Rachel Laudan tells the remarkable story of the rise and fall of the world’s great cuisines—from the mastery of grain cooking some twenty thousand years ago, to the present—in this superbly researched book. Probing beneath the apparent confusion of dozens of cuisines to reveal the underlying simplicity of the culinary family tree, she shows how periodic seismic shifts in “culinary philosophy”—beliefs about health, the economy, politics, society and the gods—prompted the construction of new cuisines, a handful of which, chosen as the cuisines of empires, came to dominate the globe.
Cuisine and Empire shows how merchants, missionaries, and the military took cuisines over mountains, oceans, deserts, and across political frontiers. Laudan’s innovative narrative treats cuisine, like language, clothing, or architecture, as something constructed by humans. By emphasizing how cooking turns farm products into food and by taking the globe rather than the nation as the stage, she challenges the agrarian, romantic, and nationalistic myths that underlie the contemporary food movement.
Cuisine and Empire Cooking in World History
Mastering Grain Cookery, 20,000-300 B.C.E.
In 1000 B.C.E., when the first empires were being formed, the globe was home to fifty million or so people, about the population of present-day Italy, or slightly over twice that of Tokyo or Mexico City. Most of them were concentrated in a belt across Eurasia that swept from Europe and North Africa in the west to Korea and Southeast Asia in the east. Some still lived by hunting and gathering. Some were nomadic pastoralists who followed their flocks and herds. A tiny proportion dwelt in cities, most of which were inhabited by fewer than ten thousand souls, and even the biggest of which boasted no more than perhaps twenty-five thousand, the size of a small American college town. The overwhelming majority of people lived in hamlets and villages, growing their own food and trying to keep as much as they could out of the hands of the townsfolk. Hunters, herders, city dwellers, or peasants, each and every one of them depended on cooked food.
Cooking had begun almost two million years earlier with the appearance of Homo erectus, according to the Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham. Other anthropologists have questioned this.1 However the matter is resolved, it is clear that humans have been cooking for a very long time. Before the first empires, indeed, long before farming, they had passed a point of no return where they could no longer thrive on raw foods. They had become the animals that cooked.
Cooking softened food so that humans no longer had to spend five hours a day chewing, as their chimpanzee relatives did. It made it more digestible, increasing the energy humans could extract from a given amount of food and diverting more of that energy to the brain. Brains grew and guts shrank. Cooking created mouth-watering new tastes and pleasing new textures, replacing the slightly metallic taste of raw meat with the succulence of a juicy charred steak, for example, and fibrous, tasteless tubers with fragrant, floury mouthfuls.
As humans became more intelligent and mastered more methods of cooking, other changes followed. It became possible to detoxify many poisonous plants and soften others that had been too hard to chew, so that humans could digest an increased number of plant species. This allowed more people to live off the resources of a given area as well as making it easier to settle new areas. Ways of treating flesh and plants so that they did not rot permitted the storage of food for the lean times of hard winters or dry seasons.
Cooking had its disadvantages. Some nutrients and minerals were lost, although on balance, cooking tended to increase the nutritional value of food. New methods of cookery introduced new dangers, such as poisonous molds and seeds with grain cookery and, more recently, botulism with canning and salmonella with prepackaged ground meat, although in general cooking made food safer. And a heavy, unremitting burden fell on those who cooked. Even so, the many advantages of cooking outweighed the disadvantages.
With cooking, plants and animals became the raw materials for food, not food itself. Given that we commonly use the word "food" to describe what farmers grow, and given that we eat nuts, fruit, some vegetables, and even fish and steak tartare without cooking, the statement that plants and animals are not food may seem counterintuitive. The fact is that most of us get only a small fraction of our calories from raw foods. Even so, that fraction is probably higher than that of our ancestors, since we are the beneficiaries of millennia of breeding that have created larger, sweeter fruits and more tender vegetables and meat. Furthermore, even what we call raw has usually been subjected to many kitchen processes. Few of us sink our teeth into raw steak unless it has been finely chopped or sliced. Raw foodists allow slicing, grinding, chopping, soaking, sprouting, freezing, and heating to 104-120° Fahrenheit. In spite of modern high-quality plant foods and careful preparation, it is almost impossible to thrive on such a diet, according to evidence gathered by Richard Wrangham. In Antiquity, people happily accepted that humans ate cooked food. Indeed, they saw it as what distinguished them from animals. Perhaps it is because today we place so much emphasis on "fresh" and "natural" foods-which Susanne Freidberg has shown are made possible only by changing animal life cycles, modern transport, refrigeration, and ingenious packaging-that we underestimate how much we depend on cooking. Yet there is no escaping that with cooking, food became an artifact, like clothes and dwellings, not natural but made by humans. A sheaf of wheat is no more food than a boll of cotton is a garment.2
With cooking came cuisines. Techniques that proved successful with one kind of raw material were then used for others. A single raw material (such as grain) could be turned into diverse foods with different tastes and nutritional properties (gruel, bread, and beer). Instead of consuming food on the spot, humans began eating meals, since cooking required planning, storing ingredients, and time. Meals could be patterned to suit cultural preferences. Ordered styles of cooking-cuisines-became the norm. Leaving archaeologists and anthropologists to investigate the origins and early history of cooking, this book will take up the question of what these cuisines were, how they evolved, and what difference they have made in human history.
Before moving to cuisines, though, it is necessary to say a little more about what cooking is and what techniques had been mastered at the time this book begins, in 1000 B.C.E. Cooking is often identified as the use of fire. As any cook knows, however, a lot more goes on in a kitchen, such as soaking, chopping, grinding, rolling, freezing, fermenting, and marinating. The multiple kitchen operations can be classified into four groups: changing temperature and often chemical characteristics (heating and cooling); encouraging biochemical activity (fermenting); changing chemical characteristics by treating with water, acids, and alkalis; and changing the size and shape of the raw materials using mechanical force (cutting, grinding, pounding, and grating, for example).
Commonly cooks use multiple operations to turn plants and animals into food. Take meat, for example. A carcass has to be skinned before meat can be cut from the bone and then into portions. These may then be eaten, or subjected to heat and then eaten, or frozen or dried or fermented so that they can be eaten at a later date. Although all these operations are part of cooking broadly understood, I often follow common parlance in describing the preliminary operations as processing and the final meal preparation as cooking. Today, in sharp contrast to the past, home cooks do very little processing, concentrating on final meal preparation.3
Early people employed both dry heat and wet heat. They used the sun to dehydrate fruits, vegetables, and small pieces of meat. They lit fires for grilling meat over the flames, cooking meat and roots in the hot ashes, and baking small items or doughs either directly on the embers or wrapped in clay first, or put on a stone heated by the fire. Best suited to tender meats and plants, dry-heat cooking required large amounts of frequently scarce fuel. Wet heat involved steaming or boiling raw ingredients, which was possible even before pottery was available. The ingredients might be placed in tightly woven baskets, gourds, lengths of bamboo, leather bags, or even clay-lined pits that were then filled with water and brought to a boil by dropping in red-hot stones (known as pot boilers). Alternatively, leaf-wrapped meat, fish, and roots could be steamed under a covering of soil in stone-lined pits previously heated with fire. Such pit cooking, ideally suited to large pieces of fatty meat and tough roots, has been in use since the late Paleolithic. It is still widely practiced in, for example, Siberia, Peru, Mexico (pit-cooked barbacoa), Hawaii (imu-cooked taro and kalua pig), and the United States (pit-cooked barbecue).4
By breaking long complex molecules down into shorter ones, adding water molecules to starches (hydrolyzing), and unfolding long chains of proteins (denaturing), heating makes food more digestible. It also makes it safer by rendering harmless the poisons that plants manufacture as a defense against predators. It creates new tastes and flavors, particularly the appetizing aromas associated with browning, a phenomenon known as the Maillard effect after Louis-Camille Maillard, the French chemist who first described it in 1912. The converse of heating-cooling or freezing-was found to slow spoilage.
Fermenting-employing yeasts, bacteria, or fungi to alter the chemical composition of food-has similar benefits, increasing flavor, decreasing toxicity, improving digestibility, and preserving perishable foods, as well as reducing cooking time. Humans would have encountered the new tastes and pleasing effects of fermented honey, saps, and perhaps milk from early on. The history of their manipulation of such processes is lost, but they had probably learned that burying fish and meats (which is now known to create safe anaerobic conditions) prevented them from rotting and created tasty products.
Soaking and leaching soften plant foods such as beans. These two processes reduce the toxicity of acorns, a common human foodstuff. Alkaline solutions, made by adding ashes or naturally occurring alkaline minerals to water, change the texture of foods, release nutrients, precipitate starch from fibrous plants, and aid in fermentation. Acid solutions, such as fruit juices or the bile in the stomach of herbivores, "cook" fish.
The tough fibers of meat and plants could also be broken down through mechanical means. Flint or obsidian knives cut carcasses as fast as butcher's knives, a fact that always amazes my students when they try it. Stones pound and tenderize meat, shells or bones grate roots, mortars crack the hulls off grains, and grindstones reduce their kernels to flour. Breaking plants and animals down into smaller parts makes them easier to chew. It also enables the separation and removal of plant fibers that slow the passage of food through the digestive system (very important when food was more fibrous).
Then, no later than 20,000 years ago, humans took on some of the most challenging of all plant materials to cook: the tiny, hard seeds of herbaceous plants. In the 1980s, archaeologists uncovered a small village dating to 19,400 B.P. close to Lake Kinneret, better known to many as the Sea of Galilee.5 Analyzing the food remains in hearths and trash dumps allowed them to reconstruct the cuisine. The villagers rarely ate big game, which was becoming scarce as the glaciers retreated. They had, however, thoroughly inventoried what could be turned into food. They cooked fish, twenty species of small mammals, and seventy species of birds. They also ate fruits, nuts, and beans from a hundred and forty different taxa, including acorns, almonds, pistachios, olives, raspberries, and figs. This huge selection of foodstuffs provided flavor and variety.
For most of their calories, however, the villagers depended on the tiny, often hard seeds of herbaceous plants. The archeologists collected nineteen thousand samples, three-quarters of them only about a millimeter in length, or about the size of a mustard seed. Among them were grains of wild barley and wheat, which were to be crucial in subsequent human history. In one of the huts was a grindstone, the tool that can pulverize grains so that they don't pass whole through the digestive system.
Thus about ten thousand years before the development of farming, cooks had mastered a wide array of culinary techniques, including those for dealing with the roots and grains that were the first plants to be domesticated. With these techniques in hand, it began to make sense to labor to plant, weed, and harvest these calorie- and nutrient-rich plants. By three thousand years ago, eight to ten root and grain cuisines, depending on how they're counted, had spread far from their places of origin, although many less-widely distributed cuisines adapted to specific local circumstances coexisted with them. Soon thereafter, root cuisines were to decline in importance as grain cuisines began to support cities, states, and armies.
We know a great deal about some of the major cuisines from tools, art, and written records. Others are relatively little known, though that is shifting rapidly as new investigative techniques have been developed in the past few decades.6 The gaps in our knowledge of the major cuisines three thousand years ago can be partially filled by examining recent research on the origin and spread of farming from the perspective of cooking. When archeologists and anthropologists report the spread of one or another domesticated plant or animal, we can infer that culinary techniques and cuisines also spread, since without these farm products had no use. This is not an infallible inference. There are a few cases where plants were transferred vast distances without an accompanying transfer of cuisine and technique-wheat and barley from the Fertile Crescent to China several centuries B.C.E., and maize from the Americas to the Old World in the sixteenth century, for example. In general, however, transfers of groups of plants and animals reflect transfers of cuisine that made it worth applying the considerable skill, time, and energy needed to carry plants and move animals across mountains, deserts, and oceans, acclimatize them in new locations, and raise enough of them to make a significant contribution to the pantry. Seeds, slips, roots, and cuttings took up precious space in packs carried by humans or animals or loaded in crowded vessels. They had to be protected from salt spray, frosts, and the blaze of the sun. Food and water for animals meant less for humans when supplies were often short. On arrival, plants had to be coddled until they adjusted to new soils, climates, lengths of day, and seasonal patterns. Then they had to be propagated until there was enough to feed significant numbers of people.
