Everyone knows the saying about what the world’s “oldest profession” is, but you will find a very close runner up in the kitchen. The history of those who cook professionally to make their living goes way, way back to the origins of civilization itself.
It’s another epic journey across the ages, this time with a focus on my own chosen profession and day job. This is the long, ancient history of chefs (and restaurants).
Is good cooking defined by ingredients, skill in preparation, style of cuisine, or is it something even more fundamental and deeply human?
We left out of Africa all the way back in Episode 1, and rarely looked back, but in this episode we finally return to the vast continent, specifically south of the Sahara desert, where more than any other qualities, feeling full and satisfied are what make a great meal, and a great chef is one who can evoke that feeling the most.
Come listen for this and other perspectives on food and dining we so rarely hear about in western history.
Well. . . Unless of course you buy Sabra, or already happen to know the two simple secrets to making the best hummus (revealed below).
Hummus is one of those pan-regional foods that every Mediterranean country today seems to have as a staple, and also claims to have invented. Its roots go back further into history than we can trace.
There is no direct historical evidence for ancient humans consuming literal hummus. HOWEVER, the record shows that chickpeas were a significant part of farmers’ crop and diets throughout the Near East, beginning way back in the prehistoric Neolithic. For people that ate mostly grain, legumes like the chickpea were a critical source of protein. While simple consumption was probably most common, I have no doubt that ancient culinary minds were also occasionally mashing their chickpeas into dips, spreads, and pastes.
With that established, we also know that onions and garlic were beloved by populations all over the region, and that by the time of the later Bronze Age after 2,000BC, the vast trade networks between the Near Eastern powers of the day ensured that olive oil and sesame seeds were widespread throughout the land.
Which means we have all the ingredients we need to make a classic hummus. All we’re missing is lemons, which had not yet spread to the region by the Bronze Age. So this recipe substitutes vinegar, but is otherwise no different from a modern hummus today.
No civilization lasts forever. In fact, it’s kind of a miracle any starts at all. The conditions must be exactly right for people to come together into urban environments. So like an overextended, teetering Jenga tower, it’s not if but when the whole system will fall, as it did again and again across history.
Come listen as we go back to explore the Neolithic, the history of Mesopotamia after Sumer, and finally the Bronze Age, to understand the riddle of why the rise of civilizations is so tied to their collapse.
Theme music by 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.
We’ve done it. We’ve finally crossed into the realm of written records and recorded history. Join me on an odyssey going back 6,000 years ago, when the Sumerians of what is today southern Iraq, took a mega-surplus of grain and transformed it directly into wealth and power. In the process, they managed to invent cities, urbanism, and all the trappings modern civilization. (Not to mention the first written recipes and cookbooks)
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.
When times were tough in the ancient world, those dependent on their primitive farms might have come up short on their preferred grains for bread and would have been forced to add other flours to the mix. For the vast swath of commoners across ancient Mesopotamia, from modern Iran, Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Mediterranean coast, this hearty multi-grain bread was actually healthier, though nobody knew it at the time.
This bread is made from grains that could be found all over the middle east in 5000 BC. The cultivated wheat and barley, with lentils and chickpeas from the garden, and spelt and rye foraged in the wilderness around the village.
Lentil soup has become a punchline, a shorthand meat eaters use to make fun of how boring the vegetarian diet supposedly is. But this is WRONG! Lentils are amazing, and lentil soup can be one of the most simple and transcendent things you ever cook if you do it right.
The ancients of the Near East sure knew how to use lentils, and other pulses similar to it. For most of antiquity, lentils were considered a poor man’s food. Common folk could not usually afford meat, but lentils and chickpeas would have been a great protein substitute.
This supposed peasant food is nutritious, satisfying, and quite packs a lot of flavor with a few simple ingredients. Using modern versions of the ingredients available since the Neolithic on is enough to make a creamy, hearty, and healthy soup.
1 cup red lentils (But you can substitute other colors too) 4-5 cups water 1 large onion, diced 1 fat carrot, diced 3-5 cloves fresh garlic, mashed 1/2 cup Tahini water (see recipe) Crushed coriander, cumin, and mustard seeds (or just use Garam Masala spice) 1 cup Yogurt (leave out for vegan version) 1/2 bunch Coriander (cilantro) or Parsley leaves chopped
(Makes 3-4 bowls)
Coat the bottom of a stockpot with sesame oil (or butter) over medium heat. Add the onion, garlic, and carrot. Season with salt and the ground spices. Saute until the onion is starting to soften, but not fully cooked.
To make tahini water, take an empty Jar of tahini and fill with quarter cup of water, closing and shaking vigorously to clean the jar and make a liquid. (Or simply whisk the water into 2 tablespoons of tahini in a bowl.)
Add the lentils and lightly toast for about 2 minutes. Then add water plus tahini water. Turn up the head to high and bring to a boil. When boiling, immediately turn down to a simmer.
