Monday, October 4, 2021

Did the Ancient Egyptians drink coffee?

Illustration of Coffea arabica plant
and seeds; possibly this plant was 
the first of several coffee plants 
cultivated.  (Public domain image
found on Wikipedia).

The question in the title was asked by a friend of mine in an on-line communication.  The answer led me to some interesting information.

The answer to the question in the title, by the way, is "no."  The ancient Egyptians didn't drink coffee.  Tomb paintings and other information confirm that the ancient Egyptians drank wine and, more commonly beer.  The latter was consumed with a straw, to minimize drinking the unfiltered sediment that settled to the bottom.  

But confirming that answer made me curious about the original home of the coffee plant.  To my surprise, the coffee plant originated in the Old World, specifically in southern Arabia and the Horn of Africa (the easternmost peninsula on the African continent).  So it would not be impossible for the Egyptians to have discovered its use.  Why didn't they?

Maybe the ancient Egyptians missed out on discovering coffee because a lot of processing is needed to turn coffee beans into the black beverage we crave today.  The same is true of chocolate.  However, the cacao pod from which chocolate ultimately comes, even in its raw state, yields pulp that the area monkeys relish.  Observing such monkeys might have led humans to try to figure out how to make the plant useful to themselves.  Coffee does not have any obvious uses in its raw state.  

Despite stories of coffee use dating to the 9th century, the earliest solid evidence pinpoints coffee use to 15th century Yemen, where its stimulant properties made it useful to scholars.  However, the Yemeni scholars purportedly imported the stuff from Ethiopia, where the plant's secrets likely were discovered and mastered.  Wikipedia has a surprisingly long and well-footnoted account of the history of coffee and its use, which can be read here.  

If I find more information about the origins of coffee, I will write about them in another post.  

EDIT:  (10/5/2021)  The History Guy recently published a YouTube video on the history of coffee that contains much of the types of material in the Wikipedia article.  Find it here.  Note:  Ads included.

Saturday, August 21, 2021

Mug Cake--First Experiment

Mug cake with chocolate chips, with
fresh berries. (source:
Recently, upon discovering that I'd acquired a great fascination with cakes, I began exploring the wonderful world of mug cakes.  

Mug cakes are one-person-sized cakes where the batter is poured into an oversized coffee mug and baked in a microwave oven.  These two factors limit their caloric impact (and the potential waste of pantry resources if things go wrong) as well as being pleasantly quick to make (most are fully baked in one or two minutes and none take over 10 minutes to make from start to finish).  They may, but need not, contain an egg or part of an egg, and usually incorporate a small amount of baking powder to help them rise.  

Early 21st century life certainly explains the rising popularity of mug cakes, though The Food Timeline notes that cakes have been baked in teacups and similar small containers before now.  Wikipedia lumps mug cakes together with cupcakes, and it's certainly true that both are in the same size range.  The main difference is that cupcakes are usually baked in a conventional oven, often in quantities of a dozen at a time, while the beauty of mug cakes is that only one, or at most two, are made at a time so that the temptation to overindulge does not linger.  

My husband, who really likes certain kinds of cake but doesn't want to be taunted by a huge cake oversupply either, encouraged my exploration.  When my search turned up a peanut butter mug cake recipe on , I knew I had to give it a try.  

I followed the recipe with only two changes:  I used dark brown sugar instead of white, and I used only 3 1/4 tablespoons of it instead of the 4 tablespoons called for by the recipe.  I also used natural peanut butter instead of the Skippy peanut butter that Kirbie admitted she had used.  

The end result of my labors was, to me, a bit like magically transforming the peanut butter into a slightly dry cake that tasted exactly the same as the peanut butter.  I didn't care for it at first (it wasn't even slightly sweet), but the taste began to grow on me as I nibbled it.  Sadly, my husband didn't like the cake at all.  He said that he disliked its texture.  The texture reminded him of oatmeal, a food he hates precisely because he finds its texture revolting.  

However, there are legions of mug cake recipes on the Internet, and I have collected six or seven more recipes that I'm eager to try.  Because my husband and I both love carrot cake, a carrot cake in a mug will likely be next.  Watch this space!

