Sunday, February 16, 2020

Which Came First?

The latest issue of Current Archeology has an article about a really unusual archaeological food find in Buckhamshire, England--four eggs dating to Roman times, one of which is complete.  The article, complete with a picture of the find site and a good picture of the egg itself, can be read here.  (Here's a big "thank you" to Katrin Kania of a stitch in time, who included a pointer to the article in her latest post.)

The article characterizes the eggs as "chicken" eggs, but as Katrin points out in her post, it does not indicate that any DNA analysis of the find was performed. However, I just took a "large" sized chicken egg out of my refrigerator; it measures about 4 cm across the widest part and about 5 cm long.  That is roughly the size of one of my chicken eggs.   That suggests that any experiments with Roman recipes for eggs will make approximately the same amount of food as would have been available in Roman times--good to know!

The Current Archaeology article also notes that a book was recently published, summarizing the study of all the finds on the Berryfield site (where the eggs were found).  That book is being sold by Oxbow Books; a link to the page where you can purchase the book from them may be found here; and a review of the book (which also appeared in Current Archaeology) can be read here.  The book's price is GBP 20, which is not outrageous, though I unfortunately have other things I need to buy that have to take priority for me.

Berryfields was the site of a Roman-era settlement.  The eggs were found in a water-logged pit, along with a tray made of "woven oak bands and willow rods."  The Current Archaeology article reports the suggestion that the eggs might have been part of a votive offering,  "... perhaps the result of a procession along Akeman Street that culminated in the placement of the eggs, a tray of bread, and other offerings into the pit [where the eggs were found] as part of a funerary rite or other religious activity."  Though archaeologists have been known to ascribe to religion archaeological finds that do not have another obvious explanation, it is hard to imagine why chicken eggs would otherwise be placed upon a tray and buried in a pit.

Hopefully, other Roman finds will be discovered that will shed further light on these interesting eggs.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

The Raisin Cookie Mystery--Solved?

Filled raisin cookies (Photograph from "Lillian's Cupboard")
About nine years ago, I wrote about my efforts to find out more about the kind of raisin-filled cookie that my husband's mother makes for Christmas. 

Based on what I found on the Internet (which should never be a final stop for historical research), I theorized that the cookie in question was an American variation, or an attempt, to make a version of what the British call an Eccles cake, since Eccles cakes became popular here starting in the 19th century.  

This Christmas, it occurred to me that perhaps I should try the same approach that I used to recreate my mother's Christmas Eve cabbage soup.  I decided to look for filled raisin cookie recipes, particularly ones dating back to the 1940s, since there was a suggestion that such recipes were au courant in the U.S. around that time.  

Both raisin cookie recipes and "Eccles cake" recipes abound on the Internet.  The first thing I learned in my search is that Eccles cakes, unlike my mother-in-law's raisin cookies, are made from puff pastry--a kind of flaky, layered, butter-filled dough that plays a significant role in French cuisine.  However, my MIL's cookies use a plain dough--not puff pastry.

So I focused more intensely upon "filled raisin cookies" in my searches and, to my surprise, discovered a recipe, complete with photograph, that matches my mother-in-law's cookies quite closely.  The recipe was on a blog called Lillian's CupboardThe blog's author recently died, and her daughter is acting as custodian for the blog.

The recipe appears here.  Lillian found it in a small, leather-bound book which housed a collection of 25 handwritten recipes, mostly for sweets and desserts.  The book was purchased in an antiques mall in Ohio, and given to Lillian as a Christmas gift.  The raisin cookie recipe, Lillian deduced, was likely from the 1940s-1950s, because:  1)  it calls for shortening, not butter; 2) it refers to "oleo", not "margarine"; 3) it specifies an exact oven temperature.  Finally, Lillian thought all the recipes in the book, including the raisin cookie recipe, were probably post-World War II because they call for lots of sugar, and wouldn't have been possible to make under the rationing regime of the war years.

