Monday, April 3, 2017

Which Came First?

Which came first, domestication of grain growing, or grain storage?  Whenever I bothered to think about this issue at all, I assumed that homo sapiens ceased to be nomadic and settled down after inventing agriculture, because to get the maximum benefit from that discovery it was necessary to store grain in big buildings, called granaries.

Recently, I found a Science Daily article about a study published in 2009 which concludes that the opposite is true; namely, that the first granaries were built and used before agriculture was discovered.  The study is based upon discovery of archaeological evidence in Jordan of the existence of buildings, with elevated floors to deter vermin, that date to the New Stone Age (about 11,000 B.C.E., before agriculture was discovered).  The researchers' thought is that discovering how to save wild grains for food led to reduced nomadism, and thus paved the way for the development of agriculture and a mostly sedentary society.   I couldn't find a copy of the study itself, but this newsletter gives contact information for the study's co-author, in case any of my readers want or need to follow up further.

This study is another sobering reminder that it's the things one thinks one "knows", but are false, that tend to cause problems.  On the other hand, it's an exciting reminder that archaeology, hand in hand with better tools for analysis of artifacts that are thousands of years old, is changing our understanding of ancient history.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Dinosaur Chow

Several years ago, I stumbled upon the blog Cockpit Conversation.  Cockpit Conversation is written by a woman who refers to herself as Aviatrix.  Aviatrix is a commercial pilot, and usually she writes about oddities she happens upon in the course of her job.  However, sometimes she posts about things that are simply humorous, such as Dinosaur Chow.

It appears that Aviatrix's friend writes a web comic called Dinosaur Comics, and one of his comics involved a dinosaur who invents a recipe.  In a burst of whimsy, Aviatrix decides to make the recipe herself and describe both the process and the final result.  

This would justify a loud "meh", except that the dinosaur's idea of nouvelle cuisine was to combine ice cream and meat.  You read that correctly the first time:  ice cream and meat.  To quote the dinosaur in the comic:
First, get five pounds of ground beef.
Then, get five pounds of ice cream.
Fold the raw meat into the ice cream, and brown in a giant frying pan.

Throw some eggs into this!
Then add some salt to taste, and more eggs to taste too.
Serve in a bathtub, and garnish with fifty dollar bills.
In redacting this fictional dinosaur's recipe for a (live) human audience, Aviatrix began by making only a fifth of the quantity (i.e.,  using only a pound of meat and a pound of ice cream, and garnishing with 10-dollar bills).  Second, she chose to put the meat into the pan first, and fold in the ice cream, because (in her words) "The difference is that had I followed the instructions exactly, no part of the beef would have browned in the pan the way some did before the ice-cream was folded in."  In other words, as she carefully explains, "What I was essentially doing was slow-poaching ground beef in sweetened milk, in the presence of guar gum, cellulose gum, locust bean gum, polysorbate 80, mono- and diglycerides and carrageenan [i.e., the ice cream]."

To her surprise, the end result was fairly tasty, if you enjoy Really Sweet Foods:
"The dish was astonishingly edible, considering it was invented by a fictional dinosaur and deliberately concocted to be as ludicrous as possible. It's pretty sweet, and this is coming from someone who ate Nutella out of the jar with a spoon for lunch. I would recommend decreasing the ice cream-to-beef ratio to perhaps 1:2, add more chili powder and other spices at an earlier stage of cooking and, as I mentioned earlier, play with the ice cream flavour."
I suppose the moral of this is that it's hard to go wrong in combining eggs, sweets, and meat, but overall I'm not inclined to test the recipe myself.  It does make a splendid subject for a blog post on a day, such as today, dedicated to the ludicrous.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Who's on the Table?

Today's post is about prehistoric food.  (Yes, again.)  Specifically, it's about the diet of the Neanderthals, an early human species whose time partly overlapped that of homo sapiens sapiens, and may have been pushed to extinction, in part, by us.

A decade or two ago, it was fashionable to presume that homo neanderthalensis was a gentle, non-violent species.

Now, we have archaeological evidence that calls that claim into question.