Simmer for 1-2 hours, stirring the bottom occasionally. Use the back of your spoon to mash some of the fully cooked lentils against the side of the pot for a creamy consistency. Add water if desired to adjust consistency.
Mix the chopped herbs and Yogurt together. Add half to the soup and stir in, and reserve the other half for garnish at the end. Ladle the soup into bowls and then add a dollop of the herb yogurt to serve.
Yes it’s already time for another cheese recipe. You’re going to be seeing a lot of them on this blog. Not only because cheese was a staple of many ancient diets, but also because cheese.
1 qt high quality, non homogenized milk (Goat or cow will work) 1 cup yogurt (or buttermilk or sour cream) Salt
Day 1 Set up a double boiler. This is just a medium pot half filled with barely simmering water, and a large bowl resting on top. Whisk the yogurt or cultured cream in the bowl, then slowly pour in the milk, whisking as you go to fully incorporate. Stirring every 15-20 minutes, heat the milk until just warm, or 100 Fahrenheit. Turn off the heat and let the bowl sit unstirred a few minutes until it rises about 5-7 degrees. Wrap in towels and put in a warm place 24 hrs.
Day 2 Put the bowl on the boiler again and repeat as day one only this time do not stir it. Tilt the bowl every 20 minutes to recenter where the heat goes but otherwise leave undisturbed until the temps around the mixture range from 90-115 degrees, or to when curdling just begins but hasn’t set in.
Day 3 Repeat process but on medium heat, tilting the bowl but not stirring until temperatures around the mixture range from 110-135 Fahrenheit. Take off the heat and stir. Set four layers of cheese cloth in a colander over a bowl, and add entire mixture to drain. Scoop out now for “cottage cheese” with lots of whey, or tie off to sink for cream cheese (1-2 hours) or queso fresco (6-8 hours).
Our first recipe was as basic and fast as cheese can be. Today, we’re doing something a little more complex. Not much more difficult, but definitely much longer. This recipe takes 3 days total to complete, but only a couple hours of “active” time.
I like to call it Yogurt Cheese, as you’ll soon see why, but it also goes by other names like Farmers cheese or Cottage cheese, maybe because it’s a great use of very fresh milk right off the farm. As with all our dairy recipes, the quality of your finished product will depend on how good a milk you are using. Don’t skimp.
Done just right, it is somewhere between spreadable and crumbly, and can be adapted towards either end of the spectrum to suit your preference, depending on how long you hang it to drain at the end.
Top to bottom: 1) Something like cottage cheese from a tub at the store. 2) a spreadable almost cream cheese-esque cheese, and 3) what is essentially like queso fresco. I usually like something between 2 and 3, best of both worlds.
When people settle down out of forager lifestyles and into Neolithic lives, they always invent pottery technology to help it. This enables them to store surplus food, and it also enables them to take ovens out of the ground, and one step closer to those we are more familiar with today.
One of these ancient ovens, the Indian Tandoori or just Tandoor, is still popular today. It’s simple design and somewhat more portable form make it pretty similar to many similar ovens of the era. And today, we’re going to make our own for less than $100 (If you already own the tools)
Look, this is not at all how an ancient person would have made one of these. If you have any masonry or pottery skills, as Neolithic peoples did, you can shape and fire your own vessel with an open top out of clay and pure artisanship.
But I’m a cook. Not a potter. I’m going to use power tools. Hey, Neolithic people exploited every resource available to them. If they had power drills, they would have used them!
-1 pint heavy cream -1/2 teaspoon salt -Quart sized sealable jar
Pour cream into jar, not more than halfway full, and seal. Shake vigorously for 10-15 minutes (or whip in a stand mixer) until the fat separates and butter is former. Remove butter, pressing out excess buttermilk and rinsing with ice water. Fold in salt, form into shape, and serve immediately (or later if you can stand the wait)
Next week, Episode 2 of the Anthrochef podcast, Gardeners of the Neolithic, will be released. To learn more about the first villagers and settlers who planted the seeds of modern civilization, you will have to tune in on October 9.
But what I can tell you for now is that this is the era where we see the birth of domestic farm animals, and the beginning of human’s love affair with dairy. Lactose tolerance is one of very few ways we are NOT identical to ancient humans. Like most animals, humans used to drink breast milk as babies, then lost the ability to digest dairy as they get older.
But as people began putting pens around wild goats and cattle, and the first herding societies took off around 10,000 years ago, that all began to change. Genes mutated, human evolution continued, and soon enough, many Neolithic people could drink milk into adulthood, and things would never be the same.
Soon enough, we will be taking on fermented milk (yogurt) and cheese, but today we’re going to keep things more basic, with a simple recipe for milk-fat, aka butter!
Butter is just the solid fat of milk separated out. It was very useful to ancient people because it could be stored long term, a great way to extend the life of very perishable milk. All you need to make it is a jar with a lid, ten minutes, and some muscles.