What Early Agriculturalists Ate

Food: A Cultural Culinary History—Episode 02

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The transition to agriculture is perhaps humanity’s single most important social revolution – and one that was not without its tradeoffs. In episode 2 of Food: A Cultural Culinary History we’re going to explore the factors surrounding the rise of agriculture, how plants and animals were domesticated, and why agriculture directly led to civilization as we know it.

Images for this Episode:

Culinary Activities for this Episode:

• Making Neolithic Flatbread

This is a simple flatbread such as would have been eaten before ovens came into common use. It is something like pita bread, but chewier and with a lot more flavor. If you can find freshly ground whole wheat, or even grind it yourself, all the better. Any whole wheat flour will work well.

Begin by fermenting half of a cup of the flour by mixing it with water until a thick batter is formed. Leave this out on the counter, uncovered. The next morning, add another half of a cup each of flour and water. Continue every morning for about one week, at which time the mixture will be bubbling and smell sour. You have just captured and nurtured wild yeast and lactobacilli.

Remove half of this starter to another bowl, and add another cup of water and enough flour—and a good pinch of salt—to make a stiff dough. Knead this well, and set aside for several hours until risen. This will happen quickly in the summer and slowly in the winter. Keep the rest of the starter to make another batch or for risen bread.

Divide the dough into fist-sized balls, and pat out into flat rounds with your hands. Stretch each one until thin, but not so thin that they break. If you have an outdoor fire, these can be cooked on a flat stone set over hot coals, but indoors is just as good. Heat a pan, and simply throw in one flatbread. Count to 30, and turn over. Count to 30 again, and then move the bread directly to an open burner (assuming that you have a gas stove) or a barbecue. With tongs, flip repeatedly until lightly charred on each side. Then, put into a covered plate or casserole and continue with the rest of the flatbreads. They will stay warm for a long time.

Serve with a dip like hummus or baba ganoush, made of charred eggplant. These are also the Neolithic ancestors of pizza and can be topped with a fresh cheese to wonderful effect.

• Akkadian Recipe

Three surviving cuneiform tablets from ancient Mesopotamia constitute the earliest recorded recipes on Earth. They are quite cryptic, largely because the ingredients have not all been identified. The following recipe is an adaptation of the original recipe that fills in the procedural details. It gives an approximation of what cooking would have been like 35 centuries ago. The meat, which is domestic lamb, probably indicates that this is a dish for the wealthy—or perhaps intended for a special occasion. Beer was the common drink of all classes and was used widely in cooking as well. Consider how all of these ingredients would have been comparatively uncommon before the advent of agriculture.

Tuh’u Beet Broth

(adapted from Jean Bottéro’s The Oldest Cuisine in the World , p. 28) Start with one pound of lamb shoulder cut into walnut-sized chunks or lamb stew meat. Remove any visible fat, and dice finely. Fill a medium pot halfway with water, and add the fat and the lamb.

Add a teaspoon of salt; 12 ounces of beer; a finely chopped onion; a handful of arugula, finely chopped; ground coriander seed; and ground cumin. Bring the pot to a boil, and simmer for about one hour.

Add in three peeled and quartered beets. Then, make a paste of one clove of garlic and the white part of one leek by pounding them in a mortar or reducing them to a fine paste in a food processor. Add to the pot. Let simmer until the beets are tender, about 30 minutes longer.

Sprinkle the soup with chopped fresh coriander before serving. Notice how all of the ingredients would have been cultivated, though other dishes that use wild game and birds were also recorded on these tablets. Also notice how similar this dish is to Middle Eastern cooking today.

Suggested Reading:

Bottéro, The Oldest Cuisine in the World.

Brothwell, Food in Antiquity.

McGovern, Uncorking the Past.

Images courtesy of:

• Map of Origins of Agriculture: Shutterstock
• Thomas Malthus: John Linnell [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Comparison photo of a wild strawberry with a modern strawberry: Shutterstock
• Carolina Yaller Dogs: Flaxseedoil [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Einkorn: Shutterstock
• Spelt: Shutterstock
• Jericho: By A. Sobkowski (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
• Milking a goat: Shutterstock
• Cheese aging in a cave: Shutterstock
• Dough rising: Shutterstock
• Wine fermenting: 
• Pithoi: Shutterstock
• Domesticated fowl: Shutterstock
• Guinea Fowl: Shutterstock
• Oyster rope: Shutterstock
• Flatbread: Shutterstock