Photos: world map ( RGBAlpha); grapes ( Isabelle Rozenbaum); olives in vintage spoon ( fcafotodigital); grasshoppers ( buttlefly); Wensleydale Cheese (PaulaConnelly); vintage fork ( StephanieFrey). All photos Getty Images
Taras Grescoe Digs Into the Past to See What Humans Could Be Eating in the Future
From Neolithic sourdough to "Aztec caviar," 'The Lost Supper' chronicles one writer's global search for the world's forgotten flavours / BY Ian Coutts / September 14th, 2023
Taras Grescoe ate insects so you don’t have to.
All right, that’s an exaggeration. Yes, he did eat bugs as part of researching The Lost Supper, but it wasn’t to spare you the mortifying experience. In fact, once you finish reading his book, which takes you all over the world and even back in time in search of unique food experiences, you might want to eat them, too.
There are eight billion humans alive today, notes Grescoe, and that number is projected to rise to 10 billion by the middle of this century, while “economists say we’ll have to increase food production by 50 per cent” to feed them all. The demand is harder to satisfy as more and more people opt for a Western-style, meat-heavy diet that puts a strain on the planet’s natural resources and contributes to climate change. If that wasn’t bad enough, says Grescoe, at the same time we’re smack in the middle of a precipitous decline in “agro-diversity.” We eat a diet today that is considerably less varied than what our ancestors knew, and many historic domestic animal breeds and crops have disappeared. “Half of the calories consumed on Earth now come from only three grasses … rice, corn and wheat.”
Grescoe wants to change that, to make us aware of the variety of foods available to us, as well as the flavours we may have forgotten about, but that our ancestors depended on. As he puts it: “The way forward involves looking backward …”
“I think it was in Greece in 2015,” he says, when asked about the inspiration for the book. He’s speaking from Montreal, where he lives with his wife Erin, his sons Desmond and Victor, and what he terms his “herds of yeast and bacteria,” which he uses to make bread and kimchi.
As Grescoe remembers it, he was at a winery next to Mount Olympus, when the owner said, “Hey, do you want to go see this weird grape we found?” Long story short, the grape was a type unknown to modern science, and, as Grescoe drank a glass of wine made from it, he realized he was tasting something that would have been consumed during Homer’s time, more than 2,000 years ago. “I was, wow, this is kind of awe-inspiring.” A later encounter with an olive oil made from a crop taken from trees found in a ruined Roman villa in Italy made him think, “Okay, there’s something here, and I started looking into it.”
“I’ve always been interested in foods like garum [Roman fish sauce],” says Grescoe, who likes to taste strange or uncommon foods in the countries he visitss. He’s quick to point out, however, that he’s interested in more than some sort of gustatory tourism. “I always think of myself as a kind of ethical epicurean,” he says. “I like food, I like intense flavours,” but at the same time, “I’m always trying to figure out how to enjoy nature, enjoy life, indulge your appetites to a certain extent, but do it in a responsible way.”
The Lost Supper is the result of that balancing act. Each chapter finds Grescoe in a different part of the world, focusing on a different food — from insects near Mexico City to Wensleydale cheese on the Yorkshire moors. “I think every chapter and every food I’ve chosen comes with a kind of lesson,” he says. In the case of the legendary wild hogs of Ossabaw Island, for example, he uses ham from the pigs to think about our overconsumption of meat and the nature of the pork industry in North America. “We eat an extraordinary amount of meat,” he says. “Everyone agrees on this.” But perhaps, he argues, what we should be concentrating on is less — but better. “Maybe we should be willing to pay more for good meat that doesn’t produce suffering on the human level [the workers caring for the pigs work in massive un-air-conditioned barns during heat waves] or on the animal level or the environmental level.”
This attitude is key to the enjoyment of Grescoe’s work. Unlike, for example, the British writer George Monbiot, who thinks humans should subsist on factory-grown foods while the rest of the world is allowed to return to its natural state (whatever that is), Grescoe acknowledges that we’re a part of the landscape and agriculture is here to stay. To those who might claim the foods he talks about (silphion for example, a plant long thought to be extinct that seems to have been rediscovered in Turkey) might seem a trifle elitist, or wonder who has time to think about what they eat in such depth, Grescoe has an answer.
“When people say it’s elitist to expect people to care about the quality of their food, there’s the other side of that. If you’re willing to devote a little more time to your food, your expenses go way down. Because I’m willing to put in more hours in the week to process the ingredients, my grocery bills are pretty low,” he says. In addition, “if you’re eating high-fat food, high fat milk, high fat cheese, you don’t need as much.”
The problem is our palates, says Grescoe. “Thanks to industrialization, sugar, salt and fat and not very high-quality high-fructose corn syrup, we were just kind of brutalized and degraded by what’s in the middle of the supermarket aisles. And the problem is you need a lot of that to be satisfied. I think that systematically, the various cultural revolutions and the industrial revolution have stripped away the flavour.” When people confront something unusual, he says, “They recoil.”
But if we learn anything from The Lost Supper, it’s that we can push our taste buds. That may not stretch to insects (which Grescoe says could be better used as feed for livestock rather than humans), but it could include foods we avoid or neglect now. Which would do us — and the planet — a world of good.