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Ancient Foods

The History of Ancient Cooking

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The histories of domestic plants and animals are interesting ones, to be sure, and the earliest of those date to at least 12,000 years ago. But food and drink often involves a chef, or at least a cook, blending ingredients to make what we grow into what we eat.

This Ancient Foods list includes the histories of some of the processed foods that we consume on a regular basis today, some of which are surprisingly ancient.

Alcohol

Alcohol in its various forms is the oldest and most widely used psychoactive drug on the planet. Scholars believe that the origins of deliberate alcohol consumption are closely tied to religious ceremonies; but some argue that Paleolithic humans may have recognized that rotting fruit creates alcohol all on its own, perhaps as long ago as 100,000 years.

An ancient recipe in my own family consists of putting fruit in a mason jar, and let it steep in sugar, yeast and water for 90 days, creating its own lovely taste and spirit.

Barley Beer

Barley beer is one of a handful of ancient alcoholic beverage recipes based on a domestic grain. The earliest documented use of barley in alcohol recipes dates to Mesopotamia; the barley beer reported by Roman writings was likely first made in central Europe about 600 BC.

There are still many recipes of barley beer and wine consumed today; this one is a classic barley beer from Germany.

Black Drink

Black drink is a form of tea, distilled from parched holly plant leaves and found in many cultures around the world. Called many different things (cassini, black tea, yaupon), black drink was recorded by European travelers to the Americas in the 16th and 17th centuries, where many different American societies were using the tea in important cleansing rituals. Today, teas made from holly plants are making a comeback, such as yerba mate.

This image is of home-made yerba mate, although it is widely available in restaurants and grocery stores under several commercial labels.

Chocolate

I doubt if I get any argument if I state that chocolate is the most delicious staple of human life. Created by processing the fruits of the cacao tree, the process is quite complicated, including drying, roasting and crushing the cacao beans, and that probably first happened in Mesoamerica between 3500 and 4000 years ago.

We humans first consumed chocolate in the form of a liquid, not unlike common cocoa, but without all the sugar.

Garum

Garum is one of several Roman fish sauces, which may not sound too appetizing, especially when you consider how it was made: from fish salted in brine. The sauce was rather like modern day soy sauce or perhaps Worcestershire sauce, and like those, garum was used in a large range of different dishes. Garum's use as a condiment and preservative (not to mention an essential source of MSG) dates to at least the 8th century BC.

The image is much worse than the idea of fish in brine: but the sauce is much tastier.

Jerky

Jerky, a form of preserved meat which is dried, salted and pounded into a tough and tender, savory taste treat, is named for Ch'arki, a word from the Quechua language of South America. The original jerky was made from llama meat some 8,000 years ago: but it's as certain as archaeology can get that processing meat in a form not very different from this is much older than that.

Home-made jerky is still the mainstay of hunters throughout the world, whether they are hunters as a way of life, or merely on the occasional weekend.

Maple Sugar

Making a sugary sweet from the sap of maple trees is an American tradition, and when it was first made remains a controversy in the scholarly community. Preserving an energy source in a light, transportable way was probably begun at some time before contact with European colonists, but it really took off after the Pilgrims landed.

Maple sugaring is still done the hard way in the American northeast, because to date, no one has found an industrial way tap maple trees without killing them.

Olive Oil

Olive oil, that lovely green stuff squeezed out from olives, was likely discovered about the time of the domestication of olives, some 6,000 years ago. The earliest uses were likely lamp fuel, ointment and ritual anointing, even though evidence for formal olive presses only dates to about 2500 BC.

I must admit, I don't know anyone who presses their own olive oil, but you can get it almost anywhere today.

Pulque

Pulque is a viscous white alcoholic beverage, made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant and consumed by the Maya and other Mesoamerican cultures. The Aztecs connected pulque to Mayahuel, the goddess of maguey; the 400 rabbits iconography is a reference to over-consumption of pulque.

I went to a wedding where they served home-made pulque: I think I had a fabulous time, although some of the details are a bit blurry.

Salt

Salt, the white crystalline stuff that likely lives in a shaker on your kitchen table, has a far more importance to our lives than we realize today: but our ancestors knew what "worth his salt" meant. Salt is an essential part of staying alive: and finding sources and processing salt was of vital interest to humans. Mined for an untold thousands of years, salt may well have been one of the reasons we invented pottery.

I think this all calls for a pinch of salt, don't you?

Wine

Wine is a very ancient alcoholic beverage, prepared from grapes and other fermented fruit, at least 9,000 years ago. Surprisingly, perhaps, the first wine made from grapes was made at Jiahu, in China, where a concoction of grapes, rice and honey was made some 2,000 years before the establishment of wine-making in Europe.

A modern brewery has reinvented Jiahu wine, based on the residues found within ceramic pots in China.

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