In caves at Goyet, Belgium, archaeologists have found 40,000 year-old bones from five Neanderthals--an infant or young child, and four adults (or possibly adolescents) that had been cut and cracked in ways that one would do in order to suck out the marrow inside.  Eating the marrow.  In short, it appears that at least some Neanderthals were cannibals.  The age of the bones places this cannibalism late in the Neanderthals' history, not too long before they became extinct.  A news article about the find may be found and read here.

Another article states that other European caves with Neanderthal remains have been found that contained Neanderthal bones with similar signs of butchery for food purposes.

These facts raise possibilities about the reason for the Neanderthals' dietary choice that may, or may not, be consistent with the view of them as a gentle people.  They may have chosen, for example, to ritually consume their dead as a way of retaining their good qualities, or of keeping them with the tribe.  They may have eaten their dead out of desperation, because they were unable to obtain sufficient food otherwise.  This may be the likeliest possibility, as Neanderthal teeth remains show signs of periods of starvation which might have been survived by eating other Neanderthals.

Or they may have killed and eaten other Neanderthals, of the same tribe or of different tribes, for food on a routine basis.  We just don't know.  

Perhaps discoveries will be made in other caves, of similarly broken homo neanderthalensis bones that will allow us to make inferences as to the circumstances in which the marrow was eaten.  For now, we can only conclude that eating parts of human bodies has a much earlier place in the long history of human food than was previously imagined.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Ötzi's Last Meal

Reconstruction of Ötzi
Photo by Thilo Parg 
(Wikimedia Commons)
Remember Ötzi?  The Stone Age man whose well-preserved body and state-of-the-Stone-Age-art outdoor equipment was found some decades ago in the South Tyrol?  Believe it or not, further analysis of Otzi's remains has yielded information that bears upon the history of food.

A recent article from reports that German researchers have used non-invasive techniques to examine the contents of Ötzi's stomach and have concluded that his last meal was "very fatty, dried meat, most likely bacon" from a wild goat.  The article can be read here.  Judging from this description, it seems that what Ötzi had was more like bacon jerky, goat bacon cut and dried to preserve it.  Dried meat would make really useful, easy-to-carry food in the mountains where he was travelling.  

Think about that the next time you see bacon jerky in your local supermarket or on the Internet. Don't let modern ad copy fool you; some foods, especially dried foods, go way, way back.  

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A Fast History of "Slow Food" and Other Diversions

A few years ago, my husband gave me a book from my Amazon wish list as a birthday present.  This was the book:
Gartenstein, Devra.  Cavemen, Monks, & Slow Food:  A History of Eating Well.  (Quirky Gourmet Productions 2011). 227 pages.
I had put this book on my wish list because I hoped the book would include some archaeological information, and educated speculation, about prehistoric food, as well as information tying in some of those speculations to what we know about food in the Middle Ages.

Sadly for me, that's not what this book really is about.  This book is simply a general history of the food of Western civilization, written clearly and elegantly, but with information taken almost entirely from secondary sources.  Moreover, the few sources that specifically relate to prehistoric food are books I already own and have read.  

I don't normally object to a book of popular history (of anything) for lacking footnotes, but the omission is annoying to me in this book because it makes it impossible for me to track down the sources for the few interesting facts cited by Ms. Gartenstein.

Curious about some of the odder characteristics of the book, I did a little bit of on line research about the author, and learned that Ms. Gartenstein is a chef and owner of a Seattle "food business" called the Patty Pan Grill, which, in her words "is a thoughtful, progressive food business committed to exploring creative approaches to eating well and living well. We're proud to be Seattle's oldest farmers' market concession, having provided hot, ready-to-eat food at outdoor events since 1997, when there were only two neighborhood markets in the city. Patty Pan sources most of our staples from the farmers who are our friends and neighbors at the markets."

In short, this is an interesting little book for someone with no background information about food history and no concern about whether the author cites information from strongly biased sources (which she does when discussing genetically modified foods and other modern food issues).  It is not, unfortunately, the sort of book I enjoy when I'm looking to expand my knowledge of food history.

