Friday, January 25, 2019

More on Otzi's Diet and His Last Meal

About six months ago, I commented on a recent study of the contents of the stomach of Ötzi, a Stone Age man found in the Austrian Alps in the 1990s.  That study noted that his last meal had been a kind of goat bacon, and I speculated about whether that meal had been specially eaten to fuel him for his mountain trip:
Did Ötzi eat a higher fat meal than normal before setting out, to fuel himself for trekking through the mountains?  The information gleaned about the meal suggests that he brought food with him for his journey, adding to the picture of careful preparation for a mountain journey drawn by his clothing and equipment.  But that preparation for a special trip still doesn't rule out the possibility that his meal might have been typical for a man of his age, occupation, and time.  If so, what does that tell us about Stone Age life?
More recently I found the embedded video above, published in 2016 in celebration of the 25th anniversary of the discovery of Ötzi's remains.  This video suggests that we do have enough information to deduce the answer to this question.  That information indicates that we know the contents of Ötzi's last two meals, and that the meals were not identical to each other.  The first of the two meals had been eaten an estimated 8 hours before his death, and featured chamois goat bacon, while the earlier meal was red deer meat.  Moreover, neither meal consisted of meat alone.  The meats in both meals had been eaten with a combination of roots, fruit, and einkorn grain.  It's worth noting that Ötzi's teeth were worn down in a manner consistent with the habitual eating of coarse grains.

How can we tell the meals were consumed at different times?  Because pollen evidence in the corpse shows that they were consumed in different places.  The earlier meal was consumed near domesticated crops, such as wheat or possibly even legumes, while the other meal was consumed in a "mid-altitude conifer forest"--more like what one would have encountered while climbing to higher altitudes.   This suggests that red deer meat was more normal food for Ötzi, while the goat meat meal must have been obtained and prepared while he was traveling into the mountains.  Availability, not health, likely inspired Ötzi's choice of goat for his last meal.

The relevant portion of the video starts at about 2:25.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

And Now For Something Completely Different: Time Travel Kitchen

Though I haven't been up for any food experiments lately, I retain my interest in food history, and recently I found a great blog for food historians with a sense of humor:  Time Travel Kitchen.

Jana, the author of Time Travel Kitchen, has young children and a (very) patient husband.  Her contribution to food blogging is to try out recipes from historical cookbooks.  She then serves these creations to her family and friends and records their reactions, and her own.

The results are often hilarious  She makes James Lileks, whose Gallery of Regrettable Food brought home to new generations how ghastly the food of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s often was, look like a piker when it comes to food-based humor.  Lileks derived his humor from looking, acerbically and closely, at the depictions of the foods of the period in cookbooks.  Jana is bold enough to actually make the recipes, describe them, and even, often, photograph the resulting food.

If you have a sensitive stomach, don't read Jana's blog right before, or right after, a meal.

One example from Jana's blog should suffice.  At a 1940s-themed murder mystery party, she served "ham and peanut butter sandwiches" from a 1941 cookbook.  This is not what you'd think; it consisted of a blend of ham paste (think modern deviled ham) and peanut butter in equal proportions.  Her verdict?
So horrific. It tastes of salty tears and a cat's breath. It was easily the least popular thing on the table. One person liked it, though. I don't think a single other person finished their tiny tea sandwich. The weird thing for me was that the combo of canned ham and peanut butter confused my mouth so much, I was able to get it down before my brain caught up.
Aside from its historical value, Jana's blog is often wonderfully funny.  Go check it out!

EDIT:  (12/17/2018)  Updated for accuracy; I had not realized how many 19th century recipes Jana had tried, for instance, compared to 1940s recipes.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Tavola Mediterranea

This week, I found a food-and-archaeology blog I had not encountered before:  Tavola Mediterranea.  TM is written by an archaeologist named Farrell Monaco, whose primary archaeological interest is the food of prior cultures in the Mediterranean.

Although she has posted about recent items, the real jewel of the blog in my opinion is her series of posts on the cuisine of ancient Rome, which includes clear redactions of the moretum recipes of Symilus and Columella. (Yes, she believes you need to use 4 bulbs of garlic to properly make Symilus's recipe!) If I thought I'd have enough time between now and Christmas, I'd make both kinds of moretum!   The embedded video in this post is Ms. Monaco's demonstration of the proper way to grind fresh herbs using a mortar and pestle.  Note that she is using a coarse-textured Mexican-style mortar and pestle; since Roman mortars had abrasive bits embedded in them, the style of mortar used by Ms. Monaco probably contributes to getting the desired effect.

For the more whimsical (or those interested in eras of antiquity greater than that of Rome), check out TM's post on how to make convincing cuneiform tablets out of gingerbread.

Thanks to Katrin Kania, whose blog inspired me to check out Tavola Mediterranea.