There is a photograph on Lillian's post, of the finished cookie; I've attached a copy above.  It looks like the cookies my mother-in-law makes, even down to the size.  (Our family raisin cookies are quite large).  The texture of the outside looks right, and the fork marks are right.  Granted, my mother-in-law uses a single large circle of dough, and folds it to one side to enclose the raisin filling, but I learned from my husband that her recipe originally called for two circles to be fork-pressed together around the entire edge.  She started using the fold-over method because it made the cookie-making process a bit faster without compromising quality.

The other jarring detail in the recipe Lillian found is the note of lemon in the cookie dough.  That is not present in the cookies my mother-in-law bakes, but since I don't have one handy to taste, I can't say for sure whether she might have substituted a different flavoring, such as vanilla extract.

I would like to find another similar recipe to see whether there is one that comes closer to my MIL's raisin cookies.  If any of my readers know of one, please let me know in the comments.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

World's Oldest Fruitcake?

In keeping with the holidays, this post will discuss an amusing archaeological find: A fruitcake, found in Antarctica, on Cape Adare.  A BBC News article about the find may be read here.
A fruitcake.  "To my grandmother's recipe"
James Petts from London, England.  Found on Wikimedia Commons

It's believed that the cake is 106 years old, based on the deduction that the cake was left by an expedition of explorer Robert Falcon Scott. According to a short article on the find by Archaeology magazine, Scott was fond of fruitcake.  This one was found in its original tin (somewhat rusted) and had been made by the British company Huntley & Palmers, which after going dormant was reestablished and is once again in business today.  The cake was in surprisingly good condition, and "smelled edible," according to one of the archaeologists quoted in the BBC article.  A picture of Scott's fruitcake in its current condition may be seen in that article.  The photograph to the right is a more recent fruitcake; it is NOT the one found in Antarctica, but it may be used (with attribution) under a Creative Commons license.

The fruitcake find was only one of many at the Cape Adare site, where excavations have been ongoing since 2016.  The 1,500 or so finds, including clothing, tools, badly deteriorated meat and fish, and some "rather nice looking" jams, are being restored and returned to the find site, which was the base camp for Scott's last Antarctic expedition.  Scott's team found the South Pole, only to discover, to Scott's dismay, that a Norwegian team had beaten them by 33 days. Scott and four of his team members perished on their way back to their base camp.

It turns out that Scott's cake may not be the only fruitcake to survive a century.  This ABC story is about another fruitcake, preserved (though not as well) among ANZAC memorabilia, apparently as a serviceman's memento of his wife.

I hope you've enjoyed these odd tidbits about fruitcake!  Have a happy and prosperous New Year!

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Merry Christmas!

As a Christmas food statement, I will leave you with a recent video by emmymadeinjapan, which shows Emmy making a gingerbread house entirely covered, and decorated, in meat and animal products.  (Why yes, those are pieces of salami masquerading as shingles.  And a SPAM door.  And the yellow stuff is Easy Cheese.)

Not safe for vegans.  Or people who like their gingerbread houses to be pretty.  Or who have sensitive stomachs.  But it's a hoot otherwise!  (Even more of a hoot if you don't have to eat any of the "gingermeat" house afterwards.)

Just in case you are screaming for "brain bleach!" right about now, here's a link to a post by Jen of the Cake Wrecks blog, which features pictures of lovely, conventional gingerbread houses.  Gingerbread houses that most of us would enjoy admiring, and would be willing to eat after admiring them.  For something in-between the meat house and pretty gingerbread houses, here's a slideshow from GoodHousekeeping.com with pictures of 42 different gingerbread houses, ranging from a pretzel log cabin to a modern house with a palm tree.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

Saturday, November 30, 2019

A Living Fossil

Today, on her YouTube food channel emmymadeinjapan, Emmy shows and tells about how to collect the nuts of the ginkgo tree and harvest them for food.  I've embedded that video in this post, to the left.

Unlike a lot of the other foods Emmy has featured, ginkgo nuts need to be handled and consumed very carefully.  The fruit containing the nuts contains urushiol, the substance that causes the itchy rash most people associate only with poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac.

