What makes us human? Humans are just animals who know how to cook. This first episode attempts to explain what humans and our hominid ancestors have been eating for the 6 million years since we first came down from the trees, how taming fire and cooking gave us our big brains and human culture, up through the foraging days of homo sapiens hunting and gathering in the Paleolithic.
Pleased to finally post the first episode of the AnthroChef Podcast, the History of Food!
Theme music by the incredible Michael Levy of Ancient Lyre. This rendition of the Hurian Hymn, the oldest known piece of sheet music, and the whole album “An Ancient Lyre” and much more is available from all major digital music stores and streaming sites.
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-Fish (1.5-2 lbs), gutted and opened up, skin on
-Root Vegetable (Eddo, Taro, Malanga most authentic, but carrots or potatoes are a nice modern version)
-Raw shellfish (clams and mussels pictured)
-2 tbsp sesame oil
-Insulator leaves (Beet leaves, carrot tops, Arugula, watercress, banana leaves, or anything edible!)’
-Herbs to stuff, wild greens and sunflower seeds for garnish
1) Light a fire on the floor of an EARTH OVEN, keep burning for 1 hour. While burning, prepare the fish, season with salt, stuff with herbs, and close. Cut up veg into very thin slices, or 1 inch cubes, drizzle with sesame oil and salt liberally
2) Scoop out ash or move to one side. Lay down insulators with Fish, roots, and shellfish on top, plus one more layer of insulators. Cover the pit with plywood or cloth, and bury with soil. Let cook for 4 hours.
3)In a bowl, mash up roots with more sesame oil and salt. Plate first, with greens nestled around, then gently place fish on top. Finish with herbs and sunflower seeds
Not long after homo sapiens had only just evolved, when we had spread across Africa but had not yet left it, we almost went extinct. The Ice Age descended into an even colder glacial period, and the deserts of our home continent expanded, and the savannahs which we had previously occupied to hunt and forage became arid, dry, and uninhabitable. 90% of all living humans died as a result of this climate change.
But not all of us. A relatively small amount survived by hunkering down near the coasts, eating shellfish and mollusks, such as oysters, clams, and mussels. To harvest these foods en masse, you have to be relatively smart. You have to know how the tides work and how they connect to the phases of the moon, in order to survive off shellfish successfully and not get killed doing it. The reward was a fatty, calorie dense food which certainly helped hone our “people” skills and further brain development. So it’s no surprise that the residents of Pinnacle Point, ancestors of all homo sapiens alive today, knew how to make advanced heat-treated tools, how to make paint and art, and most of interest to us, how to cook with Earth Ovens
1/4 cup seeds (pictured sesame seeds)
2 tbsp. nuts (pictures pine and walnuts)
2 tbsp. water
1 bunch wild onions (spring onions or scallions work fine)
1 bunch herbs leafy herbs (pictured carrot tops)
5 oz. greens (pictured Arugula)
1/4 cup ripe berries (pictured raspberries)
Before fire, before homo sapiens even, there was a primitive form of cooking that required no heat or fuel but that of the human body.
The oldest known mortar and pestle goes back almost 40,000 years ago, but we know mashing food goes back to some of our earliest human ancestors, who likely smashed bones to access their delicious marrow. They turned what whole meat they could scavenge into something like steak tartare. This high calorie, high in protein meat played a big role in growing our brains closer to their modern size.
Human foragers of the past had a vast knowledge of plants, animals, and ecology that would put most of us “civilized” people to shame. Modern foraging people studied by anthropologists are like nature encyclopedias for their territory.
“Wild” greens, onions, and berries from my territory
Sometimes eating authentically is not eating deliciously. At least not to our spoiled modern palates.
While still using modern milled flours, this recipe attempts to recreate something like ancient foragers in the Near East might have eaten. The Natufians were the first society we know of to switch from foraging to intense cultivation, and it changed the world forever. They were still dependent on hunting and gathering, but also began guarding and storing plots of wheat and barley, and it changed them dramatically.
This was the beginning of civilization as we know it today… it’s also unleavened and not exactly palatable…
But to the Natufians it was everything. Their new permanent villages had giant querns and grinding stones just for milling and shaping this hard to process cereal crop, and ritual houses for the necessary magic to make it work. Here’s a recipe that might be something like what they threw in the ashes of their fires.
FAIR WARNING: This bread is dense and chewy!! Good for croutons or toast but… not much else.
300g all purpose flour (about 2.5 cups) 200g whole wheat flour (about 1.5 cups)
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp dry active yeast 1 tbsp. honey
3 tbsp. olive oil
350ml warm beer or water (scant 1.5 cups)
This recipe takes the ancient cooking technique, and gives to it modern ingredients, making a stretchier dough with a lighter texture that’s more enjoyable to modern palates. All the smoky flavor of the ashes without the unleavened chewiness of the more authentic recipe. This is a great flatbread recipe even for a regular oven, but nothing tastes quite like the ash.
Activate the yeast in the water. After five minutes, whisk in the honey, olive oil, and salt. Add to flour and stir until a rough dough forms.
Just what it sounds like. Today I made bread in the ashes of the fire.
This has become known as kind of an Australian food. But that’s because European colonists copied the Aboriginal peoples who had been doing it for thousands of years.
Many modern people with nomadic traditions, such as the Berbers of North Africa, still cook bread this way, but the roots go deep back into prehistory. Evidence for this practice can be found in ancient cultures all over the world from the Americas, to aboriginal Australia, and most famously in the middle east.
Short of mashing our food or cooking it over an open fire, the Earth Oven is the oldest cooking method known to humankind. Evidence of their use goes back tens of thousands of years, and they can be found all over the world across nearly all cultures.
The exact construction can vary, but the basic design is the same. Dig a pit in the ground, line it with stones, get those stones blazing hot, then put some food in and bury it! This method can bake, smoke, or steam food. It’s not as much work as it seems, and it makes for a exciting cooking experience that’s great for parties and summer barbecues especially.
Not only is it fun, it imparts a unique flavor to the food that’s cooked inside one that can only be described as “earthy” and makes any other food I’ve heard called “earthy” before this seem like a lie. Soil infused? This stuff tastes like it was cooked inside the earth, because it was!
If you’re interested in new and interesting ways to cook your food, you cannot beat an Earth Oven.
My name is Holden Wilson. I am a chef and an amateur history buff from Chicago.
This project combines my two greatest passions in life: cooking and history. This is a study of the history of food and the humans who eat it, tracing the early origins of what we eat, and how it shaped the destiny of our species.
Check back with us soon for the first episode of our podcast, as well as ancient recipes and cooking techniques. All coming soon!