Global Culinary Geography ca. 1000 B.C.E.
Using the sources described above, I survey the world's major cuisines, beginning with the Yellow River Valley of northern China and zigzagging around the most densely inhabited areas of the globe (map 1.1). Although our knowledge of these cuisines is changing rapidly, making specific dates and routes tentative, what is unlikely to change is the conclusion that they were based overwhelmingly on roots and grains and that they had spread very widely indeed. To anticipate, certain other broad generalizations will emerge. Cities, states, and armies appeared only in regions of grain cuisines. When they did, grain cuisine splintered into subcuisines for powerful and poor, town and country, settled populations and nomads. A feast following a sacrifice to the gods was the emblematic meal everywhere, the meal that represented and united the society, as Thanksgiving now does in the United States. It is not clear whether these global parallels reflect widespread contact between societies, the logic of emerging social organization, or a combination of the two.
Steamed broomcorn millet (Panicum miliaceum) and foxtail millet (Setaria italica), tiny round grains from disparate botanical genera, were the basis of the first cuisine we encounter in the Yellow River valley in ancient China.7 There peasants lived in small villages, their dwellings half buried in the ground and roofed with thick thatch to protect against the freezing winters, and their interiors crammed with grain and preserved vegetables. Small patches of millet dotted the valley's fertile yellow soil, brought by flood and winds from the steppe.
To prepare the millet, peasants lifted heavy pestles high above mortars and let them fall repeatedly until the inedible outer hulls were cracked (fig. 1.1). Beginning around the first century B.C.E., they used foot-trodden pestles to pound grain in a mortar buried in the ground, a less demanding method. When all the hulls were cracked, they tossed the grains in a basket, winnowing away the lighter hulls. Then they steamed the grains until they were light and fluffy in three-legged pots set over small fires, a method that conserved scarce fuel. Before dipping their fingers into the communal bowl, they offered a little to the gods and the ancestors. They accompanied the millet with bites of pickled vegetables, cabbage of various kinds, mallow, water-shield (an aquatic plant), or bamboo shoots, seasoned and preserved with costly salt. Sometimes, when they had trapped small wild animals, they had a bit of boiled or steamed meat, seasoned with Chinese chives, Chinese dates, or sour apricots.
To supplement the millets, peasants turned to hemp seed, soybeans-which when steamed were dull, mealy, and gas-inducing-and rice, although it could not be counted on to ripen this far north. When their stocks dwindled before the harvest, they reluctantly resorted to wheat and barley, lumped together as mai, foreign grains, which travelers had brought from the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East, by around 2500 B.C.E. 8 Steamed whole like millet, these larger, harder grains stayed tough and chewy and were eaten only in the hungry time before the millet harvest.
In small fortified cities aligned to the points of the compass, rulers like King T'ang, who founded the Shang dynasty around 1600 B.C.E., according to traditional Chinese historiography, dined with their warriors on a much more lavish version of millet cuisine. When the king's men seized their grain, the peasants protested: "Large rats! Large rats! Don't eat our millet!"9 The king promised them that the sacrifices he made to the gods and ancestors would ensure them many children, bountiful harvests of millet, and victory in battle over rival monarchs and the Yi, Man, Jung, and Ti barbarians, who were said to eat neither grain nor food cooked with fire.
An engraved bronze bowl from about a thousand years later shows a sacrifice (fig. 1.2). Written sources enable us to fill in more details of what the sacrifice was likely to have been like. Vessels were arrayed on sacrificial platforms in auspicious groups of threes, fives, and sixes. There were special vessels for each kind of dish, such as steamed millet, representing the yin, or earthy and female aspects of the cosmos; meaty stews, for the yang, or heavenly and male aspects, and five kinds of rice wine (chiu), one with particles on top, one with them on the bottom, one cloudy, one sweet and cloudy, and one reddish brown.10
While musicians and dancers performed, chanting hymns to bring the cosmos into harmony, the king cast bones inscribed with the requests to the gods and ancestors into the fire. The pattern of cracks on the bones was thought to reveal their answer. Oxen, sheep, pigs, and dogs were sacrificed to the supreme god of the heavens, to the ancestors, to the gods of the four points of the compass, and to all the other deities. Portions of the sacrificial meat were distributed to high ranking nobles who in turn handed them to their subjects as a way of creating loyalty.11
The sacrificial feast prepared in the king's kitchen would have been very different from the peasants' humble fare. The royal kitchens were staffed by a hierarchy of cooks organized by the head cook, a senior court official. The legendary I Yin, said to have turned up at King T'ang's court with his tripods for steaming and his stands for cooking meat strapped to his back, went on to become prime minister. The junior cooks prepared the basics of the cuisine. They dried, salted, and pickled meat; preserved vegetables; sprouted and dried grains, and extracted the sweet malt syrup with water; and made rice wine (chiu) and vinegar (processes described in more detail in chapter 2). Sacrificial feasts demanded special dishes of meat from sacrificed cattle, pigs, sheep, goats, and dogs, carefully tempered with spices and condiments to suppress the meaty smell and balance the dishes. These could be very elaborate. In one example, the Book of Ceremonies, a Confucian treatise on sacrifice compiled between about 1000 and 500 B.C.E., directed cooks to:
Take a suckling pig or young ewe, cut it open, clean it out, and fill its belly with dates [the "Chinese date" or jujube (Zizyphus jujuba)]. Plait miscanthus reed as a wrapping for it, seal it with clay and bake it. When the clay is all dry, break it off. Rub it with wet hands and remove the thin membrane. Take rice flour, blend it and soak it to make a thin gruel, which is added to the suckling pig. Fry it in grease. The grease must cover it completely. Into a large pot of boiling water insert a small cauldron of the seasoned meat strips. Make sure the boiling water does not cover the tripod. For three days and three nights do not stop the fire. Last, season it with vinegar and meat pickles.12
For the feast, servants set out mats of aromatic reeds, small stools to support the diners' elbows, and dishes of bronze, wood, bamboo, and pottery. Meat on the bone and grain went on the left of each setting, sliced meat, drinks, and syrups on the right, and around them minced and roast meats, onions, and drinks were arranged in a symmetrical pattern.13 After making an offering to the ancestors, the king and the nobles knelt to eat, each man's seniority and valor in battle determining where he knelt and what pieces of meat he was entitled to. The warriors took morsels of the drier dishes with their fingers: meats marinated in vinegar, fried, and served over millet or rice; jerky spiced with brown pepper; and jerky seasoned with cinnamon, ginger, and salt. They scooped up keng, a stew soured with vinegar or sour apricots (Prunus mume, the "plums" of plum sauce). They nibbled on small cubes of raw beef, cured in chiu, and served with pickles, vinegar, or the juice of sour apricots; on meatballs of rice and pork, mutton, or beef; and on the much-sought-after roasted, fat-wrapped dog's liver. They partook liberally of chiu. Not even high-ranking warrior-nobles regularly indulged in such quantities of meat, but it was so important symbolically that they were referred to as meat eaters.14
Moving several hundred miles south to the Yangtze River, we come to the tropical monsoon region, which stretched from the South China Sea to the forest-covered archipelagoes of Southeast Asia and the shores of the Indian Ocean. We know much less about the two cuisines of this region, one based on roots, the other on rice, than we do about the cuisine of the Yellow River Valley, so what follows is tentative. To begin with the root cuisine, taro (Colocasia esculenta), yam (the starchy root of a vine of the Dioscoreaceae family, much tougher than the sweet potato), and the cooking banana (the starchy, high-yieldingfruit of Musa spp., as well as its root), were boiled or steamed, and most likely pounded to pastes that could be scooped up with the fingers. People on the oceanic side of New Guinea loaded outriggers with the basics of this culinary package and sailed east into the Pacific. To sustain themselves at sea, they stowed lightweight, long-lasting dried or fermented fish, breadfruit (Artocarpus altilis), and bananas for food. They filled gourds and bamboo sections with water, and in addition drank the water inside coconuts.15 They packed slips, cuttings, young plants, and taro and yams in moist moss, then wrapped them in a covering such as ti leaves or bark cloth, tucked them into palm-leaf casings, and hung them out of reach of salt spray. Breeding pairs of pigs, chickens, and dogs, which, if worst came to worst, could be eaten on the way, were carried on board. Between 1400 and 900 B.C.E., they settled many of the South Pacific islands; by between 500 and 1000 C.E., they had added Hawaii and New Zealand. Since most of these islands had few edible animals or plants, and above all no calorific starchy plants, the voyagers would have died had they not carried their own culinary package. In Hawaii, for example, they survived on flightless birds (now extinct) until the plants and animals they carried were established. Since theirs was a volcanic island without clay for pots, Hawaiians pit-baked taro and breadfruit and pounded them to a paste. They seasoned this with raw or cooked fish, grated coconut or coconut cream, roasted and ground candlenuts (Aleurites moluccana), seaweeds, or just a dip of seawater. For feasts, from which women were excluded, they pit-baked pig, dog, or large fish. Probably by the first millennium B.C.E., other voyagers had sailed west to Madagascar with yams, bananas, and stowaways such as rats and mice. Whether the evidence supports the claim that they were established in West Africa as well by 1000 B.C.E. is still being debated.16 Australia, settled by 50,000 B.C.E. by humans and their dogs, remained isolated from these later voyages.
Asian rice cuisines in the monsoon area were also connected over large distances, rice (Oryza sativa) from the Lower Yangtze Valley having hybridized with rice from the Ganges Delta by 1000 B.C.E.17 Cooks pounded or soaked and boiled the whole grain until the hull split, winnowed it, and then boiled or steamed the granules until tender. Alternatively, moistened grains could be pounded to flakes and dried to create for an instant food for travelers.18 Likely accompaniments in the Indian Ocean region were stews of water buffalo, pork, dog, chicken, or fish, perhaps soured with tamarind pod pulp or made creamy with milk extracted from grated coconut flesh. Sugar palm sap was made into a refreshing, and after a day, slightly intoxicating drink, or evaporated to form a sticky, brown aromatic sugar. Sugarcane, a perennial grass, was sweet to chew but too difficult to process to be a major part of the diet. It's possible that betel, the nut of a palm, was already being wrapped in the leaf of a vine from the same family as black pepper and chewed as a mouth freshener, as it is today.
Moving northwest, we come to the central area of barley-wheat cuisines, whose easternmost edge abuts the Yellow River. Originating in places such as the village on Lake Kinneret in the Fertile Crescent, the quarter-moon-shaped area extending from the eastern coast of the Mediterranean up through the eastern part of Turkey and down the valley of the Tigris and the Euphrates, this family of cuisines had spread west across the Mediterranean and Europe, south to North Africa, and east to Iraq, Iran, and northwest India. In most of the barley-wheat region, yogurt and butter were also made from the milk of cattle or sheep and goats.
Barley, preferred to wheat, was not usually boiled or steamed, as it was in the Yellow River Valley, but made into a flavorful, grayish flatbread; a porridge or pottage of cracked grains flavored with herbs, vegetables, or meat; or a thick, flat beer. For bread, cooks pounded the inedible hulls of barley and wheat in pestles and mortars until they cracked, winnowed them away, then knelt to grind the grains on a stone (fig. 1.3). They mixed the meal (whole ground grain) with water and baked the dough.
In the Indus Valley, the Nile Valley, and Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates, barley-wheat cuisine supported small cities by 3000 B.C.E., as millet cuisine supported them in the Yellow River valley.19 The cuisine of Mesopotamia is the best known of the barley-wheat cuisines, already thousands of years old in 1000 B.C.E. It was prepared in cities and villages on the flat plain, hot and parched much of the year, partly marshy and covered with reeds, the home of fish and waterfowl, featureless except for the channels bringing water to irrigate the fields and the date palms lining the pathways between the fields. The abundance of rich soil and water for growing barley and wheat outweighed the lack of timber, building stone, and other resources.