Here's an example of the type of food history I do find worth reading. A little while ago, a friend and reader of this blog pointed me at a scholarly article called "Homegrown Cuisines or Naturalized Cuisines?  The History of Food in Hawaii and Hawaii's Place in Food History," by Rachel Laudan. The article is available on the publisher's website, but except during special promotions, it may only be downloaded for a fee.  Well-heeled and curious readers may find the relevant page here.

Ms. Laudan's work does include a fair amount of information describing the personal experiences that led her to research the subject, but she still gives an interesting presentation of the different sets of foodways that shaped the foods enjoyed in Hawaii today:
I would divide [Hawaiian cuisine] into four periods: the sacrificial cuisine of the Hawaiian Chiefdoms; the aristocratic cuisine of the Hawaiian monarchy; the republican cuisine of the plantation oligarchy; and modern cuisine, Local Food, of an American state.
The full citation of the Hawaiian food article is:
Laudan, Rachel.  Homegrown Cuisines or Naturalized Cuisines? The History of Food in Hawaii and Hawaii's Place in Food History, Food, Culture & Society:  An International Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, vol. 19, Issue 3, pp. 437-459 (2016).
Ms. Laudan's major point is that Hawaiian cuisine did not simply "evolve" on the basis of the foods available in the ancestral environment, but accreted partly based on locally available foodstuffs and partly on the basis of foods brought in and consumed by several different conquerors/ruling classes. It's a fascinating read, which I commend to my readers.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Not Just Noodles

A short article on tells the world about the latest Chinese archaeological discovery:  a pot containing remains of beef soup or beef stew.   The article, which is dated December 15, 2016, may be read here.  It makes for particularly interesting reading in light of the earlier archaeological discovery of a noodle bowl whose contents resemble modern lo mein or perhaps dandan noodles.

The pot's contents are known to have contained beef because beef bones are among what was found inside.  Archaeologists are studying the find, which came from ruins that are approximately 2,000 years old.   Unfortunately, though photographs of the item have been posted on Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, there were none with this news article.

Finds like this are exciting because they help provide information that will eventually help us reconstruct the early history of cooking.  

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Reverse Engineering a Roman Bread Recipe

Carbonized loaf of bread, AD 79, Roman, Herculaneum. 
© Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei
The 2013 video that appears to the left of this post shows baker Giorgio Locatelli recreating a bread recipe that could have been used to bake the loaf found in the archaeological dig at Herculaneum; a loaf made over 2,000 years ago.  A written version of the recipe may be found here at the British Museum's website, and a picture of the grayish, carbonized loaf from Herculaneum may be found to the right.

Mr. Locatelli believes that the flattish loaf was a sourdough bread.  He believes that its odd shape came from affixing a string around the loaf and making cuts in the surface of the dough mass before baking.   Mr. Locatelli also suggests that the Herculaneum loaf may have been baked with a string tied around the dough so that the finished loaf could be carried by the string; a useful bit of convenience in a place and time in which sellers were not expected to provide buyers with containers for carrying purchases. Interestingly, he does not believe the dough was kneaded much.  Instead, he thinks it was merely mixed thoroughly until it achieved the right consistency and then allowed to rest at room temperature for about an hour before baking.

It makes sense that early leavened loaves would be made from sourdough.  No special equipment is required, and no yeasts need to be isolated for special addition to your flour and water dough.  As for the lack of kneading, About Food suggests that the purpose of kneading is to align gluten strands within the dough into a framework that will make the bread lighter.   A dough that has fermented, however, will have a similar gluten matrix, caused mostly by the fermentation process; it won't need much kneading.  Although one can certainly put a lot of effort into kneading sourdough (and doing so can produce wonderful results, as I learned as a child from my mother's sourdough experiments), it may not be necessary to do so, especially if you are not interested in getting your loaf to rise substantially.

The moral of this story is that anything a person can create, another person can recreate by logical deductions based on specific knowledge of the type of item and the materials and processes typically used to make such items.  That's as true of bread as it is of clothing, hairstyles, machines and computer programs.  It is fascinating to see such recreation techniques applied to food as they have been to other areas of material culture.