Gourmands Through The Ages: 'A History Of Food In 100 Recipes'

Jun 20, 2013
Originally published on June 20, 2013 10:58 am

Think our current culture has become food-obsessed? Take a look at this wall painting from ancient Egypt.

Long before Food Network, before Michael Pollan, before pop-up restaurants, humans were taking the time to enshrine the art of cooking. The painting depicts a recipe for baking bread that was carved on the wall of an Egyptian tomb some 4,000 years ago.

It's one of the many fascinating snapshots from the history of food that journalist William Sitwell chronicles in his first book, A History of Food in 100 Recipes.

The gastronomic compass guiding Sitwell's journey through time? The recipes, in all forms, left behind by the foodies whose tastes have helped shape the sophistication of our palates.

"I wanted to pinpoint foodie references in history that to me, told a very important part of the story of food," Sitwell tells Morning Edition host Renee Montagne.

Sitwell decided to start with one of the most basic foods, bread. Which is how he ended up in Luxor, Egypt — an ancient capital for pharaohs known in antiquity by its Greek name, Thebes.

"I found myself scrambling up the dusty slopes of a hillside overlooking the Nile in Egypt, where there's this amazing tomb," he says.

That's where he found the carvings in the photo above. Ancient Egyptians filled their tombs with riches they thought would follow them into the afterlife. The fact that someone included a recipe signals just how important it was, he says.

By 1700 B.C., recipes had made the jump from walls to clay tablets — such as this one for a meat and vegetable stew, from ancient Mesopotamia.

Up until 2004, scholars had assumed the inscriptions on the tablet were pharmaceutical formulas, Sitwell writes. Then they took a closer look and discovered the cuneiform writings were actually gastronomical – but just as impressive. The stew, known as kanasu, required sophisticated cooking skills and a wide array of ingredients; it was so elaborate, Sitwell says, that it was likely only served in palaces or temples.

The ancient food scene that Sitwell describes was just as dramatic as the modern one. No fiery Gordon Ramsay-types yelling at green sous chefs, but the melodrama of Roman Marcus Gavius Apicius could make for great reality television if he were around today.

Apicius — immortalized by the cookbook attributed to him, De re coquinaria (Of Culinary Matters) — was famous for his love of fine foods and entertaining. The first-century foodie was also a prolific saucier — he's thought to have authored instructions for 400 sauces. Alas, his food habit was costly to maintain, and he eventually ran through his fortune.

"So he gave one final feast," Sitwell says. "In the final course, the final dessert, he poisoned himself and died. He thought, 'If I can't eat good food, I will check out of this world and die.' "

Talk about drama.

Many of the meals Sitwell documents appeal to an ancient palate; they would be hard to re-create today — and frankly, tastes change so much that you might not even want to try. That's true not just when it comes to recipes from antiquity but also those of more recent vintage.

In the 1950s, housewives embraced convenience foods — and food companies encouraged the trend with recipe ideas built around their products. "Most of them were pretty foul," Sitwell says, "especially the Chicken Jelly Loaf." That dish boasted an, ahem, interesting combination of ingredients: Campbell's consommé, cold chicken, slices of tongue and stuffed olives.

Not exactly a meal you'd find on supper menus in 2013, but it's a reminder of how far food has come, and of the pioneering individuals whose cookery brought us here.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A few summers ago, food writer William Sitwell snapped up some cookbooks at a London auction, all from the 1800s. He was struck by how lively and opinionated their authors were.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Making the kinds of claims you'd find in cookbooks today. Take "The Royal Cookery Book", which boasted that it was the greatest compared to, quote, "the perfect uselessness of such cookery books as have hitherto been published."

MONTAGNE: Pouring through those 19th century books transformed William Sitwell into something of a culinary Indiana Jones. And he dug further into the past, all the way back to ancient Egypt, through the most influential foodies from bygone times. The result, "A History of Food in 100 Recipes", his new book celebrating the people and stories behind the cuisine, that helped shape the way we eat today.

William Sitwell joined us from London. Welcome.

WILLIAM SITWELL: Thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: Let's start with one of the first recipes, this from 350 B.C. It was actually recorded in a poem. It's fish baked in fig leaves.

SITWELL: If people think that passionate food is just something new, they need to look back where you come across a man called Archestratus, who was a Sicilian traveling around Asia Minor, eating and getting hold of as much good food as he could possibly get, and then writing down his experiences. Now, he wrote them down in sort of ancient Greek hexameters of which there are fragments were left of the scrolls. And from one of those fragments we've got this recipe, fish baked in fig leaves.

And this man, I mean he was wonderful because he was a real obsessive about the food that you should eat. He wrote: Eat what I recommend; all other delicacies are a sign of abject poverty. He said if you can't get hold of sugar, demand some attic honey - which is Greek honey - 'cause that will set your cake off really well.

