Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Ancient Olympians on the Atkins Diet (776 BC)

Ancient Olympians on the Atkins Diet (776 BC)

By: The Scribe on August, 2007
The ancient training grounds at Olympia.]
While the modern-day Olympics have certainly changed since their inception in 776 BC, one thing has certainly remained the same: all athletes, past and present, have been concerned with their diet. An athlete’s mealtime can make or break his performance, which the ancient Greeks were well aware of. In fact, food historians are realizing that the diet of the first Olympians wasn’t that far off from what people in the 21st century would identify with the popular “Atkins” diet!
There are a wealth of Greek and Latin texts, such as The Deipnosophists – or in English,The Philosopher’s Banquet – which is a 15-volume tale of a long feast that was written around 200 AD, wherein food origins and quality are discussed at length. This tale, written by a Greek named Athenaeus, centers around a banquet where diners talk extensively about all different kinds of food and where it came from – and not only that, but each character provides the ancient literary source for their own words! Essentially, it’s an ancient document wherein the characters talk about food using quotes from other real, ancient documents.
Unfortunately, out of the 1,500 documents that were cited in the work, only 15 still survive. Still, these documents provide valuable insight into ancient Mediterranean cuisine and how it was prepared.
For most people, a regular diet would consist of items like bread, fruit, and vegetables, while fish was the primary meat source for an average citizen. But Olympians, who typically came from the upper social classes in ancient Greece, had families who could afford to feed their children heartier meats and other protein-rich foods that helped to condition and build muscle.
Ancient Olympians ate a lot of meat… too bad they didn’t have BBQs.
Although the earliest reports of Olympic diets seemed to center around eating mostly cheese and fruit, the focus was shifted toward meat somewhere along the way. Apparently, this happened after one ancient Olympic runner won multiple competitions after eating a meat-only diet – which naturally started a copycat craze. The athletes were also advised to avoid eating bread right before their competition, and to snack instead on dried figs.
The Deipnosophists also includes this intriguing tale about a wrestler named Milon of Croton, who is recorded to have attended six different Olympic games and won competitions at each one:
“Milon of Croton used to eat 20 pounds of meat and as many of bread, and he drank 3 pitchers of wine. And at Olympia he put a four-year-old bull on his shoulders and carried it around the stadium; after which, he cut it up and ate it all alone in a single day.”
– Theodorus of Hierapolis’ “On Athletic Contests”, cited by Athenaeus.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Sweet Wine Cakes

For our Best Fest celebration, I made Sweet Wine Cakes, from Cato's De Agricola. 

  • 1lb (500g) wholemeal bread flour
  • 2oz (50g) lard
  • 1oz (25g) grated cheese
  • Must: either grape juice and yeast or partially fermented Lambrusco (I used sweet sherry)
  • Aniseed
  • Ground cumin
  • Bay leaves

Rub the lard into the flour. Stir in the grated cheese, aniseed and cumin. Try 1 teaspoon each of the spices at first but increase the amount for a more highly flavoured dough. Personally, I like these cakes highly spiced and use at least 1 dessertspoon aniseed and 1-2 tablespoons cumin. Make a well in the flour.

When the dough has risen, knead well. The wine dough, in particular, will need a lot of extra flour kneading in. Cut and shape portions of the kneaded dough to a suitable size to fit each one on a bay leaf.
Bake in a heated oven at 450F. The time will depend on the size of your bay leaves and, therefore, the size of your wine cakes. I suggest you check small cakes at 10-15 minutes, larger ones may need 20-30 minutes.

For the finishing touch, I topped each one with an almond slice. This made a great addition, as the almonds got toasted, and the roasted almond taste went well with the spice of the cakes. 
The cakes were relatively successful. They tasted much like scones that you get at the coffee shop, but with a weird cumin taste to it. The anise didn't really come through, because I used very little of it. I'm not a big fan of anise. They were dry, and crumbly. The bay leaves added a nice touch. I tried eating one with the bay leaf still in it, and one without. The bayleaf was kind of crunchy, but still pleasant. Either way, the aroma of the bay leaf permeated the cakes to give them a delightful spicy taste. 
I served these up at the Meet & Greet where we got to meet Dr. Betini. I hope you got to try one! 

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

1,800-Year-Old Roman Multitool

What have the Romans ever done for us? Well, it turns out that back somewhere between A.D 201 to 300, a clever Roman, probably named MacGyvericus, invented the multitool. And not just some weird, old-fashioned multitool, either. MacGyvericus’ tool is startlingly similar to the modern Swiss Army Knife, now part of the collection of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England.

Like the common Swiss tool, the Roman version has a lot of foldaway implements stowed inside: a knife, spike, pick, fork and a spatula. Unlike the modern-day equivalent, the Roman Army Knife has a useful spoon on the end, making it likely that this iron and silver artifact, found in somewhere in the Mediterranean countries, was meant for eating with.

