Food and—more specifically—its consumption are intimately linked to our identity as social beings, anchoring us together as families, communities and nations. Wolves consume calories the same way each time, hurriedly to avoid losing their kill to another. For creatures of the wild, swallowing trumps savoring every time. Not so with the human species. We suspend food on our tongues, rolling our eyes with delight with each bite. Chewing releases vital flavors as taste buds and the brain’s sensory and memory centers revel in the experience.
Left: Tarentine Red Figure, Bull’s Head Rython, Apulia, Italy (ca. 350-320 BCE)
Only our most primitive Paleolithic ancestors likely consumed their food without cooking it. Once fire was discovered as a means of enhancing mastication and digestion, it was a short step to specialty meal preparation. The regionalization of herb and spice enhancements, grain and vegetation cultivation soon demarcated one tribe from another, one culture’s culinary traditions from that of their neighbors. Given our rapidly-evolving omnivorous propensity, gourmet kitchens became a Darwinian evolutionary inevitability! xxxxxx
Once humankind moved beyond deriving nutritional benefit from food and drink for mere survival, what emerged was a profound and universal reverence for food—its production, preparation and consumption—as a range of rituals, ceremonies and rites of passage inevitably surrounded it. Given the prevalent, universal ties between food and custom, a recent publication offered by Philadelphia’s Penn Museum, Cultural Expeditions: A Celebration of Food and Culture, explores these cultural links in a fascinating—and fun—way. The book is a self-guided tour through eight different cultural areas represented by the museum’s collection: Africa, Asia, Egypt, Greece, Mesoamerica, the Middle (Near) East, Native America and Rome. Highlights include a sampling of the institution’s trove of food-related treasures, contextualized within respective, culturally-themed galleries; it is a survey—literally— of global proportion and representation. Produced by the Women’s Committee to benefit the Penn Museum, each chapter contains a short essay about the influence of food in that particular culture, and—as an added feature—contains authentic recipes that celebrate the flavors and traditions of its people. Kitchen tested and updated to include contemporary ingredients when necessary, the book is a beautifully and thoughtfully executed exercise in culinary time travel, a must for anyone with a curiosity—and taste for—the ethnologic and anthropologic origins of food.
Pan-culturally, the artifacts on view objectify and illustrate the ancients’ everyday meal habits with companion crockery and utensils specific to each, but generally common among various regions ‘travelled’ while on the Expedition. Visitors can also catch glimpses of fetishized rituals involving eating and drinking among aboriginals, using the very items on display. For example, in the Mexico and Central America Gallery, Expedition visitors will discover a dramatic point of interest: a large stone ‘Cocotegan Mano and Metate’ (hand roller and mortar, Guatemala or Nicaragua, 300-800 CE), below, celebrating the importance of grain as a staple. The piece was ornately crafted in Guatemala or Nicaragua, and sports a fierce, reptilian-appearing head, likely dating between 300 and 800 CE. The tools were used in the preparation of grain for that iconic, Meso-American mainstay, the tortilla. Agriculture centered predominantly around maize, sibling to beans and squash, which comprise the ‘three sisters’ of Meso-American culinary renown. As such, that designation in very close, familial terms, illustrates a basic, prized relationship and reverence held by these ancients for their daily sustenance. The spiritual connection with their food meant that cooking could be fraught with superstition: never stir with a knife, a symbol of strife; don’t spill the corn, or the corn deity would be angry; a fierce gaze can ruin a dish.
Not surprisingly, this life-scape strongly backs the theory of globally common culinary themes: the Meso-American groups were busy surviving and thriving, and so were their Greek counterparts. The chapter on Greece notes that, “Some of our most vivid descriptions of food and drink come from ancient Greek writers. In the 7th century, B.C.E., the poet Alcman identified the five best wines in Greece, Hippocrates, the father of Western medicine, wrote extensively about nutrition […] Alexander the Great insisted on an apple at every meal, and in his travels, discovered the shallot on Phoenicia, the onion in Egypt, and haricots in India. He deemed the peacock, which he also encountered in India, too beautiful to kill, thus saving it to be savored by the Romans.” Ulysses spoke disparagingly of fish, saying that it should only be eaten if one is starving. But the many examples of fish consumed by the ancient Greeks, and the frequent representation of the fish on everyday household dishes, together with their use of olive oil for everything from cooking to soap, nevertheless accounts for a healthy diet in that part of the world that continues today.
Right: Campanian Red Figure Plate, by the Palmer-Scallop Painter Provenance unknown (ca. 399-300 BCE).