MONTAGNE: He also writes: Otherwise one might as well be buried measureless fathoms underground.

SITWELL: It's the sort of thing you get from harsh food critics on TV shows. You say, you know, I'd rather die than to have to eat this muck again. And Archestratus would have been on "MasterChef" these days, you know, if he was around.

(LAUGHTER)

MONTAGNE: Let's stick with ancient times and ask you about one more food writer, Marcus Gavius Apicius.

SITWELL: Well, this is an extraordinary story. He wrote a book called "De re Coquinaria," "Of Culinary Matters", that came out in A.D. 10. And this book is still in print. I mean, it's just quite extraordinary. You can get a hold of translations today. And if anyone ever asks you when was the Roman Empire at its strongest, well, actually the answer I think is when its sauces were at its thickest. And its sauces were at its thickest when Apicius was around. And this man was into sauce.

I've had this recipe cooked. It's very decent. And what's amazing about Apicius was, of course, he was very wealthy but he met with a tragic end because he was such a great entertainer that he ran out of money, and he decided that if he couldn't live to the manner in which he had become accustomed, that life then wasn't worth living. So he gave one final feast. We don't know quite what was at that feast - whether he served his pumpkin fritters or his lentil and chestnuts, or his suckling pigs stuffed two ways.

But in the final course - the final dessert, I think it was - he poisoned himself and died (unintelligible).

MONTAGNE: Whoa.

SITWELL: And I know people who live to eat and I can completely sympathize with his predicament.

MONTAGNE: You do write about the evolution of cooking throughout the book, but also techniques involved. Tell us about a breakthrough in how bread was made.

SITWELL: Well, a lot of people think that 1066 is an important date in English history, because it was the Battle of Hastings.

MONTAGNE: Which was the Norman conquest of England.

SITWELL: That's right. But what people don't seem to focus on is that 1066 was also a very important moment for the history of bread because after 1066, we see the introduction of the hair-sieve, it suggests that people started to refine their bread. They started to sieve their flour so they can make really posh white loaves. And it was a real social symbol, whereas the beggars would eat the bone-crunching brown stuff.

But, of course, things have changed now. People sniffed at white bread. But for many, many years if you served white bread it was like showing someone the latest iPhone.

(LAUGHTER)

SITWELL: You know, it was a real fashion accessory.

MONTAGNE: Tell us the story behind hot chocolate, which is certainly one of the more dramatic ones in the book.

SITWELL: Well, one of the greatest meetings in history is between Montezuma, the Aztec king, and Hernan Cortes, the great Spanish conquistador. They met in 1519 just outside what is now Mexico City. And then you've got these two cultures; an incredibly ancient culture and a much more modern European culture, coming face-to-face.

When people say is there a particular moment that actually is a turning point in the history of food, the Spanish conquistadors' conquest of the Aztecs is key because we get back amazing ingredients; not just gold but coffee, tomatoes, turkeys and, of course, we get chocolate. Montezuma, like many great leaders, didn't like to be seen eating. And he used to like to eat alone. But after he had eaten he would then call for chocolate. And his servants would bring out to the great hall chocolate all frothed up.

And it probably would have been quite a bitter thing in those days. I mean, it wouldn't have been the sort of sweet, luxurious thing that we know and love today. Cortes then brought that back to the Spanish court. The Spanish royalty thought it was the most extraordinary thing. They kept their recipe for making chocolate very much under wraps. And then people were also rather dismissive of chocolate, they thought it had rather bad qualities. Someone even said it was a bit addictive. Have you heard that before?

MONTAGNE: You know, you have - moving along in time, you have a recipe for salad dressing - it dates to 1699 - that's very much on the long side; something like 1400 words for a salad dressing recipe.

SITWELL: What I love about this is that John Evelyn, he wasn't just noting down ideas for dressings for salads. He thought about it as a philosophical treatise. And I think this is one of the most beautifully written recipes in history. He talks about let your herby ingredients be exquisitely culled and cleansed of all worm-eaten, slimy spotted or in any way vitiated leaves.

And I love that. It's much nicer than saying first wash your salad leaves. And then he talks about the oil. You know, the oil should be very clean, not too rich or too yellow - a pallid olive green and smooth, light and pleasant upon the tongue. Use vinegar preferably infused with flowers such as nasturtium. He talks about salt must be the best, clean bright and dry. And use a dash of honey or some sugar.

I mean it's fantastic. It's the most beautifully written recipe and actually it's spot on. And I think that's one of the great things about recipes in history, you know, the beauty, the almost poetic resonance that some of these recipes have.

MONTAGNE: Well, it has been a pleasure speaking to you. Thank you very much.

SITWELL: Pleasure, thank you very much.

MONTAGNE: William Sitwell's new book is "A History of Food in 100 Recipes".

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

INSKEEP: I'm Steve Inskeep. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.