Making matters worse, the fruit when crushed has a strong, offensive smell.  Some compare it to vomit.  Emmy compares it to a combination of vomit and "dog poop."  It's almost as if the fruit is warning you not to consume it.  Perhaps worse, the nuts, though tasty, are only safe to eat after being roasted, and even then they still contain too much toxin for it to be safe to consume more than about 10 nuts per day.

Part of its oddness may lie in the fact that the ginkgo tree is a biological holdover from a much earlier time.   The ginkgo tree is the only living species of its division, and fossils with evidence of the tree 's existence that date from 270 million years ago demonstrate how old the species is.  Individual trees live a long time, due to a number of characteristics, such as having deep roots, insect-resistant wood, and the ability when useful to start growing roots on the bottoms of branches, outside the soil.  The tree is native to China, and has long been cultivated in China, though it has recently also been cultivated successfully in Europe and America.

Why cultivate it?  It's not just because the nuts are tasty--though Emmy assures us that they are, and they have long been considered a delicacy in Asia.  But ginkgo also seems to have properties that alleviate many human ills.  They have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years, and modern medicine is finding evidence that derivatives of the plant may allleviate symptoms of certain aliments, including circulatory problems and the pain that can accompany them, and dementia.  Unfortunately, the plant can cause dangerous side effects as well, and our incomplete knowledge of its effects make it difficult to know how much is a safe dose.

Despite its long life, many aspects of the ginkgo remain a mystery to man.  However, that doesn't stop people from harvesting ginkgo seeds to roast and eat them.  Once again, the ginkgo reminds us that people will eat almost anything if it doesn't instantly kill them and they find a benefit to eating it.  

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Convenience Food

Most of us think of "convenience foods" as modern inventions.  Food that comes in boxes, jars, or cans to be kept edible for a while, perhaps even quite a while, for future use. 

Those of us who know a bit more about history know that food storage goes back further than, say, the last two hundred years.  Smoking, fermenting, drying foods would make them last much longer than if they were fresh.  Storing starches in the form of grain, which could be stewed or converted into flour.   Those inventions go back a few thousand years at least.

But a recent archaeological discovery in Israel shows that people were storing food for future consumption more than 400,000 years ago.  What kind of food is that?  Animal bones with the marrow intact inside, according to this article from The Independent.

Researchers studying animal remains at Qusem cave near Tel Aviv found the remains of bones--but only limbs and skulls--that had not been stripped of their skin.  They theorize that these bones were deliberately stored for future consumption of the bone marrow inside them.

Unfortunately, the article isn't very detailed, but it's still a useful reminder that human beings have had the same needs for millennia, and human ingenuity has been finding ways to meet those needs as long as humans have been around.

EDIT:  (10/11/2019)  BBC News has a somewhat more fact-filled article about this find here.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Website Alert: The Silk Road Gourmet

Yesterday, by following a link from one of emmymadeinjapan's videos, I found a food-related website I'd never seen before: The Silk Road Gourmet

The Silk Road Gourmet is the website of author Laura Kelley, who wrote a book with the same title. That book is called Volume 1; presumably she plans to publish a series of them. 

Ms. Kelley's subjects, judging by the sample available on Amazon and by her blog, is the food of the various regions along the Silk Road, both now and historically.  Both book and blog periodically feature recipes.  Some of the Amazon reviews call out errors in some of Ms. Kelley's assumptions and recipes--the most bizarre of which I've found is that the plant that produces black nigella seeds is from the alium (i.e., onion) family. (It's not.)   

Still, few of us in the West (either scholars or lay people) know a lot about the cuisines of those Far Eastern lands, and Ms. Kelley is always entertaining, if not always right.  If I obtain a copy of her book, I will remember to corroborate her statements before citing them as information. N.B. Ms. Kelley's website gives a recipe for lamb with rhubarb. Please note; rhubarb leaves are poisonous; only the stalks should be used (as they are used, for example, in rhubarb pie).