He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate – bringing forth food from the earth: wine that gladdens the heart of man, oil to make his face shine, and bread that sustains his heart.
The recorded evolution of nutrition dates back some 14,000 years, and quite a lot has been researched about agriculture, use of food, preservation of food, staple food and feasts in ancient times. We know that in Mesopotamia (what is now Iraq), as early as 2,300 B.C., and in Egypt in the time of the third dynasty of the Pharaohs, the variety of foods was astonishing, and so were their culinary refinements. How do we know? The Mesopotamians delivered artifacts of cooking recipes from as early as the second millennium B.C. The Egyptians didn’t leave any recipes behind, but food was important enough to be served in huge quantities and varieties to the diseased for their presumed long journey into afterlife, now discovered in wall paintings in their tombs of the pyramids. The Babylonians used barley, wheat and millet; chick peas, lentils and beans; onions, garlic and leeks; cucumbers, cress, carrots and radishes; beets and turnips; mustard and fresh green lettuce. At least at the palaces they served delicacies such as truffles, onions, cucumbers, many varieties of fish, freshly grilled goat; mutton and pork (not yet taboo in the Near East) were traded in food markets and cooked with herbs and spices like coriander, cress, and cumin; fennel, fenugreek, and leek; marjoram, mint, and mustard; rosemary and rue; saffron and thyme. Birds, ducks, geese were used for their eggs and for the meat. The abundance of fruits included apples, apricots, cherries, dates, figs, melons, mulberries, pears, plums, pomegranates, and quinces. Bakery items included bread, sometimes enriched with animal and vegetable fat; milk, butter, and cheese; fruit and fruit juice; honey and sesame seeds.
It is clear that the early Egyptians enjoyed their food. Nobles and priests were particularly well served, with at least forty different kinds of bread and pastries, some raised, some flat, some round, some conical, some plaited. There were some varieties made with honey, others with milk, still others with eggs. And tomb excavations show what a wide range of other foodstuffs the great had set before them, even as early as the beginning of the third millennium B.C. – barley porridge, quail, kidneys, pigeon stew, fish, ribs of beef, cakes, stewed figs, fresh berries, cheese…Much time was spent organizing supplies. Until about 2200 B.C., the Egyptians attempted to domesticate a number of animals like the ibex, oryx, antelope and gazelle, and then, abandoning this fruitless occupation, turned to the more entertaining pursuits of hunting in the marshland preserves, collecting exotic vegetables like wild celery, papyrus stalks and lotus roots, trapping birds and going fishing. The Nile marshes and canals contained eel, mullet, carp, perch and tiger fish…The origins of salting as a preservation process remain obscure. Although in Egypt there was a positive link between salt’s use in preserving food for the living and embalming the bodies of the dead: The peasants’ food, like their way of life, was more circumscribed than that of the great officials…Their standard fare may have been ale, onions and common flatbread… bought from a stall in the village street, but they could look forward to quite frequent days of plenty when they feasted on the surplus from temple sacrifices or one of the great high festivals. At that time they ate pork, too.
In Egypt banquets started in the early or middle afternoon, but few details are available about the eating of ordinary meals. The basic Egyptian meal was beer, bread, and onions, which the peasants ate daily, probably as a morning meal before they left to work in the fields or on works commanded by the pharaohs. Another simple meal would be eaten in the cool of the evening, probably boiled vegetables, bread, and beer; possibly wild fowl…The wealthy would expect to eat two or three meals a day comprising vegetables, wild fowl, fish, eggs, and beef. Butter, milk, and cheese were also easily obtainable. Dessert would consist of fruits: grapes, figs, dates, and watermelons. In a Saqqara tomb of the Second Dynasty, a full meal was found that had been laid out for an unnamed noble. It included pottery and alabaster dishes containing a porridge of ground barley, a spit-roasted quail, two cooked lamb’s kidney’s, pigeon casserole, stewed dish, barbecued beef ribs, triangular loaves of bread made from ground emmer, small round cakes, a dish of stewed figs, a plate of sidder berries, and cheese, all accompanied by jars that had once contained wine and beer. In the Old Kingdom, the Egyptians ate around a small table a few inches high, using their fingers to eat. Normally, dishes were placed in the center of the table, and each person sitting around dipped bread or a spoon into it. The lower classes continued this form of eating in the New Kingdom, but the upper classes then preferred to sit on tall cushioned chairs. Servants brought around water in small bowls so those guests could wash their hands before and during the meal.
Even in ancient Egypt there was a dining protocol and eating etiquette. The information for feasts or banquets comes almost entirely from scenes found in tombs. In the Old Kingdom, they seemed to be mainly family gatherings…Banquets in the New Kingdom were more elaborate, with family and guests enjoying the meal. Pharaohs gave official banquets. The tomb scenes show the guests being greeted by their hosts and servants coming forward to offer garlands of flowers. Next, basins of water are offered for the guests to wash their hands. Men and women ate together, both dressed in flowing linen gowns that reached the floor The women held lotus flowers in one hand for the perfume and wore a perfume cone on their head, made of a fatty substance that released a pleasing aroma as heat from the head slowly melted it during the course of the evening. Guests were seated on chairs, stools or cushions. They ate from small tables, but side tables were seemingly loaded with food in the almost buffet style, although servants would bring the food to the guests and offer them napkins to wipe their mouths. Jugs and basins were placed on stands nearby, ready for washing of hands and feet…The main food would be bread, fruits, pulses, and vegetables. Fruits would have included dates, figs, melons, and possibly fruits imported from other countries. Meat could be in abundance at banquets. Whole oxen were roasted; ducks, chickens, geese, and pigeons were served. Fish seems to have been less popular…Honey was a precious food, mainly the preserve of the wealthy, and therefore expected at feasts. Jars underneath the table held beer, wine, and fermented fruit drinks. Toasts were drunk to the goddess Hathor…The meal would be accompanied by music…After the meal there might be storytelling or acrobats.
The connection of food and entertainment was practiced as early as mankind realized that food served more purposes than filling the stomach. We find evidence of food entering into a relationship with culture some 3,000 years ago, and it seemed to be fueled by food being abundant. Maslow’s famous textbook, Pyramid of Needs, has survived more than three generations, but its validity is still fundamentally unchallenged. It holds that if a person’s fundamental needs, Food, Water and Shelter are not met, everything else is meaningless. William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, attested to that fact already in 1865; he found that preaching to the hungry of East London was futile; only after their bodily needs were met were they receptive to the spiritual food. Booth’s personal idea of true religion was appropriately termed into the slogan: soup, soap and salvation. The higher needs in the Maslow’s hierarchy only come into focus when the lower needs (basic food)in the pyramid are satisfied. Once an individual has moved upwards to the next level, needs in the lower level are no longer the priorities. Now, as most of us live in the age of plenty, our basic need to fill the stomach has long been surpassed and we could move to the higher level in the pyramid, where we seek pleasure. Unfortunately we have all but forgotten how much pleasure we can get from sharing a meal in great company, where we take the time to enjoy the food and the company. If we try to make the time to trade Fast Food into Slow Food every once in a while, we’ll reap the rewards by increased energy, vitality, better sleep and digestion – in short, we may not need these pesky antacids anymore.