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Book Review With An Offer: A Medieval Cookery Primer

I recently acquired a copy of the following booklet, a photograph of which is shown to the right of this post:

Berry, Jeff.  A Medieval Cookery Primer:  A Programmed Approach.  Compleat Anachronist, Issue No. 188, Second Quarter 2020.  ISSN:  2375-5482. [55 pages]

This little book isn't a primer.  Nor does it contain facts about medieval cuisine, except incidentally.  Instead, it's a suggested course of readings and activities intended to enable the reader to teach himself or herself the art of medieval cookery. 

Mr. Berry begins with the assumption that to understand historical cookery, one must first understand the cookery of one's own time, the better to appreciate differences between one's own cookery and that of earlier periods. As a consequence, his first chapters begin with information on typical cooking techniques of the period and the equipment used to achieve them.  The chapters are:  Modern Cookery (primarily 20th century); Early Modern Cookery (e.g., 17th and 18th centuries) and Medieval Cookery (the 14th and 15th centuries)  In each chapter, he selects at least one popular period cookbook and discusses several recipes therein, noting features in each that differ from modern recipes.  

In the final chapter, "Perils and Pitfalls", Mr. Berry deals with problems the reader likely will encounter in attempting to recreate a historical recipe in a 21st century kitchen.  For example, the simple act of substituting one food item for another in a recipe can be problematic, if the item is an extinct plant or an herb no longer deemed safe for human consumption.  Use of old texts that have been replicated using modern optical character recognition (OCR) devices can introduce their own types of errors.  

Finally, (as the title of my post indicates), if any of my readers is interested in obtaining a copy of this little book, I have a copy I would like to sell.  For reasons that are not interesting to describe, I ended up with two copies of Berry's little tome.  I am willing to sell my extra copy for what I paid for it ($7.50 USD), plus the cost of shipping.  If you are in the United States, I can send the book at "media mail" or book rate, which is extremely cheap.  If you're outside the United States, e-mail me at cathy at thyrsus dot com and we can discuss who will bear shipping costs and what type of shipping method is appropriate.   

Sunday, July 25, 2021

Historical Food sites

Lately I have been spending more time keeping my cat, Empire, from gnawing the keycaps off of my computer keyboard, and making modern recipes for me and my spouse, than thinking about historical food.

But I do not want to neglect this blog!  So I started looking for new historical food sites, and found some interesting ones!  For purposes of this entry I've stuck to blogs that have been recently updated, and are not currently in "abandoned" status.

Historical Foodways.  This seems to be an old site (the earliest posts I found date from 2011) that has recently seen some new and interesting posts.  It is a fascinating and eclectic mix of articles adapting genuine historical recipes from very various periods.  The latest post is a history of the daiquiri.  Fascinating reading.

Realm of History.  This is a general history blog, but in its culture section I found a fascinating article about food:  9 of the oldest food recipes from history still in use today.   The article uses the term "recipe" loosely--it might be better titled, "9 of the oldest types of dishes still in use".  For example, the two oldest they list are stew (meat and vegetables in broth) and tamales, but cheesecake, curry, pilaf and isicia omentata (a fried meat patty made in late Roman times that the author compares to burgers) also appear in the list.

Kitchen Historic.  This is another old blog that has been recently revived and redesigned.  Recipes featured go back to the medieval period, but most seem to be 20th century, and the more recent ones paint a telling picture of the quirky experiments of our times.  Consider, for example, Applesauce with Red Hots (1959), Jello and Chiquita Bananas (1970s), and Poinsettia Salad/Fruit-Salad Dressing (1928).  If you loved reading cookbooks as a kid, as I did, you'll enjoy this site.

Silver Screen Stars.  This blog has an interesting premise; recipes of movie stars, past and present.  These are snapshots of popular food culture of their day, made more interesting by movie-star associations.  Some are good, some are terrible, or elsewhere in between.  Some of these came from cookbooks originally published by the stars themselves.

The Historical Cooking Project.  Too eclectic to describe.  So large and oddly organized that I cannot figure out when the most recent post was made.  Worth reading at least once.  