The poor, including foot soldiers, prisoners, construction workers, and servants, survived almost exclusively on barley dishes, receiving about two liters (half a gallon or something over eight cups) of barley grains, porridge, or bread daily in roughly made conical pottery bowls. They ate these with a little salt and dried fish. Their diet was so meager that a popular saying went: "When a poor man has died, do not try to revive him. When he had bread, he had no salt; when he had salt, he had no bread."20
The ruling classes, living in cities dominated by temples in the form of square stepped pyramids, enjoyed a rich, complex cuisine. Again the exemplary meal was a feast following a sacrifice. A particularly important sacrifice was offered at the New Year, to ensure that Dumuzi, god of vegetation and fertility, sheep and sheepfolds, and the underworld, would return to the earth's surface and reunite with his spouse, Inanna, Queen of Heaven, goddess of love and war. Then the rains would come and the cycle of life would begin anew. A Sumerian vase from ca. 3000 B.C.E. (fig. 1.4) shows cereals on the bottom, then a procession of sheep and goats, and finally naked men carrying baskets of fruits and grains to Inanna, backed by two bundles of reeds, her signs of status.
One version of the Epic of Gilgamesh, revised and modified over thousands of years of Mesopotamian history, describes the sacrifice that Gilgamesh offered to Inanna in thanks for helping him survive the great flood. "Seven and again seven cauldrons [he] set up on their stands, [he] heaped up wood and cane and cedar and myrtle." The worshippers prayed that the vindictive, unpredictable, and demanding goddess would be satisfied with the offering. Honey was poured into a carnelian vase, butter pressed into one of lapis lazuli.The priest sacrificed an animal and poured a libation of beer. The aromas rose into the sky, and "when the gods smelled the sweet savour, they gathered like flies over the sacrifice."21 The participants picked up straws of solid gold and silver and sipped from the vat. Musicians strummed their harps. The diners plucked the fragrant meats and sighed with satisfaction over the rich dishes.
For the sacred meal following a sacrifice, or for the meals offered to the gods three times a day, it was important that the instructions be followed exactly, so scribes carefully wrote down the ingredients and the order of procedures (though not cooking times or measurements) on clay tablets. One of these tablets contains recipes for stews (fig. 1.5), another for a bird pie. After placing cooked birds on a pastry-covered platter, "You scatter over it the pluck [heart and liver] and the cut up gizzards that were being cooked in the pot, as well as the (little) sebetu [untranslatable] rolls that were baked in the oven. You set aside the fatty broth in which the meat was cooked in the pot. You cover the serving dish with its (pastry) 'lid' and bring it to the table."22
A sacrificial feast included sauces, sweets, and appetizers, hallmarks of high cuisine. Fried grasshoppers or locusts made tasty appetizers. Pickles and condiments concocted from seeds, sesame oil, vegetables, fruits, garlic, turnip, onion, nuts, and olives titillated the palate. Sauces were prepared from an onion-and-garlic flavoring base combined with a rich fatty broth thickened with breadcrumbs, the ancestors of sauces still served in the Middle East and even of present-day English bread sauce. Pomegranates, grapes, dates, and confections of milk, cheese, honey, and pistachios provided a sweet touch.
Professional cooks labored in kitchens as large as three thousand square feet, much of the space devoted to making grain-based dishes, bread, and beer. From the coarse groats and fine flour produced by the grinders-perhaps prisoners and convicts-cooks prepared porridge, flat breads, and slightly leavened breads, the latter in three hundred named varieties. Dough was shaped into the forms of hearts, hands, and women's breasts, seasoned with spices, and filled with fruit, with the texture often softened by oil, milk, ale, or sweeteners. A flour-oil pastry was enlivened with dates, nuts, or spices such as cumin and coriander. Stuffed pastries were pressed into an oiled pottery mold with a design on the bottom before baking. Flatbreads were baked on the inside walls of large ceramic pots (tannurs). There is some evidence that bulgur, an easy-to-cook food (familiar today from tabbouleh salads) was made by drying parboiled wheat.
Ale was brewed following sacred ritual recorded in hymns to the goddess of beer, Ninkasi, "the lady who fills the mouth." The directions for sprouting, drying, and grinding barley to make malt, the basis for beer, are so detailed that anthropologists and brewers have cooperated to replicate them. Songs and hymns make clear that beer, often flavored with herbs and spices, was not only imbued with the sacred but unsurprisingly was also a source of great pleasure. It was an important food in Mesopotamia and even more so in Egypt.23
Dates were turned into wine, or like grapes and figs, dried in the sun so that they could be stored. Sesame seeds were pressed to yield oil, which, like butter and precious honey, was packed in jars. Fruits were preserved in honey, and fish in oil, while beef, gazelle, and other fish were salted. To make a rich sauce (siqqu) akin to contemporary Southeast Asian fish sauces, fish and grasshoppers were fermented with salt in pots.
To feed the cities, barley was shipped along rivers and canals. Onions of various kinds, garlic, herbs such as rue, and fruits such as apples, pears, figs, pomegranates, and grapes came from the gardens of the wealthy. Sheep and goats were driven to the city, where they were slaughtered, the lambs and the kids going to the temples and noble houses, the male sheep and goats to the officials, royalty, and nobles, the tough ox and ewe meat to the army, and the carcasses of donkeys to the dogs, perhaps royal hunting dogs.24 Saltwater fish, turtles, and shellfish came from the salt marshes and the Persian Gulf. Dried fish, probably a specialized and regulated industry, came from the Persian Gulf and from as far away as Mohenjo-Daro on the Indus and the Arabian Sea. Salt, excavated from the mountains or evaporated from briny springs and brackish river water, was shipped to distribution centers and packed onto asses, probably in standard-sized, solid-footed goblets.25
Barley was wealth. It paid for the meat and cheeses. It paid for the lapis lazuli and carnelian dishes for the sacrifice, the gold and silver for jewelry, the boatloads of copper that came down the Euphrates or from Dilmun on the Persian Gulf, the metals from Oman and the Sinai, the granite and marble from Turkey and Persia, and the lumber from Lebanon used to build the temples.26
Nomads around the fringes of the irrigated and cultivated areas included the Hebrews, whose daily fare largely comprised barley pottages flavored with greens and herbs and flatbreads of barley and wheat, which they farmed in oases during the growing season or acquired by bartering their barren ewes and young rams. They made yogurt and fresh cheese from the milk of their flocks, which they ate accompanied by olive or sesame oil, honey, and grape must and date sweeteners (both also called honey). To conserve their flocks, the source of their wealth, they enjoyed meat only on special occasions following the sacrifice of the "fruit of the ground" (barley and wheat) and the "firstlings of the flock" (lambs and kids) to Jehovah.27
To the east of Mesopotamia, barley-wheat cuisine had been long established in the Indus Valley. Those who prepared it also had broomcorn millet, transferred from northern China in the second millennium B.C.E., probably along with marijuana, peach and apricot trees, and Chinese-style harvesting knives. From Africa south of the Sahara they had adopted sorghum (Sorghum bicolor, a millet-like grain), pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), finger millet (Eleusine coracana), cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata), and hyacinth beans (Lablab purpureus).28 Villagers sacrificed to their gods. A prayer from the Yajur Veda, probably composed around 800 B.C.E., asks for both luxury and everyday foodstuffs. "May for me prosper, through the sacrifice, milk, sap [probably palm sap for wine], ghee [clarified butter], honey, eating and drinking at the common table, ploughing, rains, conquest, victory, wealth, riches. May for me prosper, though the sacrifice, low-grade food [sic], freedom from hunger, rice, barley, sesame, kidney beans, vetches, wheat, lentils, millet, panicum grains and wild rice."29
Moving west to the Mediterranean, Phoenicians (from present-day Lebanon) and Greeks spread barley-wheat cuisine along the coast of North Africa and the northern coast of the Mediterranean, respectively. Because their homelands did not support the rich stands of barley found in the irrigated river valleys, the Phoenicians made and traded luxury goods and the Greeks sold oil and wine for additional grains.30
The Greeks described barley as the gift of the goddess Demeter. Cooks soaked the grain, dried it, then roasted it in a shallow pan over the fire before grinding it to meal. This could be eaten as it was by travelers, mixed with water to make a gruel or porridge or with water, milk, oil, or honey to make small flat bannocks (maza), the bread of the Greeks. Accompanying the barley dishes were beans or lentils, greens or root vegetables, eggs, cheese, fish, and occasionally mutton, goat, or pork. In hard times, they could fall back on acorns and wild plants such as mallow (in the Malvaceae family), asphodel, and vetches, normally the food of nomads, not settled peoples. They drank wine, the gift of Dionysius, mixed with water, not beer like the Mesopotamians and Egyptians.
The Iliad gives a vivid description of a warrior's feast. Achilles, the epic's hero, ordered a great bowl to be filled with wine, mixed with less water than usual. Well-fattened sheep, pigs, and goats were sacrificed and chopped into pieces. The fire blazed and died down to a glowing bed of embers. Then the meat was threaded on skewers, sprinkled with holy salt, and grilled on supports above the embers. The warriors dined on the brown aromatic meat and barley bread served in fine baskets.31
Farther afield, in the forests north of the Alps, the Celts depended on barley and wheat breads with fermented milk products for their daily fare and favored pork, their symbol of fertility. After winning in battle, they sacrificed horses, pigs, and cattle to the gods. For the feast that followed, pork was roasted on a spit suspended over the andirons or firedogs or boiled in an iron cauldron. There might also be horsemeat, beef, mutton, salt pork, baked salt fish, and slightly leavened bread. They feasted seated in a circle on the ground, perhaps on skins or a bed of hay, in front of low tables. The king and queen took the leg of pork, the charioteer the head, and everyone else a piece according to their rank.32
Turning back to the south, we leave the barley-wheat cuisines to examine three overlapping cuisines in Africa south of the Sahara for which we have less evidence.33 In the grasslands of Sudan and the Ethiopian highlands, people depended on grains-millets again, though of different botanical classifications than those of China. They pounded pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), finger millet (Eleusine coracana), and sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) and cooked the meal with water to prepare gruel. The cattle that they herded were a mix of Indian zebu cattle from India (Bos indicus) with native species that tolerated drought and resisted tsetse flies, further evidence of contacts between the two regions.
To the west, on the southern borders of the Sahara, was a grain cuisine supplemented by roots. Cooks pounded, winnowed, and boiled African rice (Oryza glaberrima). They boiled yams (genus Dioscorea), cowpeas (Vigna unguiculata), and Bambara groundnuts (legumes that, like peanuts, ripen underground). Perhaps then as now, they pounded the roots to a paste, which they rolled into spheres a little smaller than golf balls to pop into the mouth. Oil from the red fruit of palms (Elaeis guineensis) helped the paste go down. Guinea fowl, goats, and possibly dogs provided meat. Sweetness came from honey.
In the tropical forest zone along the West African coast there was a root cuisine consisting of pounded starches (fufu now being the most widely used name) made of boiled and pounded yam, taro, or plantain and, later, bananas. They were accompanied by cow peas, pigeon peas, yam beans, Bambara groundnuts, and bitter green vegetables. Oil palm sap spontaneously fermented to kicky palm wine within two or three days. Over subsequent centuries, migrants from the eastern grassland and the tropical forests merged the millet-beef cuisine with the yam-banana cuisine in East and Central Africa.
