Welcome to the second Season of the History of Food!
To kick things off, we’ll be walking ground we’ve tread before. The history of pastoral nomadism, that is the animal herders in Europe, Asia, and Africa, has frequently come up in our studies of urban civilizations, but until now, we’ve always looked at them from inside the city walls.
Well, not today. Today, we do our best to head out on the open road, to study the herders and the wanderers, the cheesemakers and the yogurt drinkers, and the monumental effect they had on human history, from their own perspective. Come listen!
We know by now that vegetables made up a huge part of the ancient diet. Across civilizations, the majority of people got most of their calories from grain and veggies alone, and even those few wealthier foils who could afford meat supplemented extensively with plant food.
Food historians know all about the ingredients the ancients ate, but as for exactly how they were prepared, we’re often left in the dark. With the Roman Apicius’s book “On Cookery”, we finally have some recipes that give a little insight. Out of them, I’ve prepared BEETS TWO WAYS, LEEKS AND BEANS, ROAST CABBAGE WITH PORK BELLY, and a GREENS AND FIELD HERBS SALAD.
To a modern cook, these recipes might seem basic. But I would argue they only appear that way. These preparations are simple, yet elegant ways to maximize and feature the flavors of individual plants and ingredients. Old world vegetables and spices, prepared at their finest.
Rome. Probably what most people think of when they think “Ancient World”. In this episode, however, we discover that in terms of the culinary, the Roman Republic and then Empire was most distinguishable as a lens into the diets and cooking of the wider ancient World before it.
Come listen to find out more.
Music for this episode performed by Michael Levy of Ancient Lyre. His albums An Ancient Lyre, The Ancient Greek Tortoise Shell Lyre, andThe Ancient Egyptian Harp are available from all major digital music stores and streaming sites.
The specific dish Falafel was officially invented barely a thousand years ago, probably either in the Levant or in Egypt. Some food historians, however, believe that the concept of ground chickpea balls, deep fried, goes back to more ancient times.
The same goes for babaganoush In its official conception? A more recent invention. But eggplants were grown since neolithic times. Are you telling me no one ever roasted and mashed one over all those thousands of years? Whose to say they didn’t add onions, garlic, and sesame paste for flavor.
The point is, I think you can make an argument for these dishes in some form go back much further than their official, modern incarnations. Especially in the Bronze Age near east, when trade networks enabled ingredients to spread, and improved metallurgy enabled deep frying to go widespread, even to poorer people, who could now get their daily chickpeas and lentils in delicious fritter form, possibly as a street food.
Baklava is another one of those Mediterranean foods that every country touching the sea claims to have invented in some form or another. While the sweet nut and filo pastry in its exact form is a more modern creation, the basic ingredients go back much further, to the ancient days of those same lands.
I thought it would be fun to make a more “primitive”baklava, forgoing all the fussing around with store-bought filo, using nuts indigenous to the ancient near east, and just honey for sweetening. Sugar doesn’t amount to more than a rare luxury good for many thousands of years.
Well. . . Unless of course you buy Sabra, or already happen to know the two simple secrets to making the best hummus (revealed below).
Hummus is one of those pan-regional foods that every Mediterranean country today seems to have as a staple, and also claims to have invented. Its roots go back further into history than we can trace.
There is no direct historical evidence for ancient humans consuming literal hummus. HOWEVER, the record shows that chickpeas were a significant part of farmers’ crop and diets throughout the Near East, beginning way back in the prehistoric Neolithic. For people that ate mostly grain, legumes like the chickpea were a critical source of protein. While simple consumption was probably most common, I have no doubt that ancient culinary minds were also occasionally mashing their chickpeas into dips, spreads, and pastes.
With that established, we also know that onions and garlic were beloved by populations all over the region, and that by the time of the later Bronze Age after 2,000BC, the vast trade networks between the Near Eastern powers of the day ensured that olive oil and sesame seeds were widespread throughout the land.
Which means we have all the ingredients we need to make a classic hummus. All we’re missing is lemons, which had not yet spread to the region by the Bronze Age. So this recipe substitutes vinegar, but is otherwise no different from a modern hummus today.
No civilization lasts forever. In fact, it’s kind of a miracle any starts at all. The conditions must be exactly right for people to come together into urban environments. So like an overextended, teetering Jenga tower, it’s not if but when the whole system will fall, as it did again and again across history.
Come listen as we go back to explore the Neolithic, the history of Mesopotamia after Sumer, and finally the Bronze Age, to understand the riddle of why the rise of civilizations is so tied to their collapse.
Theme music by Michael Levy of Ancient Lyre. This rendition of the Hurian Hymn, the oldest known piece of sheet music, and the whole album “An Ancient Lyre” and much more is available from all major digital music stores and streaming sites.