Tuesday, June 22, 2021

Moretum = Pesto?

On a whim, I recently decided to look up "pesto" in Wikipedia.  That Wikipedia entry may be read here

Homemade pesto. Source:  Wikimedia Commons

To my surprise, the Wikipedia article states that pesto has two forerunners, one of which is moretum, the Roman cheese spread I have previously written about on several occasions:

"Pesto is thought to have two predecessors in ancient times, going back as far as the Roman age. The ancient Romans used to eat a similar paste called moretum, which was made by crushing garlic, salt, cheese, herbs, olive oil, and vinegar (and sometimes pine nuts) together.   The use of this paste in the Roman cuisine is mentioned in the Appendix Vergiliana, an ancient collection of poems in which the author details the preparation of moretum.  During the Middle Ages, a popular sauce in the Genoan cuisine was agliata, which was basically a mash of garlic and walnuts, as garlic was a staple in the nutrition of Ligurians, especially for the seafarers."

The Roman era cheese spread contains the ingredients of modern pesto, if, as Wikipedia states, pine nuts were added (though pine nuts did not appear in Symilius's moretum).  On the other hand, there have been modern takes on pesto that forsake garlic, olive oil and vinegar altogether in favor of Asian and African ingredients with similar properties. The Food Network has a page of 50 different "pesto" recipes here.  Various recipes in this list feature ingredients such as grapeseed oil, coconut oil, sesame oil, peanuts, pistachios, almonds, lime juice and fish sauce.

What this information shows us as that food-related practices are very conservative, in that they change, if at all, very slowly over time.  Very old recipes may come in and out of fashion, but do not die out, as the story of gingerbread demonstrates.  What seems to matter more than the exact ingredients of a dish is the function the food plays in people's eating habits.  Whether you eat "pesto" or "moretum," you probably eat it smeared on bread, the way Symilius, the Roman farmer whose use of moretum was preserved in Virgil's poem, did.  That's as much continuity as a food historian can typically promise.  

Thursday, April 1, 2021

Prank Food

Yes, once again it's that time of year when I try to come up with a post that is in theme for this blog while still being in keeping with the hoax nature of April Fool's Day. 

In trawling the Internet, I found a number of posts on different, popular recipe sites that give recipes for making "April Fool's" recipes. Most of these are items that either: 1) look like an iconic savory dish but are actually sweet; 2) look like an iconic dessert but are actually savory, or, more rarely; 3) look like an iconic dessert but are actually a different type of sweet altogether. Buzzfeed, unsurprisingly, adds a few prank "recipes" that truly are unpleasant pranks, such as removing the cream filling from Oreo cookies and replacing it with white toothpaste.

Emmy, of the popular YouTube channel emmymadeinjapan, features a lot of foods that are "April Fool's" foods under these definitions, so I couldn't resist embedding one of her YouTube videos showing the making of such a dish; ice cream "drumsticks" that look like fried chicken.

Bon appétit!

Sunday, March 28, 2021

More Prehistoric Porridge

From Malta comes a new archaeological find suggestive of the making of porridge.  The find belongs to the Bronze Age, between 2500 BCE and 700 BCE.  A news article about the find appears via the link at the beginning of the previous sentence of this post.  

Archaeologists examined residue found inside pottery remains at a site called Il-Qlejg?a tal-Ba?rija.  Analysis found that the pottery bore remnants of a mixture of bovine milk and cereals--a combination suggesting that they had been used to make and/or eat porridge.  Storage jars found on the site bore traces of proteins indicative of wheat while others had traces of proteins associated with barley.  The fact that so many large jars and food bowls were located at the site suggests that the community stored and distributed their food from a central location, a phenomenon also noted at some prehistoric sites on the island of Sicily.  

Interestingly, broad shallow bowls on the site were found to contain fragments of cow's milk, as well. These containers were decorated with angular motifs resembling basket weaving.  The research team believes that these bowls were used to make cheese, but I wonder; could the bowls indicate that the Bronze Age Maltese originally made their porridge in baskets, as the indigenous Americans did?  Stay tuned! We are learning more about prehistoric life all the time from archaeology and chemical analyses.

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