Crossing the Atlantic, we find three more cuisines. In the tropical lowlands, people depended on cooked manioc (also known as cassava, Manihot esculenta) and perhaps sweet potatoes (Ipomea batatas, often called yams in the United States). One variety of cassava could be simply peeled, boiled, and eaten, but it did not last in the ground; another variety lasted longer but was bitter and poisonous and required elaborate processing to make it edible. When Europeans arrived in the Caribbean, they were amazed at the work it took women to prepare the long-keeping cassava (fig. 1.6).34
In the Andean region, a different cuisine was based on potatoes, quinoa, beans, and amaranth. Potatoes could be freeze-dried, thawed, trampled with the feet to get rid of the skins, soaked for one to three weeks in cold running streams, and dried in the sun for five to ten days to make a light, easy-to-transport product (chuño). Alternatively, they were boiled, peeled, cut into chunks, and dried in the sun (papas secas). Cooks prepared soups and stews of processed potatoes, porridges of quinoa, quick foods of toasted quinoa, and dishes of llama, alpaca, and guinea pig meat.35
Maize (corn, Zea mays) was the basis of the most important and expansive cuisines in the Americas. The big-kernelled maize familiar to us today, capable of producing hundreds of seeds for every one sown, made its appearance around 1500 B.C.E. It was bred from a wild ancestor (teosinte) found in central Mexico around 7000 B.C.E., which had cobs no bigger than a finger. Maize and the grindstones to prepare it spread to the steamy forests along the Gulf Coast of Mexico, wedged between the mountains and the ocean. In the villages of the Olmec culture, women ground the maize and then boiled it with water to make a gruel (atole) or wrapped it in leaves for steamed dumplings (tamales). The tamales and gruel were accompanied by deer, dog, opossum, peccary, and raccoon meat, as well as wild birds, fish, turtles, snakes, mollusks, and shellfish. Beans, squash, tomatoes, and chiles were planted in small clearings in the forest that were surrounded by cacao bushes and towering avocado trees. Olmec priests sacrificed to the gods on stone platforms two-thirds of a mile on a side that rose a hundred and fifty feet above the swampy land. Sculptured heads of kings as much as nine feet high stood guard, ears of maize hanging from their skull coverings.36
By 3000 B.C.E., maize cuisines were being prepared in tropical Ecuadorian villages, and by no later than 1000 B.C.E., in the Caribbean. They displaced potatoes to secondary status in what is now Peru. Maize reached the southwest of what is now the United States in the first millennium C.E. and the northeastern United States and southeastern Canada in the second millennium.37
Grains, Cities, States, and Armies
Before investigating why roots, and particularly grains, became such popular choices as culinary staples, let me clarify that I use the terms "grain" and "root" in a culinary, not a botanical, sense. Just as the ancient Chinese lumped together cereals, soy, hemp, and other plants under the single term ku, and the ancient Indian philosophical works, the Upanishads, described sesame, kidney beans, lentils and horsegram, barley, wheat, rice, and a couple of millets as the food grains, I include seeds of various families of annual herbaceous plants, including grasses (Gramineae), beans and peas (Leguminae), mustards and cabbages (Brassicaceae), and so on, which required similar processing and were frequently mixed together.38 Roots are all underground food storage chambers for plants, including corms and tubers, such as cassava (Manihot esculenta), taro (Colocasia esculenta), yam (Dioscoreaceae family), sweet potatoes (Ipomea batatas), and potatoes (Solanum tuberosum), along with other less important species such as papyrus (Cyperus) in Africa, camas (Camassia) in North America, and oca (Oxalis tuberosa) in the Andes. I will say more about grains than about roots because they were to be much more important in the history of cuisines.
Roots and grains have many advantages. They are rich in calories and nutrients because they provide sustenance for the next generation of plants. They often grow abundantly in the wild. They also can be easily harvested, as American botanist Jack Harlan demonstrated in the 1970s by reaping four pounds of einkorn wheat (an archaic variety that still grows wild in parts of Turkey) in just an hour with a flint sickle. Roots could often be harvested year-round or left in the ground without rotting, and grains could be stored in granaries to provide food in the difficult seasons of cold, drought, or heavy rain, depending on the region.
Few other candidates for plant food measured up. Although some fruits, particularly bananas and breadfruit, also provided substantial calories, most were small, sour or bitter, seasonal, and hard to stockpile. Nuts, such as acorns, chestnuts, pine nuts, coconuts, and hazelnuts, are rich in calories but many are so oily that they cause diarrhea when eaten in large quantities. Because nut-bearing trees often take years to fruit, migrants who needed to reproduce cuisines quickly in a new place would have been less likely to move nuts than to move roots and grains. Leaves and shoots, low in calories, often bitter, and difficult to store, were used mainly as medicines.39 Most societies, therefore, came to depend on two or three favorite roots or grains to provide most of their calories, that is, as their staples. Other foodstuffs, such as meat, fruits, and vegetables provided flavor, variety, and nutritional balance. The staples that humans had picked out centuries before 1000 B.C.E. still provide most of the world's human food calories. Only sugarcane, in the form of sugar, was to join them as a major food resource.
Dependence on roots and grains came at a cost. Both are indigestible raw. Besides being tough, roots often produce poisons to protect themselves. Several reliable, abundant sources of carbohydrates, including taro, many yams, and some kinds of cassava, need detoxifying. Although few need as elaborate processing as the cassava, many require quite a bit. Certain peas and beans also contain poisons, but except for lupines, they could be detoxified simply by heating. With grains, care had to be taken to remove poisonous weed seeds such as darnel, also known as the tares of the Bible (Lolium termulientum), which causes a feeling of drunkenness and can lead to death. Molds that could cause hallucinations and death also had to be avoided.40
The chief problem with grains, however, is that they protect themselves with layers of inedible, fibrous, throat-catching coverings-an outer husk, sometimes an inner husk, and the seed coat itself-most of which have to be removed. Before grinding wheat into flour, for example, a series of laborious preliminaries had to be carried out. The archaeologist Gordon Hillman recorded the following steps still undertaken by peasants to prepare an ancient Turkish variety of wheat: (1) Thresh the wheat by beating, trampling, or sledging. (2) Rake to remove straw. (3) Winnow to get rid of lighter fragments of straw (perhaps repeating steps 2 and .). (4) Sieve the little spikes with the grains attached to get rid of more bits of straw and weed heads. (5) Separate out and store some wheat to sow next year. (6) Store the rest. (7) When ready to continue, parch the spikelets to make the husks brittle. (8) Pound the spikelets to break the husk and release the wheat berry. (9) Winnow to get rid of husks (chaff). (10) Sieve the wheat to get rid of unbroken spikelets and weeds. Save for chickens or to use in famines. (11) Pass the wheat through a finer sieve to get rid of small impurities. (12) Dunk the wheat in water to get rid of diseased grains, poisonous darnel, and wild oats, and dry. (13) Store semi-clean wheat.41
If they are to be turned into bread, grains have to be ground. When I was a little girl, my father decided to make some flour from the wheat we had grown on the farm. He tried pounding it with a pestle and mortar but all he got was broken grains, not flour. He put it through the hand mincer screwed to the edge of the table with the same result. Finally, he attacked it with a hammer on the flagstone floor. After he gave up, defeated, my mother cleared up the mess. It was sobering to realize that if the commercial millers vanished, we could have starved even with barns full of sacks of wheat.
To turn wheat into flour, you have to shear, not pound, the hard grains, which requires a grindstone, as the people of Lake Kinneret had discovered. A friend in Mexico, where hand grinding still goes on, showed me how it worked. She knelt at the upper end of a grindstone, called a metate-a saddle-shaped platform on three inverted pyramidal legs, hewn from a single piece of volcanic rock. She mounded a handful of barley, took the mano, a stone shaped like a squared-off rolling pin, in both hands with her thumbs facing back to nudge the grain into place, and, using the whole weight of her upper body, sheared the mano over the grain. After half a dozen passes, she had broken the grains, which now clustered at the bottom end of the metate. Carefully scraping them up with her fingertips, she moved them back to the top, and started shearing again, this time producing white streaks of flour. By the time she had sheared the grain from top to bottom five or six times, she had produced a handful of flour.
Grinding may look easy, and it is, for the first ten minutes. To grind a quantity of grain, though, as I found out when I tried, takes skill, control, physical strength, and time. I was quickly panting, sweaty, and dizzy, my hair in my eyes, and the mano slipping at awkward angles. Grinding is hard on the knees, hips, back, shoulders, and elbows, causing arthritis and bone damage. Grinding is lonely, too exhausting to allow for chatter. Kneeling to grind with the breasts swinging can be seen as submissive, demeaning, and sexually provocative, as lascivious eighteenth- and nineteenth-century illustrations of Mexican women grinding make clear. The heavy labor was relegated to women, convicts, and slaves, called "grinding slaves" in the technical language of seventh-century English court documents.42 Even today Mexican women in remote villages grind five hours daily to prepare enough maize for a family of five or six. For generation upon generation of grinders in the bread-eating parts of the world, the author of Genesis (3:19) had it nailed. "In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return."
Grains were worth the grinding and pounding in part because they yielded such fine products. Grindstones, like pestles and mortars, were the highest technology of the time, the product of centuries or millennia of experimentation with different materials and shapes. People using grinders and pounders can vary their pressure and speed to produce a variety of high quality products, superior to those of processed by rotary grindstones. Often it is assumed that flour was gritty and coarse. Having experimented with different grains on the grindstone, I have concluded that this is not so. A well-seasoned stone does not throw off perceptible grit. The grains can be reduced to a fine flour. With a cloth sieve, it is perfectly possible to separate the white flour from the bran to make white bread. Contemporary Mexicans who can afford it are willing to pay double for tortillas made from dough ground on the metate rather than by machine. Similarly hand-hulled rice was insisted on by the Thai royal family even after the introduction of steam-driven rice mills in the late nineteenth century. Austrian peasants continued to pound millet by hand in the early twentieth century, because the resulting hulled grain stayed fresh, did not require long cooking, and had an appealing floury texture and sweet taste.43
More important still, no other raw material could be turned into so many different and delicious ingredients, dishes, and drinks as grains, which yielded toasted grains and grain powders, boiled grains, breads and pasta, sweeteners such as malt sugar, oils such as sesame, and, last but not least, alcohol. Roots could be turned into floury pastes by baking or boiling and they could be fermented, but the variety of dishes they yielded was not nearly as great.
Toasting grains made them easier to grind, lent a pleasing flavor, and made an instant food. Until the 1960s, Canary Islanders depended on what they call gofio-ground toasted wheat, barley, rye, chickpeas, broad beans, peas, or lupine beans (severally or combined), and, in times of scarcity, dried bracken, fern roots, and seeds of a coastal grass-for three meals a day. It remains popular even now.44 The powder is mixed with water or milk for a gruel, with less water to make balls, and with hot water and meat, fish, or vegetables to make a thick, hot soup. The ancient Greeks probably prepared their barley meal by grinding toasted grains. Tibetans make a similar product with wheat, millet, barley, or maize (yoe);45 Mexicans, with maize (pinole).
Steamed or boiled grain dishes were not easily portable so were eaten where they were cooked.46 Soft grains, such as millet and rice, made appealing dishes when simply cooked with water; harder grains were usually cracked or ground first. In either case, combined with dried beans, vegetables, and perhaps meat, they were dished up in one of the most widespread and fuel-efficient dishes of premodern times, the pottage, such as the one for which Esau sold his birthright. They were also prepared as thin gruels and semi-solid porridges. The ancient Romans built their empire on barley porridge. The Chinese enjoy rice porridge (congee), the Indians rice and lentil porridge (kichree). Polenta (millet and later maize porridge) has sustained generations of Italian peasants. Similarly, grits and mushes were staples of the American colonies. Turkish families commemorate Noah's rescue from the flood with a porridge of mixed grains, fruit, and nuts (ashure).Left to sour or ferment slightly, boiled grain dishes became tangy, a flavor much appreciated in eastern Europe, for example.
