally Barnes, who runs Ireland’s last smokehouse which keeps only wild Atlantic salmon. Barnes adapts his technique from one fish to another and can “read” each fish’s needs. “I feel like I’ve become a wild salmon myself,” she says, “a creature swimming against the tide.”
As global markets have emptied communities that once foraged, an opposing idea has taken hold: reclaiming ancient foods as a form of resistance. For these people, swimming against the tide has a political connotation.
Mexican group Sin Maíz, No Hay País (Without corn, there is no country) promotes indigenous corn strains rather than the staple corn that flooded Mexico after NAFTA, which the group wants renegotiated . Later in the book, Saladino meets Vivien Sansour, a Palestinian woman who was inspired by the group to travel the West Bank in search of ancient varieties of squash, tomatoes, wheat, and sesame.
“Telling me that our seeds are not worth saving and planting is like telling me that we as people have no value and no future,” Sansour says.
She searched especially hard for a watermelon called jadu’i, which once sweetened tables from Beirut to Damascus, but was thought to be extinct. Finally, 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 bottom of a drawer, just in case.