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.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

New? Retro? or just Old?

The embedded video by Lilly Jarlsson shows how to make freekeh burgers, a vegetarian dish that she says her great-grandmother made before World War II.  This is one of many videos Jarlsson has made about about how to live the "retro" lifestyle; how to dress, cook, and do many other things the way people did them in the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s.  

I became interested in Jarlsson's videos because of my interest in historical costume, but this video grabbed my attention because I'd never heard of "freekeh" before.  

"Freekeh", it turns out, is a very old grain that is currently enjoying a surge of popularity because of the growing interest in healthier eating.   It is the name for a variety of durum wheat which is harvested when "green" or young and then roasted before being packed for sale.  Like quinoa and other grains that are gaining attention and popularity here in the West, it has more fiber and nutrients than grains commonly used in Western cooking.  It has long been popular in the Near East.  You can read more about freekeh (pronounced "FREE-kah") here, here, and here.

Jarlsson's recipe involves cooking freekeh, mixing it with diced onion, walnuts, cheese, and parsley, and then thickening the mixture with breadcrumbs, corn meal or oatmeal before shaping it into patties or balls and panfrying it.  Since my husband detests cheese, and prefers his burgers to be composed of actual meat, I don't expect to be trying freekeh burgers any time soon.  But I am amused at the sight of a historical Middle Eastern food that was made before World War II becoming a trendy "healthy grain" food now.  Perhaps it really is true that there is nothing new under the sun.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Fuuling Around

Fuul medames, served with flatbread and pickled vegetables.
Photograph by zachbe; found on Wikimedia Commons.
About a year ago, on Saveur magazine's website, I read and tried a recipe for a very old dish:  Fuul (or ful or foul) medames. The recipe suggested by Saveur may be read here.

Fuul medames, or simply fuul, is fava beans, boiled and/or simmered until the beans are soft enough to be coarsely mashed.  A suitably flavorful fat and seasonings of choice are added to the beans before they are eaten.

Fuul is an ancient dish in the Near East. The earliest physical evidence for fuul consumption is a Neolithic cache of fava beans discovered near Nazareth, in Israel, and bean caches have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, though Herodotus (admittedly a less than reliable source) claimed that the Egyptians of his day neither sowed nor ate beans.  Today, the preferred additions to fuul are olive oil, lemon juice, and cumin, but there are a variety of other ingredients one can use to season fuul, including butter, onions, garlic, tomatoes, cayenne, chili peppers, harissa, tahini, coriander, and parsley. Fuul is a popular Near Eastern breakfast food, and is often accompanied with flatbread and eggs (either hard-boiled or fried).

By chance, at the time I read the Saveur recipe, canned pre-cooked fava beans of the type commonly used in the Near East were available at our neighborhood Wegmans supermarket (for $2.49, or thereabouts, for one can, roughly enough for two servings), so I bought a few cans and tried the recipe out.

I loved it, and my husband was at least willing to eat it again on an occasional basis. That was fine with me, because $2.49 per can was a bit expensive for a regular lunch, and I couldn't find an online supplier that would sell the canned beans by the case at a reasonable price.  Fava beans are not terribly common in the United States compared to many other types of beans, and I do not live in a section of the country where Near Eastern immigrants have settled in great numbers and thus where Near Eastern groceries are common.

Shortly thereafter, our neighborhood Wegmans stopped selling the Near Eastern fava beans (which tend to be smaller than the larger favas often used in Italian cooking).  Wegmans switched, eventually, to selling canned, organic large favas for $1.79 per can.  I tried these favas.  They tasted fine, but I had to remove the skins from the beans after opening the can and before heating/cooking them per package directions, because eating fuul with tough bean skins in it is like eating beans containing small pieces of Scotch tape--not very appetizing.  Since I still had not found a supplier that could provide me with a sufficient quantity of canned or dry beans at a price I was willing to accept, I remained resigned to eating ful only occasionally.  This was unfortunate since Eric had become more interested in fuul after discovering that it tasted a lot better to him when he added some cooked ground beef to it.

Then, within the past month or so, I discovered a food blog called Matters of the Belly, which is written by Noha, an Egyptian woman now living in Australia. She writes, with authority, about how to make fuul, here, and suggests a number of different ways to flavor it.

Dried fava beans of the kind commonly used for fuul;
Photograph by miansari66; found on Wikimedia Commons.
Noha's recipe recommends making fuul from dried fava beans, and reading it inspired me to try again to find a source of dry favas, which would keep indefinitely and have the virtue of extreme cheapness. Moreover, she states that one can easily make a large amount of fuul at one time and refrigerate it, heating up smaller portions and flavoring them as you wish to eat them.  Because that's how Eric and I typically handle most meals (i.e., by cooking large quantities in advance and heating up individual portions throughout the week) Noha's recipe rekindled my interest in making fuul a regular part of our lunch time menus.  So I started another bout of web searching...and discovered that Wegmans carries Goya brand dried fava beans!

When I checked the shelves at our local Wegmans, the fava beans were there...for $1.79 a pound. They were the large beans, which are less desirable for fuul (because of the issue with the skins). But I bought three bags of them anyway.  This past weekend, I attempted to make fuul as Noha recommended, a process that took nearly half a day, exclusive of the time needed to soak the beans.

Noha's recipe recommends beginning by soaking the beans in a large quantity of cold water with 2 teaspoons of baking soda, which is supposed to make the beans more digestible and shorten the cooking time.  So that's what I did.  But the baking soda did not result in a significant reduction of the cooking time--possibly because the Goya beans were the large variety (and also appeared to be very old).  Or perhaps I needed to use more baking soda, because we have very hard water in our area.

At any rate, after two hours of simmering (per Noha's directions), most of the beans were still hard, and still possessed their skins.  So I decided to shell the beans by hand, which was trickier than one might suppose because I had also added red lentils to the mix per Noha's recipe.  So I was forced to scoop out a few beans at a time to shell them.  Even after shelling, it took nearly four more hours of simmering before most of the beans were soft enough to mash and the rest were at least soft enough to chew.  At that point, I decanted them, sprinkled a bit of lemon juice on the top to prevent oxidation, and refrigerated them.

It was a lot of work, but so far Eric and I have had three meals of fuul.  The batch I made tastes pretty much like the fuul I'd made from canned beans, though the texture is a bit rougher (due to the beans that never did completely soften).  I've been trying different ways of flavoring it, all of which were successful.  Best of all, fuul is extremely filling; one doesn't get hungry quickly after a meal of fuul, and one tends to want less food for the rest of the day after eating it.  Although I will go on looking for a source of dried, smaller fava beans, the Goya beans are a workable solution, and I expect we will be eating a lot of fuul from now on.

EDIT:  (1/17/2017)  Corrected the price on the canned fava beans at Wegmans to $1.79.  Now they're $1.89 a can, anyway.