Bread-baked flour and water paste-was more portable, but it needed more fuel. Early bread was nothing like our puffy square loaf. Because so much of the bran had to be sifted out to make white flour, white bread was reserved for the very rich until the nineteenth century (and later in many places). Most bread was dark and flat, made of one or more of the hard grains, such as barley, wheat, oats, and later rye, often with some mixture of beans and the starchier nuts, such as chestnuts or acorns. In the Americas, maize was the main grain for flat breads (tortillas). The simplest breads were ashcakes, doughs of meal and water baked in the ashes and then dusted off. Thinner dough could be cooked directly on the embers or on hot griddles or bake stones.47 Pots in which fires were lit for cooking were old when the Epic of Gilgamesh was written; flatbreads were baked on their walls. A pot with a lid of clay created a small, simple bread oven-the Roman testa.48 Bricks or clay built up in a dome over a flat surface made a beehive oven. Breads could be eaten with the fingers, used as a plate, or, like the tortilla of Mexico or the flatbread of the Middle East, wrapped around foods. They could scoop up or sop up liquids, the source of our word "soup." Pasta (boiled or steamed flour and water paste) appeared first in China (see chapter 2), then in the medieval Islamic world (chapter 4), before spreading more widely.
Oil could be obtained from a wide variety of seeds, including sesame and cabbage, by heating, pressing, or employing a combination of the two. A sweetener, malt syrup, could be made by sprouting grain, drying it, and extracting the sugar with water. Alcohol could be produced from grain if the starch was first changed into sugar. In the Americas, women chewed grain, the enzymes in their saliva effecting the transformation. In China, and perhaps in India, ground, partially cooked wheat (or sometimes millet) was allowed to go moldy, making a "ferment."49 In Egypt, grains were sprouted, dried, and ground to make malt. The next step in all cases was to add this starter to more grain, usually cooked, allowing microbiological processes to convert the sugar to alcohol.50 The botanist Jonathan Sauer and the anthropologist Robert Braidwood suggested in the 1950s that people turned to farming to have a regular source of grain to make beer, an idea revived in the 1980s by Solomon Katz and Mary Voight.51 That most societies greatly esteemed beer and other alcoholic beverages with their heady effects and rich tastes is clear (fig. 1.8), although it's less obvious that this was the motivation for farming. After all, people had been experimenting with cooking grains for thousands of years before farming and had discovered that no other potential foodstuffs yielded such a diversity of satisfying products. It seems more likely that it was their flexibility that made grains worth farming.
Finally, and most important, although not all grain cuisines supported cities in 1000 B.C.E., it was only grain cuisines that did so, a generalization that would hold true until the end of the nineteenth century. This difference, I suggest, has to do with the difficulty of provisioning large conglomerations of people, notably the cities and armies that in the ancient world often rivaled cities in size. To sustain an individual on a staple diet of roots required consuming a large weight daily, up to sixteen pounds, one estimate suggests, though it seems improbably high.52 Whatever the exact figure, grains had a much better nutrient-to-weight ratio: only about two pounds of grain, on average, were needed to provide 2,500 to 3,000 calories per person per day.53 When everything had to be carried on the backs of men or animals, in lumbering oxcarts with a maximum speed of three miles an hour, or by sea, this difference between moist, heavy roots (as much as 80 percent water) and dry, relatively light grains (10 percent water) was crucial. Grains stored well too, keeping at least a year and often longer, unlike wet roots, which began to rot once out of the ground. Not until the cheap, fast steamships and steam engines of the nineteenth century could roots compete with grains as provisions for cities.
That is not to say feeding cities or armies even with grains was easy. A packhorse could carry two hundred to two hundred and fifty pounds of grain, enough for ten people for ten days. The problem was that a horse ate ten pounds of grain (and ten of grass) every day, so unless grain could be obtained along the route, it consumed rations equivalent to those of five men every day, and within three weeks had eaten its entire load. Water transport was more efficient. A merchant ship in the ancient Mediterranean could carry as much as four hundred tons. It cost no more to ship grain from one end of the Mediterranean to the other than to cart it seventy-five miles overland.54 Hence grains were rarely moved more than about five miles by land, since land transport cost seven times as much as river transport and twenty-five to thirty times as much as going by sea. Cities, not surprisingly, were usually located on navigable rivers or good harbors.
To run a city state or provision an army, rulers had to make sure that grains were extracted from those who worked the land, then transported to the cities and put in storage. Sometimes they demanded grain as tribute; sometimes they operated what were in effect agribusinesses farmed by slaves, serfs, or other barely free labor to produce grain; and later they exacted taxes to be paid in grain. Grains, more important, if less glamorous, than the precious metals, exotic wild animals, and beautiful slave girls that they also collected, were processed and redistributed to the ruler's household and bodyguard as pay in kind. Kings, emperors, landlords, and the great religious houses continued to collect grain long after money was invented.
As states grew into empires, root cuisines, whether in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, the tropical forests of Africa, or the hot lowlands of Mesoamerica, for all their long history, became less important on the world stage (though not, of course, to those who continued to depend on them). Mostly consumed in tropical areas, root cuisines did not enter the culinary debates that swirled around the grain cuisines. The rest of this book, consequently, will be largely concerned with grain cuisines.
Grains, though, are of no use without the pestle and mortar or the grindstone. I keep my metate in a corner of the kitchen and enjoy experimenting with grinding meat, fruit, nuts, spices, and grains. I admire the spare artistry of this tool, as striking as any piece of modern sculpture. It's good to be reminded that cities and states, courts and armies, writing and figuring, temples and cathedrals, all depended on those who stood to pound and knelt to grind.
High and Humble, City and Country, Civilized and Nomadic Cuisines
With the rise of cities and states, distinctions in rank and status became accentuated. Where formerly these distinctions had found culinary expression mainly in the size of the helping and, in the case of meat, the prestige of the cut, now cuisines split into high and humble. They drew on the same staples, at least initially, but had different proportions of staple and relish, and different dishes, cooks, kitchens, and ways of transmitting culinary knowledge from one generation to the next. Rulers, priests, nobles, and warriors, as in the Yellow River Valley and Mesopotamia for example, dined on high cuisines. Their subjects survived on humble cuisines. In a further distinction, those who ate grains contrasted their civilized state with the barbarism of surrounding nomads who, they asserted, did not eat grains. The humble cuisines of poor city dwellers also became differentiated from the humble cuisines of those who lived in the country. These distinctions were to shape culinary history until the modern period.
High cuisines were heavy in meats, sweets, fats, and intoxicants, which together provided noble diners with perhaps 60 to 70 percent of their calories. Muscle meat; tastier bits of offal from large domesticated animals, such as cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs; barnyard fowl; and animals caught in the hunt, particularly deer, antelope, and gazelles, were favored. Highly processed ingredients-the whitest hand-hulled grains or flour, oil or butter, sweeteners, and alcohol-were used partly because they were so costly. Salt-lauded as essential to the civilized life according to the Roman encyclopedist Pliny, the noblest of foodstuffs according to the historian and biographer Plutarch, and the "general of foods" according to Emperor Wang Mang, all writing in the first century C.E.-was used abundantly.55 Exotic ingredients, paraded at ceremonies, mapped the huge extent of the king's territory for onlookers, reminding them that he commanded space, work, and transport. Appetizers, sweet dishes, and sauces, the latter described by the food writer Harold McGee as "distillations of desire," designed to titillate jaded appetites, employing expensive ingredients, and time-consuming and tricky to prepare, signaled a high cuisine.56 No time or expense was spared in preparing the dishes: fires roared, big ovens gobbled up fuel, junior cooks chopped, stuffed, rolled, and decorated what was to appear before their monarch.
High cuisines were the cuisines of the palace and, on a less extravagant scale, noble houses, which received, processed, cooked, and redistributed to the court and army farm products taken as tribute or tax. Until a couple of hundred years ago, palace kitchen complexes were huge, staffed by hundreds or even thousands of bureaucrats, cooks of different ranks and specialties, bakers, and scullery workers. It is not unreasonable to think of these kitchens as the first big manufacturing enterprises, carrying out the food processing that today is done in factories as well as preparing meals. One section prepared high cuisines for the king and his immediate entourage, another made less prestigious dishes for the nobles, and yet another assembled humble fare for the manual workers in the palace. In creating the aura of power, the magnificence of high cuisine was as important as palaces and pyramids, purple linen and colorful silk. As late as the nineteenth century, a British royal dinner was the favorite display at Madame Tussaud's wax museum in London. Ordinary people filed past, fingering the extravagant clothes of the wax royals and gazing at the rich dishes.57
The palace kitchens were a crucial arm of government, providing pay in kind for the palace workers and bureaucrats, turning out lavish meals that demonstrated the king's power to command resources, maintaining the health of the king, and, since he often travelled with his crack troops, provisioning his army. The scope of the responsibility explains why cooks (or executive chefs cum quartermasters) such as I Yin in China or Guillaume Tirel in France, who was promoted by Charles V of France to Sergeant-at-Arms and Clerk of the Kitchen, a position normally reserved for an aristocrat, ranked so high. It makes sense of why François Vatel committed suicide when a dinner for several hundred in honor of Louis XIV he was preparing fell through for lack of supplies.58 They were male professionals who worked with the royal gardeners, huntsmen, and other food providers, as well as the steward and the physician. The steward (or vizier or chamberlain), a high-ranking noble, together with the master cook, kept careful track of the foodstuffs entering and leaving the kitchens, and worked on the protocol for important feasts. The physicians collaborated with the master cook to design dishes intended to make the monarch strong, intelligent, and courageous. Together, they monitored the time it took foods to pass through the body, the changes in the coating on the monarch's tongue, the color of his urine, the consistency of his feces, and the balance of his bodily fluids. To prevent or cure illness, cooks, like pharmacists, mixed and perfected substances, the pantry and the pharmacopoeia overlapping. The Chinese word fang, like the English word "receipt," meant both recipe and prescription.
Diners ate in dedicated spaces such as banqueting halls, using special paraphernalia such as silver straws in Sumer, painted wine vessels in Greece, and lacquered chopsticks in China. Priests prayed, dancers and entertainers performed, and musicians (literally) set the tone for the meal, invoking cosmic harmony. Elaborate codes of etiquette specified who might dine with whom, who might watch, the clothes they should wear, what they should talk about or whether they should be silent, the order in which dishes should be eaten, and how food should be conveyed to the mouth. Rulers ate alone or with high-ranking family members or officials, their seating reflecting their rank. In India, the king dined alone, seated on a chair in front of a table laden with dishes, with an orchestra playing appropriate harmonies and female attendants in a pavilion near the kitchen working whisks and fans to keep him comfortable. In China, the emperor ate meals staged to exhibit his cosmic role, never touching foreign foods (at least in formal meals), and never eating with visiting foreigners.
Finally, high cuisines were recorded in a written literature, which included hymns and prayers that laid out the steps for sacrifice or brewing of alcohol, recipe books specifying ingredients and techniques, manuals on kingship or estate management, records of foods entering the royal kitchen, and pharmacopeias and works on dietetics.
Humble rural cuisines were the lot of the peasantry, a term I use simply to refer to those who worked the land for their own subsistence and had to pay tribute and taxes in kind, rather than to sell to the market. Making up 80 or 90 percent of the population, they ate cuisines that were in every way the inverse of high cuisines. The cooks were women, who labored for hours pounding and grinding roots or grains, often out of doors. They stored grains and preserved foods for the lean season in their homes and often shared them with their animals.
Fuel, water, and salt were costly and limited what could be done in the kitchen. Before beginning to cook, women had to gather scraps of brush, seaweed, dung, furze-anything that would burn. Steaming and boiling, which use the least fuel, were the commonest ways of cooking. A hot meal was often prepared only once a day, other meals being cold. Water for cooking, drinking, and washing, enough for one to five gallons a day per person (contemporary Americans use about seventy-two gallons a day), had to be carried from a river or well; three gallons weighed about twenty-four pounds.59 Salt was a luxury, reserved for making salty preserves that accompanied salt-free porridge or bread.