Friday, November 23, 2018

So What Did the First Pilgrims Really Eat?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Yesterday, after eating my fill of turkey, cranberry sauce, potatoes, yams, and pumpkin and fruit pies, I started to wonder what the Pilgrims ate for their first Thanksgiving here in the New World.

This article from Smithsonian magazine is the most trustworthy source on the subject that I was able to find upon short notice.  The writer of the article talked to Kathleen Wall, foodways culinarian at Plimoth Plantation, a living history museum in Plymouth, Massachusetts, to learn about the available foods for the original feast.

It turns out that the biggest likely source of food in 1621 was game birds--wild turkeys certainly, but probably also geese, ducks, swans, and possibly passenger pigeons (which were not yet extinct, of course).   Birds may have been stuffed, but probably with onions, not with bread.  Deer were also plentiful, and the settlers' early accounts indicate that the Indians killed some for the feast.

More protein would likely have also come from seafood--lobsters, clams, and shellfish, which are still Massachusetts delicacies today.

What about starch?  The Smithsonian article quotes William Bradford, the first governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony (the government that the Pilgrims built) as saying that, in the autumn of 1621, "Besides [waterfowl and other meats], they had about a peck a meal a week to a person, or now since harvest, Indian corn to that proportion."  Indian corn is what modern Americans simply call corn and what the rest of the world refers to as maize.  Wild nuts, such as chestnuts, walnuts, and beechnuts, added variety and possibly also were used for stuffings. 

In that first year, the Pilgrims had no wheat (so no pies, savory or sweet, were made), no potatoes (a New World crop from South America and the Caribbean that had yet to come to North America), and no cranberry sauce (cranberries were present but it took at least 50 years for the settlers to learn how to turn them into cranberry sauce). Only later would the Pilgrims (who were not farmers or particularly knowledgeable about wilderness survival) learn from the Indians they met how to plant various vegetable crops, including turnips, carrots, onions, garlic, and pumpkins.  Our ideas of proper Thanksgiving food came from the mid-19th century. That was when the idea of Thanksgiving as a national holiday was first adopted; by that time, all of Thanksgiving's "traditional" foods had become pretty common in the U.S.

The lesson here?  People feast on what foods they can find to feast upon.  Enjoy your holiday meal, however different it may be from "traditional" fare.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Aussie Pizza

Tonight I was idly browsing through articles on Epicurious when I learned what, to me, was a surprising fact.

Eggs are a common pizza topping in Australia.

I found confirmation of this fact in a review of a pizzeria in San Francisco bay run by expatriate Australians.  The Australian Sport Commission's website has this recipe for Aussie Pizza, which uses scrambled eggs.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Aussie Pizza usually also features bacon.  Well, bacon is a natural companion to eggs, so I suppose that makes sense.  And many people eat cold pizza for breakfast.  So it's a natural step to use breakfast foods as toppings on pizza, though some versions of Aussie Pizza use barbecue sauce instead of tomato sauce, which most Americans don't associate with breakfast.

Just for fun, I have included a video from a YouTube channel called Steve's Kitchen that shows him making a version of Aussie Pizza.  (He uses barbecue sauce, by the way.)

Now I have to find a pizzeria near me that makes this!

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

More Archaeology--The Endurance of Cheese

Several recent articles, including this one referenced on A Stitch in Time (thanks again, Katrin!) discusses an archaeological find from Egypt that establishes the antiquity, and to some extent, the  importance of cheese as a human food.  

The recent re-discovery of an Egyptian tomb originally found in the 1880s includes a 3,200-year-old cheese, about the size of a small car tire (as best as I can tell from the pictures).  It was found in the tomb of a high-ranking official of the Pharoah, and had been in a large pottery jar that got broken somehow.  Analysis of the fats found in the pottery confirm that the mass was cheese, even though chemical changes in the "cheese" have made it as hard as stone.  The paper written by the researchers of their study of the cheese remains can be found here.

The significance of this find is that people who are lactose intolerant can still consume cheese.  The gene that permits Europeans and some other people to digest lactose has been determined to be 2,500 years old, while this cheese is much older.

The find also demonstrates both the ingenuity of humankind in expanding the number of available foodstuffs, and the perils of that journey.  The tomb find also showed traces of a bacterium which causes a disease called brucellosis, which can be contracted by eating foods made from unpasteurized milk.  

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Ask The Past--Interesting Tidbits About Food and Other Things

This past weekend, I discovered a very interesting blog called Ask the Past.  The posts consist of advice about various everyday concerns, including exercise, hygiene, recipes--taken from books published in the past.  The posts I've looked at so far are based on material from books ranging from the 12th through 19th centuries CE, though a review of past entries indicates that some are much older.   The writer of the blog has published a book of similar snippets, bearing the same title as the blog.

Interesting food posts include a recipe from 1850 for cold-brewed coffee, an 18th century recipe for pink pancakes (one of the Townsends' videos discusses a similar recipe), and a 16th century recipe for fake bacon.

Thanks to Katrin Kania, whose blog brought my attention to the Ask the Past blog.