Interview: Dan Saladino, author of ‘Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them’

Dan Saladino is a journalist and broadcaster. He makes programmes about food for BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service. His work has been recognized by the Guild of Food Writers Awards, the Fortnam & Mason Food and Drinks Awards, and by the James Beard Foundation. This year, he published his first book, ‘Eating to Extinction’, a captivating and wide ranging exploration of some of the thousands of foods around the world that are at risk of being lost forever.

Slow Food Netherlands published a book on their own local Ark of Taste earlier this year, and has recently started an Ark of Taste Challenge to gather ideas that can help save some of these endangered foods. Slow Food’s Maarten Kuiper spoke to Dan Saladino about ‘Eating to Extinction’.

Dan, thank you for taking the time for this conversation. Maybe to start us off, could you take us back to the first moment that you thought of writing this book?

Dan Saladino: “I have a very long and rich history with the Ark of Taste and Slow Food. Back in 2007, when I joined The Food Programme, I was lucky enough to travel to the eastern side of Sicily to record a program about the citrus harvest. At first I thought this was going to be a celebratory program about tradition, about culture and landscape that would have been shaped by oranges and lemons. But when I arrived there, I met farmers who were telling me that this was the last harvest for them, because they were struggling to make a big enough income for it to be viable. They were going to leave the oranges on the trees the following year. In the evening, after I’d been recording with the farmers, I was invited to a meal with farmers and producers and local people, near the town of Lentini. The meal consisted of five courses, each with blood oranges as an ingredient. And I sat next to somebody from Slow Food International who had traveled from Bra, who explained to me that he was there to give his support to the farmers, because these oranges were becoming endangered. He told me there was something that existed they had created called the Ark of Taste, a catalog of endangered foods.

Since that meal, I have spent the last fiteen years of my time making radio at the Food Programme, not really getting that far away from the Ark of Taste, the idea of endangered foods and the importance of biodiversity. So when I was lucky enough to be invited to write a book – and I naively said yes not realizing how much work would be involved – they asked if I had any ideas. And in my mind for a number of years, there had been a book that would be using the Ark of Taste to tell a big story of food, human history, our relationship with the planet through the lens of food.”

I really want to compliment you with this book, the amount of information that you’re able to give each time you talk about a specific food, for instance the black Ogye chicken in Korea, we also learn so much about the chicken as of our food and history. Where did it originate? And how did this variety become the dominant one? It’s packed with just a lot of information and knowledge about the food system that we have today.

DS: “I wanted to understand how diversity came into being. So when we talk about biodiversity, or agricultural diversity, I wanted to understand some of the science, and some of the cultural and political reasons behind it. Why is it that we had this huge diversity of foods? When did we start to lose diversity? How did that happen? To do that, I did a lot of research to understand the context. And in doing that, I just fell in love with the stories. I found out they were just such rich, mind blowing stories that brought to life an ingredient, and in some cases, told the story of the people who had bred a chicken or had nurtured a type of wheat.

But what I needed to know was where that specific food fit into the bigger the wider context of, in the case of wheat, the domestication of cereals 12.000 years ago, right through to the green revolution. And why is it that we desperately need to bring diversity back because of crop diseases.

So what’s brilliant about the Ark of Taste, and what Slow Food has managed to create in the catalog is that there’s a tangible way in which you can connect with these big complex stories, through a specific food in a specific place, being protected by the community. I’m not an academic or farmer or a chef. I focus on telling stories, and that the Ark of Taste is such a brilliant device, as well as being an important catalog for storytelling.”

So, talking about encounters with people that you’ve come across researching your book, what was one that really stood out to you?

“That’s really a difficult one. But let me talk about the first story in the part of the book about cereals, which took me to eastern Turkey, eastern Anatolia. I got in touch with the Slow Food community in eastern Turkey that was protecting Kavilca wheat, an ‘emmer’ type of wheat. The beauty of that story for me was that it took me quite close to the Fertile Crescent where farming began, and where wheat was first domesticated. Along with einkorn, emmer was one of the earliest wheats to be domesticated. It was the wheat that the people who built the pyramids were farming and eating, same as the people who built Stonehenge. So I traveled to Turkey and I spent some time with a PhD student called Fatih. He was my guide as well as my translator during the trip. Fatih had spent a lot of time doing PhD research on disappearing food cultures, and introduced me to farmers, to cooks, to local Slow Food people. For me, it was a way into an ancient food culture, but also one in which there was this concerted effort to raise the awareness of the importance of this disappearing wheat. What gave me huge amounts of optimism there was that more and more farmers were growing this wheat, and it was being celebrated and used by chefs in Istanbul. It felt like a really modern contemporary story of a food being brought back from the brink.”

