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, when the idea of Thanksgiving as a national holiday was adopted and all of its "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.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Stone Age Bread

This seems to be a month for discoveries relating to Stone Age food.

This article from The Independent, a British newspaper, reports on an archaeological find from Jordan that goes back approximately 14,000 years, to the Upper Paleolithic period of the Stone Age.

In a surviving fireplace at a site called Shubayqa 1, archaeologists from the University of Copenhagen found a piece of flatbread, made with a strain of wild, uncultivated wheat--approximately 3,500 years before the beginnings of agriculture.  The researchers stress the fact that, given the relatively poor nutritive value of this strain of wheat, the work involved in making the wheat into bread would not have made it more nutritious.  Instead, they believe that the flatbread was made for a special communal meal--a forerunner of communal meals eaten in the same region of the world today.

Also of interest is the fact that, although barley was the most common cereal plant in the Near East at that time, the food maker chose to use wheat.  This may well have been because wheat contains more gluten, and dough made from wheat rather than barley can be more easily used to make bread.  Moreover, wheat can be used to make much thinner flatbreads than barley.  

The researchers believe that this discovery tends to show that cuisine--the creation of more interesting foods to be eaten for social purposes as well as for mere sustenance--came before agriculture, not the other way around.  

The researchers' report on the find will be published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, should any of readers of this blog be motivated to track down the actual report.

On a side note, the observation that the Stone Age residents of Jordan, despite living in a barley-rich area, chose to use wheat to make flatbread, suggests that I've been going about my Viking flatbread experiments wrong.  Although the Vikings may well have incorporated barley in their bread-making, they probably would have used wheat in their flatbreads, either alone or combined with barley--for the same reason the Stone Age Jordinians used it--because it makes better bread!  My future flatbread experiments will be conducted with this knowledge in mind.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Iceman's Last Meal

Replicas of the items of clothing worn by Ötzi the Iceman,
made for the documentary film Der Ötztal-Mann und 
seine Welt, Naturhistorisches Museum Wien.
Found on Wikimedia Commons.
In this week's Economist, of all places, there's a report about a recent analysis of the last meal of Ötzi, the Stone Age "Iceman" whose well-preserved body was discovered in the alps over 20 years ago.

A study of the contents of Ötzi's stomach was done by two researchers with the Institute for Mummy Studies in Balzano, Italy, named Frank Maixner and Albert Zink.  Drs. Maixner and Zink's study appears in the journal Current Biology.  Readers who do not have subscriptions either to the Economist or to Current Biology can check out other summaries of the findings here and here.  The National Geographic article in particular contains some interesting details about how the samples were obtained.

From prior scans of Ötzi's body, the researchers knew that his stomach had been full at the time of his death, so they resolved to cut into the stomach and perform a detailed analysis, including a chemical analysis, of his stomach contents.  The results of the chemical analysis enabled Drs. Maixner and Zink to identify the contents as meat and fat from the ibex and red deer, mixed with einkorn wheat.  Small amounts of bracken fern were also found.  Bracken is toxic, but tiny bits of it may have ended up in Ötzi's stomach if the meat had been wrapped in bracken leaves. The analysis indicated that the meat had been exposed to temperatures of less than 140 degrees Fahrenheit, supporting the idea that it had been smoked rather than cooked.  (Flecks of carbon found in the samples also support this idea.)

Of interest to nutritionists, as well as to those of us who attempt to "eat healthy," is the fact that the total contents of Ötzi's stomach were approximately 46% animal fat.  This result also raises new questions about Ötzi's final journey, as well as about Stone Age diet in general.  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?

Only one thing is certain; we have yet to learn everything there is to learn from the mortal remains of this famous traveller from the Stone Age.

EDIT:  Correcting the reference to the heat to which the meat is believed to have been exposed.