The average country dweller in classical antiquity obtained 70 to 75 percent or more of his or her calories from roots or grains, the percentage rising and falling depending on factors such as population density, war, epidemics, and the state of farming. Following the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, for example, there is considerable evidence that the survivors ate better as a result of the drop in population. Conversely, the rapid growth in population worldwide in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries meant that in the 1980s, grains still provided most Egyptians and Indians with up to 70 percent of their calories and most Chinese with up to 90 percent, and they still feed many of the two billion hungry in the world.60 To liven up these starches, or "make the rice go down," as the Chinese put it, the poor added onions, a few boiled greens, a scrap of cheap meat, dried fish, or small birds or animals caught with traps. Above all, dried beans symbolized the cuisine of the poor-cheap proteins that produced gas but filled the belly a long time since they were slow to digest. They drank gruels, water (though this was often polluted in villages and cities), weak beer, or watery wine. Meals were eaten without ceremony using the fingers or a spoon to scoop from a common bowl. The cuisine was memorialized, not in a written literature, but in proverbs and folk songs.
Humble cuisines could be very tasty. The staple in particular was judged by the highest of standards. After all, if your diet consists largely of bread or rice or some other staple, you learn to be very discerning. The accompanying relish was a masterly combination of readily available, often vegetable ingredients. Igbos in Nigeria carefully distinguished yams, to return to a root cuisine, by their age, by the skill with which they had been pounded, and by the savor of the condiments of palm oil and chile, as I learned when I lived in the Niger Delta in the 1960s. In Mexico in the 1990s, I tasted country people's tortillas so thin and fragrant and salsas so satisfying that it became hard to put up with the cardboard tortillas common in the cities, where people with a more varied diet treated them as mere filler. Fresh herbs in the summer, fresh vegetables in the fall, fresh meat at slaughtering before Christmas, and roots and dried beans in the winter varied the otherwise dull-sounding pottage of grains, roots, greens, and a bit of meat variously known in European countries as pot au feu, potage, bollito mixto, cocido, puchero, or escudella. That said, few of us accustomed to variety in the contemporary supermarket and to a choice of different meals or even different cuisines every day would be satisfied to eat the same meal day after day as did even the more prosperous, such as the grandmother of Marimar Torres, of the important Catalan wine-making family, who "when she was young ... had escudella i carn d'olla five or six times a week."61
Humble cuisines were always insecure, at the mercy of weather, soil, and predators beyond the control of its producers. Although famine was relatively rare, food shortage, particularly just before the harvest, was a constant. Ensuring enough to eat was a major preoccupation. As the Japanese adage advised: "All that matters is a full stomach,"62 or as a Mexican peasant responded when I asked him why certain food stands drew so many people, "because their food fills you up." Country people were burdened with heavy taxes and rents, which they paid in kind (that is, food), or labored under indenture or slavery. Growing grains requires planning, discipline, and frugality. Humble folk tightened their belts in the hungry days of late spring and early summer when supplies were running low. They vigilantly battled mold, rats, and mice that could destroy as much as half the grain in the granary. They set aside grain to plant the next year plus a reserve stock, preferably enough for two or three years, in case the harvest failed or warriors trampled the fields.63 If food became really short, they worked their way down a list of less and less acceptable alternatives: wild foods and animal fodder; seed corn and breeding stock; and bark and dirt. When all else failed, there is evidence that those staring famine in the face reluctantly resorted to the flesh of those who had already succumbed.64 Unless they lived close to the sea or a river that made it possible to move grain cheaply, villagers and poor townsfolk suffered the tyranny of the local.
All too often those who ate humble cuisines were shorter, less energetic, and less clever than those who ate high cuisines. Malnutrition in pregnant and nursing mothers and young children, lack of iodine in remote mountainous areas, or lack of iron are just some of the possible causes of mental slowness or retardation, not limited to the rural poor but more likely among them. The Italian historian Piero Camporesi commented, "One of the side effects of famine which has not been paid its necessary due was a surprising fall in the level of mental health, already organically precarious and tottering, since even in times of 'normality' halfwits, idiots and cretins constituted a dense and omnipresent human fauna (every village or hamlet, even the tiniest, had its fool). The poor sustenance aggravated a biological deficiency, and psychological equilibrium, already profoundly compromised ... visibly deteriorated."65 Two of the soberest and most careful of historians studying food, Peter Garnsey, who works on food in antiquity, and Steven Kaplan, the expert on bread in eighteenth-century France, quote him in agreement.66 Kaplan points out that bread, supposedly given by God and guaranteed by the king, all too often turned into the bread of nightmares, adulterated with molds and weed seeds, drugging the poor.
The humble cuisines of poor townsfolk, who made up 90 percent of the population of ancient cities, differed from those of the country. They were usually ampler and more varied, leaving aside the truly miserable cuisine of the bottom 10 percent or so. "The city dwellers," remarked the great Roman doctor Galen in the second century C.E., "collected and stored enough grain for all the coming year immediately after the harvest. They carried off all the wheat, the barley, the beans and the lentils and left what remained to the country folk."67 This "'surplus' should not be envisaged as something left over or going spare: whatever the state and/or landlords could extract from the peasants in the form of taxes and/or rent is defined as surplus as long as the transfer did not kill off the peasants altogether," echoes the historian Patricia Crone.68 "The chicken is the country's but the city eats it," said the peasants.69 Cities, they complained, were giant maws, gobbling up the food, only to excrete it into stinking sewers, clogged drains, and polluted rivers. On the other hand, city dwellers were more prone to food poisoning and waterborne parasites than their country cousins. When cities were besieged, hunger and starvation stared their inhabitants in the face.
Few city dwellers ate the home-cooked food of the rural poor. Many townsfolk were young single men, living either in cramped quarters without cooking facilities or in the households of their masters or employers. Fires were a constant hazard. Because fuel and water were expensive, street food and takeout food flourished, just as they do in the huge cities of the modern world. Other workers received meals as all or part of their wages. The elite, fearful that hungry mobs would riot, made sure that they were provided with food. Cities, although home to only a tiny proportion of the population-the million people living in Rome at the height of the empire were only 5 percent of the total population-stretched the food economy to the limit.
Servants and slaves bridged the gulf between high and humble cuisines. In the kitchens of the palaces and noble houses, they learned to prepare meals they could only dream of eating in their villages and doubtless gossiped about these to their families. Sometimes they prepared one of their simpler dishes for a lord jaded by rich food. So the humble knew all too well how the wealthy ate, although it was a cuisine that they could neither replicate nor aspire to.
Pastoralists followed their flocks on the lands unsuitable for farming, trading animals or animal products such as cheese or protection rights for grains. Their cuisine resembled that of the peasants, with the addition of more milk and cheese. Although today nomads do not loom large in the culinary world, from the time of the earliest states until the fourteenth century, there was constant interchange between the cuisines of the nomads and those of the settled. Nomad sons were sent to imperial capitals, and daughters married into imperial elites as strategies to buy peace. As a result, high cuisines were regularly reworked to nomad taste. In the words of the Owen Lattimore, a pioneering scholar of Central Asia, "It is the poor nomad who is the pure nomad."70
Ancient Culinary Philosophy
If, as anthropologists suggest, cooking set in train the physiological changes that enabled large brains and complex thought, in turn thinking humans developed complex theories of food, cooking, and cuisine. These topics run through the earliest epics, prayer books, philosophies, pharmacopeias, legal documents, and political manuals that followed the development of writing around 3000 B.C.E. during the centuries when complex states and empires were taking shape. They crop up in the Middle East in the Epic of Gilgamesh, the account books of Mesopotamian cities, the Zend Avesta of the Zoroastians, and Leviticus, and in the Mediterranean in the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Hippocratic texts, the Galenic corpus, the Materia medica of Dioscorides, and the works of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. They are found in China in the works attributed to Confucius, the Taoists, historians, poets, and the authors of the Yellow Emperor's Inner Canon and the Herbal of the Divine Husbandman, and in India in the Vedas, the medical and pharmacological works of the ancient Indian physicians Caraka and Suśruta, the Mahabharata epic, and the Arthaśāstra (Science of Politics) manual.71 These texts were composed by the few who had mastered writing, but it seems likely that they drew on, systematized, and extended ideas common in their societies.
Moreover, these works reveal many widely shared attitudes, for all the differences within and between societies. Given the common culinary problems these societies faced and the long history of contacts between different societies, perhaps this is not surprising. The world, the authors of these works believed, was a contained, ordered, animate cosmos, not a vast undifferentiated universe. Minerals, vegetables, animals, humans from commoner to king, and spirits were ranked in a hierarchy. The cosmos had been created in the not-so-distant past and would end some day. It was enclosed by the arc of the heavens with the rising of the sun in the east and its setting in the west. Cooking drove changes in the cosmos, which humans imitated and improved on when they cultivated fields and cooked in their kitchens.
This vision of the world underlay ancient culinary philosophy, which was based on three principles: the principle of hierarchy, which posited that every rank of living being had appropriate foods and ways of consuming them; the sacrificial bargain, which specified that humans should offer foods to the gods and consume the leftovers as the emblematic meal in return for the gods' original provision of food; and the theory of the culinary cosmos, which asserted that cooking was a basic cosmic process and that foods were part of an elaborate system of correspondences with ages, seasons, compass directions, colors, bodily parts and other features of the world.
To begin with the principle of hierarchy, each rank of living being, including minerals, which were then thought to be alive, drew on appropriate nutrients and ways of eating. Mineral and plants were nourished by water and earth. Animals ate raw meat or vegetables alone and standing. Humans ate cooked meat or grains reclining, sitting, or kneeling with their fellows. Cattle ate grass, while bread was for humans, said the author of Psalm 104. Eating raw plants as beasts did was tantamount to starvation for the villagers of Aphrodito in Upper Egypt.72 Gods, who held the highest rank of all, fed on aromas that resulted from cooking-fragrant nectar or ambrosia or the odors of cooked meat and wine or beer.
Within this general hierarchy was a hierarchy of humans that justified the culinary divisions described in the preceding section. Noble, peasant, and poor city dweller all looked in horror on the nomads who traveled with their flocks across lands unsuitable for cultivation. Their fear and disdain stemmed from the fact that the nomads, using their horses and camels for mobile warfare, conquered the settled regions time and again, envious of their wealth, including their cuisine. The settled peoples of the Mediterranean, Middle East, and China described them as barely human, eating neither cooked grain nor cooked flesh. "He does not know grain, he roots for truffles like a pig. ... He is an eater of raw meat," the farmer parents of a beautiful young girl say when she announces that she intends to marry a shepherd in a well-known Mesopotamian story.73 The Scythians, who lived in the region that is now Ukraine, were ignorant of the civilized arts of cultivation and cooking-followers of herds, not tillers of the land (the moral equivalent of war for the lower strata of society, according to the Greeks. And the Chinese, as mentioned earlier, characterized the nomads on their borders as not using fire or grain.74
By contrast, the settled described themselves as fully human and civilized, living in societies with cities and eating cooked grains and meat. Barley meal and wheat flour were the "marrow of men," according to Homer.75 In the Balkans, Italy, Turkey, China, Japan, and elsewhere the word for grain and for a meal were one and the same (in Hebrew lehem; in Greek sitos).76 Grain's life cycle paralleled that of humans, with ceremonies performed at planting and harvest as humans performed rites of passage at birth and death.77 Although grains defined the civilized, those lower in the hierarchy ate the less prestigious grains and the darkest bread. The further up the hierarchy one went, the more prestigious the grain and the whiter the bread.
At the pinnacle of the human hierarchy was the monarch, the pivot of the cosmos, poised between the natural and the supernatural. His palace and his city were at its geographic center. He himself was the agent of change and the carrier of destiny, and thus he had to eat the most strengthening meat and the finest grain dishes, since the health of the state depended on the health of the king. Since rank and cuisine were believed to be causally connected, it followed that eating the cuisine of a person of lower rank or of animals would turn the diner into a lesser person, or even a beast. All ancient kitchens and ancient feasts were organized so that those of like rank had like food. The king, who had no peers, often ate alone or with his immediate family. The humble resisted eating raw foods that would reduce them to animality.