One of the things I recognize in your story is the privilege of being able to connect with that global network on such a deep local level. In previous years when I’ve been away travelling, for instance, to South Korea, I’ve always tried to find out what is in the Ark of Taste there. Could I try to connect to these people? And if I’m lucky I get to visit an artisanal soy sauce producer talking about his craft and the challenges of agriculture in his region. That level of connection is also what people find at Terra Madre, which you also describe at the end of your book. Which is such a source of optimism for people to be able to connect and see how many people in the world are trying in similar ways to save endangered foods.

DS: “I completely agree, and the book wouldn’t exist without Slow Food and the Ark of Taste. I think my journalism would be a lot poorer for it as well.”

And then in terms of taste, what is an experience in your journey of the last fifteen years that stands out to you?

DS: “Can I have two? I think the first chapter in the book represents an important group of foods in the Ark of Taste, which is wild honey. I was fortunate enough to travel to Northern Tanzania around Lake Eyasi to spend some time with some of Africa’s last hunter gatherers. They have this relationship with the honey guide bird, where they whistle to attract the bird, and the bird will then lead them to bees nests where the honey is. It’s possible that this mutual relationship between humans and birds goes back to the beginning of the human use of fire and smoke, because the humans can use smoke to access the honey which would be too dangerous for the birds because they would be stung to death. So there I was standing underneath a giant baobab tree, while a small hunter gatherer, about five feet tall, climbed up this enormous tree. And while he was being stung he scooped out honey and then threw it down to us. I caught some of the honey, and in it were the larvae and some wriggling bees. And in that moment of tasting this food I couldn’t help but think about our relationship with this bird, with the trees and the savanna. How important this huge source of energy and protein has been here, in this part of the world where Homo sapiens originated. That was a pretty mind blowing food experience.

Then there was another moment in Albania that features in the book. I went to Terra Madre, Balkans and then spent some time with PierPaolo Ambrosi, a wonderful man who passed away recently, but spent many years in Albania working with communities and farmers trying to bring back a food culture that had been pretty much lost during communism. We spent some time in the north in the Alps. And we got to taste Mishavinë which is one of the mountain cheeses made in a sack of goatskin. I was moved by this meal, because it was in a restaurant that had been founded by a pair of brothers who are big supporters of Slow Food. They’re using the restaurant as a way to support small scale farmers and foragers. And so the restaurant also functioned as a food hub. A lot of these ingredients were coming in and they were helping shepherds and people who were foraging in the woods to earn money to keep these skills and traditions alive. It’s one of my favorite experiences, and one of my favorite chapters as well. Those are just two standout moments but they are like my children, as I love them all.”

Do you your perspective on the world of food has changed while writing this book?

DS: “As I mentioned, I fell in love with these Ark of Taste stories and I would admit that I probably spent too long seeing them in isolation. That actually, each one belonged in its part of the world. And it gave me a lens on that particular food culture and those issues. It was only in writing the book that I was able to join the dots, and actually see what connected so many of these stories and how much had changed in such a relatively short space of time, that took us into the industrialization of economies, and then the industrialization of agriculture. And then the key moments that really took us to where we are today. So you know, different parts of scientific research that led to modern plant breeding, or milling technology, and green revolution to biotech. And in a sense all of those are quite complex stories to tell. But once you start to take an arc of a story, and use that as a device to explain why is it that a wheat in Turkey by the 1960s was endangered, that can take you into 10,000 years of history, but also to the 20th century to understand what happens there. So I think what I’ve really learned is how connected so many of these stories are, and the big picture, I feel far more aware, really, of the processes that took us to where we are today.”

I think knowing the stories, and knowing the issues is really important. And as I mention in the epilogue, there’s an awful lot we can do. But there’s also an awful lot that has to happen structurally. That could be about changing agricultural subsidies. It could be about consolidation of corporations in the food system as well. So I think there’s a lot we can individually do. But I think we also need to understand that there are, you know, powerful forces and structures that decide a lot of what is grown and eaten around the world. Change has to come from both sides.

Eating to Extinction is now available in all local (and online) book shops, and also as an audiobook read by Dan Saladino himself.

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