The Next Chapter

Antanas Sileika reviews two books that explore the connection between science and food

The Next Chapter columnist reviews A Grain Of Salt by Joseph A. Schwarcz and Lost Feast by Lenore Newman.
Antanas Sileika an author and columnist for The Next Chapter. (Liudas Masys)

Antanas Sileika regularly appears as a columnist on The Next Chapter. He's the former director of the Humber School for Writers and he's been nominated for literary awards such as the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour and the City of Toronto Book Award.

Sileika recently read two books that deal with the connection between science and food: A Grain Of Salt: The Science and Pseudoscience of What We Eat by Joseph A. Schwarcz and Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction and the Future of Food by Lenore Newman.

He spoke to Shelagh Rogers to talk about both books.

A Grain Of Salt by Joseph A. Schwarcz

Joe Schwarcz is the director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society. (ECW Press, mcgill.ca)

"Schwarcz is a science guy who really doesn't believe all science reports. He said the biggest problem with food and science is that someone writes a report — one that says 'blueberries are very good for you,' for example — and journalists seize upon this and put it in a headline.

The bottom line is there are no foods that are healthy or unhealthy — there are only diets that are healthy or unhealthy.

"Next thing is that a marketer creates a term like 'superfood' and there is no such thing. It's just a marketing term. Schwarcz reads studies and gives us a more balanced picture of food. 

"It turns out many of the things we believe are only partially true or untrue. The bottom line is there are no foods that are healthy or unhealthy — there are only diets that are healthy or unhealthy."

How is it that with so much hard fact and information we still absorb dumb stuff as truth? Especially when it comes to science and nutrition. Joe Schwarcz has made it his mission to tackle myths about science and the so-called experts who spread them. 27:29

Lost Feast by Lenore Newman

Lost Feast is a nonfiction book by Lenore Newman. (lenorenewman.com, ECW Press)

"Newman is the Canada Research Chair of Food Security at the University of Fraser Valley. This book is a strange combination of care about ecology and extinction and the food on your table. It's a pairing that I never would have imagined until I came to this book. Newman's approach in this book is to look at extinctions that have occurred throughout history.

"They're very sad, but they're sad for a strange reason — because we're going to miss eating those things. That sounds perverse in a way, but she says that if you are a bit of a gourmand you want to preserve the things that you love, including the things that you love to eat. 

This book is a strange combination of care about ecology and extinction and the food on your table.

"So, for example, the passenger pigeon, which went extinct at the beginning of the 20th century, was one of the elements in Québecois tourtiere, the famous meat pie. You can't eat that anymore; it was eaten to extinction. Her message is that you can love things, you want to preserve them. So take the passenger pigeon example and extrapolate that to the oceans. She says it's not sustainable.

"What we're doing now, in about 40 years what will happen to the fish we typically eat in the ocean will be what happened to the passenger pigeon. They're going to disappear. So if you love your fish, you love to eat your fish, you want to preserve them for the future."

'Ansault' pears so creamy you could spread them like jam, mammoth stew, and dishes of the Roman empire seasoned with the long-lost herb silphium. These are some of the extinct foods that culinary geographer Lenore Newman looks at in her new book, Lost Feast: Culinary Extinction And The Future of Food. She speaks to us about why humans are so good at loving foods to death, which of our favourite foods are in danger of disappearing now, and what we can do about it. 23:44

Antanas Sileika's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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