Sure, they invaded and occupied my home country and occupied it for years, but they brought with them central heating and civilization, two things that England lacked back then. When the Romans left, the country slipped back into dark times, where it became insular and xenophobic, and it remains so today. At least, though, the cold and rainy nation still has central heating and folding knives, although the latter is now used primarily by gangs of marauding teenagers as they roam the rainy twilight streets in search of old people to stab.

Past the ‘Best Before’ Date (ca. 400 BC)

Past the ‘Best Before’ Date (ca. 400 BC)

By: The Scribe on November, 2007
Remnants of from ancient salad dressing found at the bottom of the Mediterranean is probably well past its due date, though it shares many common characteristics with today’s oregano-based dressings.A 2,400-year-old shipwreck off the coast of the Greek island of Chios in the Aegean sea contained a rather tasty surprise – DNA testing on the insides of some of the amphorae yielded a recipe for Greek salad dressing! The shipwreck currently lies 70 meters deep, and is located about a kilometer away from Chios.

Scientists were able to obtain samples of the ancient dressing after sending several underwater robots down to the shipwreck to collect two of the jars. Amphorae were used by the ancient Greeks and Romans to transport liquids and other commodities – things like wine, oil, spices, grain, or olives – and are shaped like large cones. Since they’re made out of earthenware pottery, they have an incredible lifespan, preserving for hundreds of thousands of years, even underwater!
Studies on amphorae from shipwrecks often help to reveal the country of origin of the ship and how old it was, and it isn’t unusual for the jars to often still contain remains of their original contents – finds like this have helped to dramatically increase the amount of information available on trade in the ancient Mediterranean.
The amphorae from Chios were normally shaped like this, and held all varieties of trade items, from wine, to grain, to oregano-flavored olive oil!The DNA contents of the amphorae from this shipwreck revealed several common yet interesting ingredients: the jars contained olive oil mixed with oregano. This came as a bit of a surprise to archaeologists, since the island the ship had left from was a major exporter of fine wines – it had been assumed that any ship leaving Chios would have held plenty of amphorae full of wine.
While further investigations revealed that another amphora from the ship likely contained wine – which means there was probably plenty aboard – the oregano-flavored oil seems to have been the primary trade item on this vessel, making up at least two-thirds of the 350 amphorae found on the ship.
It’s likely that strong winds developed soon after the ship left port, causing it to capsize without warning. It is fairly common for the area around Chios to develop sudden storms or fluke winds that are exceedingly dangerous for sailing, however since they are unpredictable, sailors couldn’t simply not leave port for sake of potential trouble.
Olive oil in a modern storage jar.
As a result, it turns out that not only did the ancient Greeks like their salad dressing, but the island of Chios was responsible for a more diverse agricultural program than previously assumed. These people certainly knew what they were doing, as well – in the rural areas of modern Greece, the older women are well aware that adding oregano and other spices to oil helps not only to increase the flavor, but also to preserve the life of the oil much longer.
By exporting flavored oil with an intentional longer lifespan, it’s possible that this ancient preservation method accidentally helped to preserve the oil’s DNA for archaeologists to find two thousand years later.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Pass the Caesar Salad, Please… (ca. 264 BC – 440 AD)

Salve! Spartacurtus ibi! 

I found this in another blog about the diets of gladiators. 
I thought it'd be a useful addition to our blog. 

Pass the Caesar Salad, Please… (ca. 264 BC – 440 AD)

Previously, we brought you a story about a gladiator graveyard recently discovered at the site of the ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey. Now, it appears that forensic analysis of 70 gladiator skeletons has revealed some startling news about gladiator lifestyles – or rather, what they ate during their lives as gladiators.

Instead of conforming to the modern media image of gladiators as muscle-bound Playboys, gladiators in ancient Rome were actually overweight vegetarians – strong and muscular, yes, but with more than a little extra pudge around the middle. Using a method known as elementary microanalysis, palaeoanthropologists were able to determine that ancient gladiators lived off a diet that consisted mainly of barley, beans, and dried fruit.
A simple diet such as this, while increasing bone density and actually allowing the gladiators to become much stronger than normal, would result in a zinc deficiency, causing an imbalance in the gladiator’s internal chemistry. There would be too much of a natural chemical called strontium built up in the body, which would result in the gladiator becoming – rather literally – fat.
Why was this beneficial? Primarily, these layers of fat would have helped to protect their vital organs against piercing blows from opponents. It may have also helped them to heal much more quickly after being injured. Considering that most gladiators only survived for an average of three years in the ring, it was likely the case that gladiators “beefed up” during the fighting seasons and training, and then lost the weight soon after retirement (if they survived that long).
So, as much as Hollywood would like everyone to believe that gladiators were poster boys for fitness, the truth of the matter is that even though they were incredibly strong and relatively attractive men – in fact, unattractive men weren’t even considered for gladiatorial training – they were actually relatively overweight, moreso resembling lightweight sumo wrestlers than Russell Crowe’s movie-gladiator Maximus.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Too many designations in the kitchen

Too many designations in the kitchen

At first blush, the UNESCO project for culinary heritage seems a good thing. On closer examination, it's plagued with problems, not the least of which is the very possibility of preserving cuisines.