Since diet largely determined moral and intellectual standing, it followed that the humble were thought to have little chance to be virtuous. For that, the cuisine of the higher ranks was a requisite. Eating refined, well-cooked food was thought to make one strong, vigorous, beautiful, and intelligent, and thus virtuous.78 "A healthy mind in a healthy body," a catchphrase drawn from the Roman poet Juvenal, who in turn probably took it from the Greek, expressed general opinion. Food made men "better or more dissolute, more unrestrained or more reserved, bolder or more timid, more barbarous or more civilized, or more given to disputes and fighting," said Galen. It could "enhance the virtues of the logical soul, [making it] more intelligent, more studious, more prudent, and acquiring a better memory."79 The Indian Vedas delivered the same message: "One should worship [food] for it enables a man to use all his faculties. ... Through food comes the end of all ignorance and bondage."80
Just as food and cooking defined social status, they also served as symbols of social and political relations. Salt, for example, symbolized permanence and incorruptibility, and hence sealed agreements and ensured loyalty. To "eat the salt [of a person]" was the phrase for a covenant or reconciliation in Sumeria. "A covenant of salt" described God's gift of kingship over Israel to David and his sons forever. "We eat the salt of the palace" was the loyalty oath of the officials of the Persian emperors in the fifth century B.C.E. Nearly two thousand years later, when the soldiers of the Mogul emperor Jahangir realized that they were about to be defeated in Assam, they prepared to face death with the words "As we have taken the salt of Jahangir, we consider martyrdom to be our blessings for both the worlds."81
The cooking pot, in which diverse elements were brought into harmony, symbolized culture and the state.82 When the Greeks founded a new colony, they carried a cauldron and a spark of fire from the mother city. Confucians argued that the king had to create harmony as the cook created harmony in the cauldron: "You have the water and fire, vinegar, pickle, salt, and plums, with which to cook fish and meat. It is made to boil by the firewood, and then the cook mixes the ingredients, harmoniously equalizing the several flavors, so as to supply whatever is deficient and carry off whatever is in excess. Then the master eats it, and his mind is made equable."83 Centuries later, the janissaries, the Ottoman sultan's household troops, overturned the cauldron in which their rations were cooked as a sign of revolt (chapter 4).
The king's duty to his subjects was to ensure good harvests by sacrificing to the gods.84 The portion of those harvests that he extracted was then passed on to his followers in acts of benevolence. Besides being expressions of the king's power to command the resources of the state, the massive feasts of the ancient (and later) kingdoms and accompanying gift giving of the leftovers were ways to buy loyalty. In a world before a market economy, benevolence bound together ruler and ruled. "The power to feed fed power," as the historian Amy Singer neatly expresses the idea.85 In China, if the sacrifice failed because the king and his officials were corrupt or out of harmony with the heavens, the peasants felt entitled to revolt while they had the strength.86
The sacrificial bargain between the gods and humans paralleled the king's beneficence to his subjects and their debt to him. The gods, the ancestors, and the spirits were everywhere.87 The gods had created the cosmos and humans, and had given people the grain that made them civilized. Shen Nong (the divine husbandman) and Lord Millet in China, Dewi Sri in Bali, the rice goddess Mae Pra Posop in Thailand, and Demeter in Greece were benign deities. Babylonians said Ea "will bring to you a harvest of wealth,/in the morning he will let loaves of bread shower down,/and in the evening a rain of wheat!"88
In return, the gods demanded that humans feed them in the sacrificial ceremony. Lord Millet, legendary founder of the Chou Dynasty, had taught the Chinese how to sacrifice, according to the Book of Songs, exclaiming, "What smell is this, so strong and good?" when the odors of steaming millet and roasting lamb drifted up from the sacrificial vessels. In the Theogony, a poem about the birth of the gods composed by Hesiod in the eighth century B.C.E., Zeus, the greatest of the gods in the Greek pantheon, signals to humans that they should burn "white bones for the Immortals on altars smoking with incense."89 In the sacrifice, humans offered food, expecting in return good harvest, success in war, and plentiful children. Repeated time and again, sacrifice sustained and re-created the universe and maintained cosmic harmony. Hesiod's Theogony is taken up with sacrifice, so too are the Hebrew Book of Leviticus, the Indian Vedas, and the Confucian Book of Rites. They explain the origins of sacrifice, give rules about how it should be performed, and record the hymns to be sung and the prayers to be said, much of which was secret knowledge available only to the priesthood, whose training consisted in learning the sacred formulae by heart.
The sacrificial offerings (the food for the gods) with rare exceptions were from domesticated and processed plants (grains and grain dishes, relishes, alcohol) and the meat of domesticated animals. Barley meal was offered in Mesopotamia and Greece, wheat in Rome, millet in China, glutinous rice in Japan, and maize in Mesoamerica. "With all thine offerings thou shalt offer salt," said Leviticus.90 Magico-medical substances, salts thrown on the flames caused them to change color, while in India, clarified butter (ghee) made them flare. Wine, mead, ale, and chiu were poured out in libations.
In India, fifty species of animals were considered suitable for sacrifice and thus for eating, including horses, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, monkeys, elephants, alligators, and tortoises (a reminder of how circumscribed our culinary tastes now are). In Indo-Iranian languages, one word serves for domesticated animal, cattle, and sacrificial animal.91 In the Middle East, cattle, sheep, and goats were sacrificed; in Greece, oxen, sheep, and goats; in Egypt, bulls or (in Thebes) rams; in northern Europe, horses, cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs; and in China, pigs, dogs, sheep, and goats. In practical terms, sacrifice and feast resolved the problem of disposing of the meat of large animals, since it was consumed at once.
Humans, the most valuable animals, were the ultimate sacrifice, as the book of Genesis reminds us. God commanded Abraham to take his only son Isaac to an appointed place, to build an altar, pile up the wood, bind his son, and place him on the altar on the wood. He was to slay him with his knife, presumably by cutting his throat and letting the blood drain out, and then to burn the body as an offering, the aromas rising up to God. At the last moment, God allowed Abraham to sacrifice a ram caught in a nearby thicket.92 Although God released Abraham from this duty, there is evidence that sacrificing humans was common practice and continued relatively late in human history. Around 500 B.C.E., Gelon, ruler of Sicily, made it a condition of a treaty he signed with the Carthaginians that they give up the practice.93 It was practiced in Peru among the Chimú people. In Aztec Tenochtitlan, the priests sliced out the hearts of sacrificial victims with obsidian knives.
"War and sacrifice" were "the great affairs of the state," the author of the Tso-chuan (Tradition of Tso)explained sometime between thefourth and second century B.C.E. "At sacrifices one presides over cooked meat, and in war one receives raw meat: these are the great ceremonies of the spirits."94 Even wealthy Rome often slaughtered prisoners of war rather than keeping them alive. Smaller and less affluent states, facing constant food scarcity, found prisoners a burden and sacrifice a way out.
Whatever the animal sacrificed, hot, red lifeblood was spilt. "The life of every creature is the blood of it," Leviticus (17:14) says. Blood congealed into flesh, according to the Chinese, the Hebrews, and the Greeks. It was what food finally turned into in animals, said Aristotle. Consequently few societies were neutral about blood as food: some valued it highly, others prohibited it. In the first group were nomads who harvested blood from their animals, Europeans who drained the blood of carcasses and used it to make sausages or thicken sauces, and the Chinese. Even today many Hong Kong Chinese mothers feed their children blood soup to sharpen their minds before examinations. In the second group were Jews and Muslims, who slaughtered animals so as to drain all blood from the body.95
The sacrifice was followed by the sacrificial feast-humans eating the gods' leftovers, which were charged with divine power. This might mean eating the flesh of sacrificed humans, a practice motivated not by hunger but by the logic of sharing the god's leftovers. At least some northern Europeans ate the brains of the sacrificed in the third millennium B.C.E. The Cocoma people of Brazil, when admonished by the Jesuits for eating their dead and drinking an alcohol laced with ground bones, reportedly said that it "was better to be inside a friend than to be swallowed by the cold earth."96 The Aztecs ate slivers of flesh from those who had been sacrificed on the pyramids. More commonly, however, the feast was a meaty, alcoholic feast.
Sacrifice and feast might involve a huge multistate gathering or just a few family members. The officiant might be a priest, a ruler, or the head of the family. The meal might be open to the community or reserved for a select group; it might be a solemn ingestion or a riotous feast washed down with alcohol. Sacrifices could be extravagant or humble, offered by priests or kings or just ordinary people, a quick act before a meal or at a small shrine in the fields or an elaborate state ceremony. In Greece, sacrifices marked the beginning of the assembly, the appointment of magistrates, the commission of works, the start of a military campaign, the night before battle, the opening of the Olympics, the signing of a treaty, and the setting up of a new colony, using a spit, a pot, and a flame carried from the mother city, as well as birth, marriage, and death. Some people tempered awe with skepticism, formal phrases with casual conversation, high solemnity with partying and jollity. Mocking the whole affair, and thus clearly anticipating that the audience would laugh, one of the characters in a Greek comedy from the end of the fourth century B.C.E. expostulates, "The ways these vandals sacrifice! They bring couches, wine-jars-not for the gods, for themselves. ... They offer the gods the tail-end and the gall-bladder, the bits you can't eat, and gobble the rest themselves."97 Many, though, perhaps most, viewed the sacrificial bargain as an understandable and practical way of working with the supernatural.
The theory of the culinary cosmos was the third plank of ancient culinary philosophy. More inclusive than the humoral system, according to which bodily fluids determined temperament and health, it treated cooking as a basic cosmic process that cooks imitated in the kitchen. Cooking could be defined as the "mixing and perfecting of substances," according to the Vedic physicians.98 The Chinese described kitchen operations as "to cut and cook."99 Cooking eliminated the dross and revealed the true nature or essence of whatever was cooked.100 Cooked was better than raw and thoroughly cooked was better than lightly cooked. Undercooked or inappropriately mixed food was the major cause of illness, either because it passed through the body too fast to be digested and assimilated or because it lingered too long and putrefied. Water, like any other foodstuff, had to be cooked (heated) to make it more healthful, although it is not clear when this practice started.101
The fiery rays of the sun and the watery rays of the moon drove and sustained the cosmos, just as fire and water were the chief agents for transforming foods in the kitchen. Fire was a thing, not the motion of particles, as we now believe. It was something you could see and touch, that left a painful burn, and that danced when fed with fuel and died when neglected. The fiery rays falling on the earth caused plants and animals to grow, or congealed to form coal and oil, which then melted rock that flowed out as lava when the earth exhaled.102 The author of the Hippocratic On the Regimen explained that heat or fire was "the foundation of all the functions in the body in the same way that it germinates the seed in the earth, that it governs and regulates the Universe at large; it is the cause of all consumption and growth, visible and invisible: soul, reason, growth, movement, diminution, permutation, sleep, consciousness of all and everything, and never ceases to act."103 Watery rays from the cool, pale moon fell as rain and then were taken up by plants as life-giving juices or sap, or disappeared into cavities in the earth, where they might congeal into metals. When water was exhaled from the earth, it appeared as mist, dew, or the rivers that sustained life.
The cycle of life from birth to death, or from generation to corruption, in Aristotle's terms, was, like the cosmos, driven by fire and water (fig. 1.9). Seeds were cooked into crystals (believed until the nineteenth century to be alive) or into tender, juicy young plants. When shoots poked out of the soil, cooking continued until they ripened to fruits or grains. In hot and dry conditions, they were cooked to aromatics, according to the Greeks. In well-balanced climates such as the Mediterranean, grapes and cereals resulted. Raw plants, by contrast, were dangerously cold and wet.104 When the sun went low in the sky, the plants died, their foliage blackening, withering, and rotting. New humans were cooked in the womb, a hot, steamy cauldron where male seeds mixed with female juices. If the cooking was not completed, humans were raw, half-baked, or crude; if it was especially rapid, they were pre-cooked, or precocious. In California, Native Americans placed adolescent girls in underground ovens to help the process of maturation along.105
Humans intervened in these cosmic culinary cycles at two points. The first was by cultivating plants, a way of cooking them. Domesticating plants was understood as cooking their juices until the fibers softened, just as if they had been boiled. Cultivated plants and cultured humans were both the result of cooking. The second was in the kitchen. Cooks took the "fruits of the earth," as agricultural products were often called, mixed them to balance their qualities, and cooked them over kitchen fires. Further cooked or fermented in vats, grapes turned into liquid fire.
Cooked foods, when consumed, passed to the hot, steamy cauldron of the belly where cooking (digesting) continued. (If the idea that fire can exist in the belly sounds hopelessly naive and unrealistic, the truth-that our stomachs contain corrosive hydrochloric acid-would seem equally far-fetched to ancient peoples.) Food was separated into blood and feces, after first being changed to a whitish liquid (chyle). The blood fueled the body's fires and replenished its semen, the fluid containing the seeds of new human life; the feces (ashes or cinders) were excreted. That, at least, was the Greek theory. Indian and Chinese theories were much the same. Indian physicians postulated fires that sequentially digested food, sloughing off gross matter and liberating finer body or spirit: blood and feces; flesh and thick urine; fat and sweat; bone, marrow, and semen. For Chinese Taoists, a "Triple Burner" in the stomach and intestines cooked food into sweat, saliva, gastric juices, and finally blood.
What we call fermenting was a puzzle. Was this what happened when cooking tipped into rotting, putrefaction, and corruption? Was it, with its bubbling, linked to the fizzing when salts were mixed with acids, as some classical philosophers believed? Or did those bubbles place it with liquids boiling in a cauldron, making it just another form of cooking, as the Taoists may have believed? Pregnant Chinese women were excluded from kitchens when fermenting was taking place for fear that the seed cooking in the womb would interfere with the ferment cooking in the jar.106 Until the sixteenth century, the theory that fermenting was cooking was the majority opinion. And it was to be another three centuries before the scientists began to understand the phenomenon.
Food, like everything in the cosmos, was made of three to five basic elements or principles-such as fire, water, wood, iron, and air-which, unlike elements as we understand them, could be combined in any proportions.107 In Greek and Indian theory, one of these elements predominated in each of the fluids that circulated through the cosmos and through human bodies as the humors. Different places in the cosmos had different balances of fluids. The Indus Valley was a place of hot, dry fluids, said the ancient Indians, the Ganges of hot, moist ones. The pasty color and phlegmatic temperament of the Celts resulted from the cold, wet fluids of the north, said Galen, following Hippocrates, and the swarthy color and bilious temperament of Africans from the hot, dry fluids of the south, congratulating themselves that the balance of fluids in their own land best conduced to physical, moral, and intellectual health.
In the body, said the Indian doctors, wind (vata) corresponded to air or wind or breath and was associated with breathing and the beating of the heart. Bile (pitta) corresponded to fire and was associated with digestion of both food and ideas. Phlegm (kapha) corresponded to water and was associated with the smooth working of the body. The Indian tradition distinguished three extremes of temperament: hot and fiery (rasjic), calm and peaceful (sattvic), and dull and slothful (tamasic). (In the Hippocratic tradition, the predominant humor, be it blood, phlegm, yellow bile, or black bile, determined whether a person's temperament was sanguine, choleric, phlegmatic, or melancholic.) An individual's temperament could be changed by eating foods that corrected imbalance. Meat and alcohol, for example were widely regarded as heating, chicken and rice as neutral and well balanced, and vegetables as cooling. Indian physicians classified cinnamon, powdered ginger, nutmeg, and vegetable oils as heating, and fennel, green cardamom, cloves, and ghee as cooling, and cooks used them with that in mind.
Every individual was locked into a place, not only in the social hierarchy, but in the cosmos, and in a series of correspondences that linked the fluids, the temperament, colors, bodily organs, seasons and the age of the individual (tables 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, 1.5).108 The healthiest place to be was where you were born, where your humors and the fluids circulating through the universe were in harmony. To move away was to expose yourself to great danger. In the ancient world, the widely held humoral theory and theory of correspondences ensured that most individuals were culinary determinists, believing that what you ate made you what you were in strength, temperament, intelligence, and social rank.
Food, from another perspective, was anything that the body could turn into tissues and fluids or, using the technical term of the medieval Arab physician Avicenna, assimilate (making unlike like). Poisons, by contrast, assimilate flesh and blood to themselves, causing pain and often death. The more similar food was to human flesh and blood, the more easily it was assimilated, and the more nutritious it was. Cooked foods were the easiest, cultivated (partially cooked) foods the next, raw (crude) wild foods the hardest. Sick bodies, out of balance, needed correction, one of the rare occasions that justified eating raw foods. Egyptian villagers saw raw foods as medicines, raw radishes being an antidote to poisoning, cabbage a prophylactic against drunkenness.109 Food and medicine formed a continuum everywhere in the ancient world.
Oil, water, salt, air, spices, aromatics, and colored foods each had special significance. Oil, in the classical world and probably elsewhere, was believed to be congealed fire (as ice was congealed water), and contained the spark of life. Water, like fire, was at once an agent and an element. It was the ultimate ingredient, thought the Taoists, tasteless itself, but capable of combining other flavors into a harmonious blend.110 Air was brain food, according to Galen, charging the blood with vital spirits and keeping it cool. It was persistently rumored that air alone sustained saints and holy men and women. Pure, sweet air was therapeutic, while foul airs were poisonous, so cities were sited away from marshes and miasmas and the houses of the wealthy built out of range of noxious fumes. Eat breath, not grains, said the Taoists.111 Ch'i, a yet more tenuous fluid, whose character was made up of elements that read as "vapors arising from rice or millet (food)," suffused the universe. Linked with semen, this was the essence, energy, or strength, derived from food, that allowed the body to grow, develop, and act. Food with air as the predominant element, said Indian physicians, energized and mobilized.
Salts (understood as crystals that dissolved in water) were a panacea, particularly effective against worms, which plagued city dwellers. They prevented food and bodies from rotting or corrupting, thus halting the culinary cycle. A little brought out the flavor of bland food, without being noticeable as salt. The Egyptian natron (a word related to words for god and for incense), a naturally occurring mix of sodium chloride, carbonate, bicarbonate, and sulfate that could be found in dry riverbeds in the desert, preserved foods, kept boiled vegetables green and alive-looking, turned sand heated in a furnace into blue-green glass, sweetened the air in temples, and preserved the disemboweled corpses of pharaohs.112
Spices, aromatics, and colored substances defied cold, dark, dank death. Aromatics, such as cloves, cinnamon, myrrh, camphor, and sandalwood, wafted the sweet odors of life. Green foods suggested life, red ones, blood and alcohol, white ones, milk and semen, yellow ones, the power of the sun. Gold and silver, beaten to ethereal thinness and draped over dishes, amber, jade, and pearls ground to powders and added to wine, and jade carved into drinking cups captured or reflected the life-giving essences of the sun and the moon.
In the ancient world, the rules that governed cooking and eating could be simplified to three: that you should eat according to your rank in society and place in the cosmos; that you should eat food cooked as thoroughly as possible; and that you should participate in the exemplary meal, the feast that followed the sacrifice to the gods. Did everyone obey these rules? Of course not, no more than we today follow all the rules laid down by well-meaning nutritionists. The ruling classes ate raw fruit, enjoying the frisson. The humble were delighted if they could get the powerful's leftovers. And the sacrifice could be treated with less than reverence. Does that mean the rules did not matter? Again, of course not. They laid out what was acceptable behavior and its boundaries. Diners might cross these, but they did so knowingly and at their own risk.
Reflections on Ancient Cuisines
However much we may admire the artistry of ancient high cuisine, the skill and dedication of the cooks, the technical advances in food processing and kitchen technique, it's hard not to be horrified by the inequitable social system that produced a gulf between high and humble cuisines and reinforced it with rules. The issue is not specific to high cuisine, but is raised by art, music, literature, architecture, and fine clothing, the patrimony of the human race, though the inequities seem particularly poignant in the case of cuisine. Weren't those who consumed high cuisines ashamed?
It was a question that lurked behind discussions of food and politics for centuries to come, prompting the critics to create countercuisines. Ancient culinary philosophy was constantly questioned and threatened. Many saw the overweening appetite of the hierarchical state as destroying the earlier, more virtuous life of those who worked the land. As rulers arrogated to themselves the right to perform the most powerful and expensive sacrifices, sending food up in smoke, Greek philosophers, Taoists, Jews, and Christians came to reject the official state cuisine. In particular, they tended to refuse to eat the meat that had been offered in sacrifice, the meal that bound state, people, and the gods together. They created new culinary rules that, as we shall see in chapters 3, 4, and 5, were to produce profound changes in culinary geography.
However, for millennia many thought there was no escape from the sharp social distinctions signaled by high and humble cuisines. "Poverty ... is a most necessary and indispensable ingredient in society, without which nations and communities could not exist in a state of civilisation," the Scottish merchant and statistician Patrick Colquhoun, turned London magistrate, said in 1806, ironically in an argument for raising people from destitution and misery to mere poverty. "It is the lot of man-it is the source of wealth, since without poverty there would be no labour, and without labour there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth."113 And weren't the poor resentful that they could not eat rich meats, sauces, and sweets and dubious about the rule that each rank in society needed a distinct diet? Many of the folk sayings I have quoted suggest so.
The division of cuisines into high and humble continued until the late nineteenth century, when economies of scale in food processing, combined with rising incomes, cheaper transport, and changes in farming in the richer parts of the world, made intermediary cuisines available to their population. Most people in these countries now eat middling cuisine, not as elaborate as earlier high cuisines but sharing many of its features. Middling cuisine is high in meats, fats, and sweets and exotic ingredients from around the globe, and low in carbohydrate staples. Often it is prepared by professional cooks in processing plants or restaurants, not by the woman of the house. It is eaten in special areas with special utensils and off special plates. And it is recorded and debated in an enormous culinary literature-cookbooks, restaurant reviews, newspaper food pages, and culinary magazines, as well as the general press.
Were there no middling cuisines in the past that bridged the gap between high and humble? The answer is, largely, no. In big cities such as Rome, Baghdad, Cairo, Alexandria, Hangzhou, and Edo the gentry, richer merchants, and professionals could become wealthy enough to be called a bourgeoisie. In seventeenth-century Europe, say, they made up about 4 to 5 percent of the population. They and medium landowners could afford to emulate high cuisines. The merchants in particular had little status, however. "The offspring of a toad is a toad and the offspring of a merchant is a merchant," was the saying in Japan, and parallel expressions were found elsewhere. In short, those who could afford middling cuisines were a small minority and one without much clout. They did not create a large market for processed foods, operating more like scaled-down versions of the court than today's urban middle classes.
The humble, constantly at risk of real hunger, had every reason not to experiment with innovative cooking techniques. When your stock of grain is diminishing daily, when you know you must preserve enough to sow the next year's crop, you are not apt to waste precious reserves on experiments that might fail. You might try, or be forced to try, new plants. The natural response was to pound or grind them in the tried and true way. When the Chinese poor adopted a high-yielding rice in the Middle Ages or Italians and Romanians adopted maize following the discovery of the Americas, more people stayed alive, but styles of cooking remained the same.
High cuisines were knitted together in a far-flung network from very early times; humble cuisines were frequently isolated from the contacts that lead to innovation, condemned to the parochialism of the local. High cuisines were the engine of culinary change, generating most of the techniques now taken for granted: baking white bread, polishing rice until it is white, refining sugar, creating soy and béchamel, preparing chocolate candy, pies, and cakes. Ships set sail, factories were erected, and capital was accumulated to buy luxuries such as spices, tea, porcelain, and silver. As the German sociologist Werner Sombart noted almost a century ago, luxury, not necessity, has been an engine of change. So of all the widespread cuisines surveyed at the beginning of this chapter, most culinary change occurred in grain cuisines, and within grain cuisines in high cuisines.