This month, UNESCO is expected to designate for the first time one or more of the world's culinary traditions as an "intangible cultural heritage." The cultural category, established in 2003 as a supplement to the better-known category of "tangible heritage" (castles, cities, landscapes), was created to protect traditions in the developing world by encouraging tourism. Already the tango, Croatian lace-making and Sardinian pastoral songs have been chosen.
This year the leading culinary contenders — both repeat applicants — appear to be Italy, Greece, Spain and Morocco for the "Mediterranean diet," and Mexico for the indigenous cuisine of certain villages in the state of Michoacan. If UNESCO finally gives food the official heritage nod, it's likely that other organizations will follow its lead and make their own designations.
Should we cheer? Perhaps. It's good to see credit going to cooks who imbue a place with its identity, to make explicit what we all know — that cuisine is more than just ingredients and processes protected by denominations of origin; it's the totality of the eating tradition. And if recognition boosts tourism, which is what the heritage industry is all about, then that's good too.
At first blush, the UNESCO project for culinary heritage seems so self-evidently a good thing that only a grinch could grumble. On closer examination, though, it's plagued with problems, not the least of which is the very possibility of preserving cuisines.
Take the cuisines of the Mediterranean. In prehistory, these were based on barley bread and porridge. In the Roman Empire, the cuisine changed to one based on wheat bread, fish sauce and salted meats and cheeses. With the spread of Christianity and Islam, the cuisines north and south of the sea diverged, with Christians emphasizing pork, lard and fish, and Muslims eschewing pork and wine and favoring sheep fat. In the 18th century, tomatoes began creeping into the diet and low-acid olive oil became popular among the upper classes. A century later, new national cuisines were created as Italy was unified and the Ottoman Empire broke up. That there was something called a "Mediterranean diet" that unified these changing, competing cuisines was given currency only in 1975. Its originator was an American scientist, Ancel Keys (developer of the balanced ration for soldiers in World War II, named K-rations in his honor), who published a book with his wife, Margaret, titled "How to Eat Well and Stay Well the Mediterranean Way."
A similar process applies to the corn, beans and chilies that the Conservatorio de la Cultura GastronĂ³mica Mexicana, the group promoting Mexican cuisine to UNESCO, identifies as the unchanging foundations of Mexican cuisine from its pre-Hispanic past. Yet the people in the territory that is now Mexico have been eating bread, noodles and rice for about 500 years, and their signature dish — mole — has roots in the Islamic cuisine of medieval Spain. To exclude these contributions to Mexican culinary heritage is to write out much of the country's history and many of its people. To try to freeze the cuisines in time is like commanding the tide to stand still.
Even if it were possible to stem the tide of culinary change, it's not clear it would be desirable. People change their diets for good reasons, including access to new ingredients and technologies, the appeal of variety and improved nutrition.
In the Roman Empire, people shifted from barley to wheat because they preferred raised bread to barley bannocks. Centuries later, tomatoes and dried pasta opened up a world of quick sauces and a delicious, near-instant staple with a long shelf life. New techniques make kitchen life less laborious as well. Grinding wet corn for tortillas the traditional way — on the knees, pushing stone across stone — was five hours of exhausting, arthritis-inducing hard labor for Mexican village women. Only in recent generations have electric mills and instant mixes relieved women of this drudgery. Mexican women agree with critics who protest that the tortillas do not taste as good. But the choice is worth it, they argue, because they can spend more time with their children, make crafts for sale or take a job so their children can stay in school. Why should they be denied that option? Let's record and remember their labor, not preserve it.
Compounding the problems of viability and desirability that dog the UNESCO project is the fog that obscures how culinary traditions are to be selected, adjudicated, administered and monitored. Candidates seem to be picked by lobbying groups. They apparently choose the projects, get permission from the chosen community and endorsements from their national governments, and then deliver the paperwork to UNESCO. Who funds this and why is obscure.
Then a committee in Paris chosen from member states, expert or not in culinary matters, judges the proposal. In a recent article, the Economist called for the annual meetings of the older World Heritage program, including the proposals and the constitution of the committee, to be thrown open to the public. Surely this should apply to the intangible heritage program as well.
So what seems at first to be a careful selection of some of the world's greatest culinary traditions turns out on inspection to be a process of dubious intellectual worth, clouded and probably politicized decision-making, and poised to become marshaled in support of a knee-jerk nationalism. UNESCO's program is just the latest in a series of efforts to give form and shape to a pervasive culinary nostalgia, the disquieting feeling that somewhere, sometime, food was better, tastier, more natural and more healthful, that there was a Mediterranean diet or a Mexican cuisine untarnished by migrants, industrialism and change.
Like "authentic," "terroir," "slow" and "local" — all used to try to pin down our yearnings, each catching the mood of the moment — culinary tradition as intangible heritage turns out upon examination to be not quite up to the job demanded of it.
Rachel Laudan is a historian and writer based in Mexico City and a contributor to, where a longer version of this appears.