Nutritionally complementary, life-sustaining elements appear prominently inter-culturally—grains, fish and game, vegetables, nuts and fruit—and are duly covered among the museum’s collection of culinary treasures; objects include utilitarian, decorative and sacred, alike. In the American Southwest, for example, corn was sacred. For many tribes “the corn plant was as close a relative as a child; a good man or woman is nurturing of both crops and children, thereby linking garden plots to family harmony.” Corn became flour and corn was fermented to serve as a shared ritualistic drink for families. In many cultures throughout the world—native American and Mesoamerican alike—the cycle of life defined by natural forces was circular, renewing each year and in longer increments defined by sun and stars. Thus, the arrival of a new crop of corn was symbolic of a spiritual beginning, symbolizing prosperity and hope.
For other tribes, scattered across the American landscape, from Alaska to Maine, native diets reflected food sources readily available in those regions. For the Chinook of the Washington and Oregon region, the Columbia River and Pacific Ocean shaped their society. Largely hunter gatherers, water fowl bear and seal meat and fish were a mainstay. The abundance of food in that region allowed Northwest tribes to establish permanent settlements, craft specialization using whale bone and walrus tusks, and social stratification. In the Northeast, with its 6000 miles of coast, tribes like the Micmacs and Mohegans relied on fish and shellfish. Forests offered nuts, berries and various forms of wild game and birds. The Algonguins were the first to process maple sap into syrup, for example. Trade and cultural influence came from active trade with tribes from the great lakes region, as well as new foods and foodways from settlements and incursions by European explorers that were incorporated into native diets.
Wines from various sources and beer are among the oldest libations produced inter-culturally, ranging from grape wines appearing in Egyptian pictographs to the rice wines of China. In ancient cultures, an offering of alcoholic beverage was considered an acceptable sacrifice to the gods, as it was often associated with religious ritual. Additional drinks, preferences varying widely according to regional necessity and availability, are cacao, coffee and tea, among other herbal and nutritional brews. Cacao, a bitter bean indigenous to South America only recently became the sweet chocolaty drink we know today.
Right: Cylinder Vessel, Chama, Guatemala, Classic Maya (700-900 CE)
The Penn Museum includes in its Expeditions tour several examples of vessels once used by the Maya people for the consumption of cacao. The beans were fermented, roasted, ground into a paste, mixed with water, chilies, other spices, and made into a beverage for elites, who sometimes mixed it with hallucinogenics such as mushrooms and morning glory seeds. The importance of cacao in Maya culture is illustrated in museum pieces depicting royalty waiting to be served cacao or consuming the beverage. The custom of drinking chocolate was later introduced to Europe’s upper class by the conquistadores.
The Penn Museum’s examples of beverage-related implements for production and consumption of drink run the gamut from useful to esoteric. One shown on the Expedition, for instance, from Iran, is the world’s oldest known wine storage container—a worn, homely, bulbous, cracked earthenware vessel. At the opposite end of the spectrum lies a delicately carved vine and fruit-entwined ‘Libation Cup’. The artifact, fashioned from a rhino horn, is housed in the China Gallery, where it hardly appears viable for drinking, as it has no base on which it can rest. The explanation for this seeming oversight is simple, though—you must finish your ‘draught’ before setting the cup down—so drink up!
Left: Rhinoceros Horn Libation Cup, China (17th-19th c., CE)
A designated tour stop in the Greece Gallery features a silver ‘Coin With Ear of Barley,’ (ca. 520-500BCE), from Metapontum, Italy, engraved with an image of the grain so near and dear to that region’s heart—as a main ingredient in bread-making (the staff of life, after all). Over seventy varieties of Athenian breads were consumed in Classical times! Grains were virtual agricultural ‘cash cows’ and throughout the Greek colonies, coins were commonly emblazoned with such symbols (or persons) of economic and/or political significance.
Right: Archaic period Silver Coin, Metapontum, Italy (ca. 520-500 BCE)
One of many highlights on the Expedition tour is found in the extraordinary Iran exhibition. An ancient culture rich in culinary heritage, our appreciation of that nation and its people is often clouded by contemporary political tensions and misunderstanding. Current events are just the tip of the iceberg of a centuries-long history of conflict and competing agendas in the region. One positive outgrowth of this turmoil has been a co-mingling of food cultures and a melding of food preparation methods resulting from changing boarders and active trade between regions of the Middle East and the Asian subcontinent.
The Persians, Baghdadis and Ottoman Turks considered cooking a high art. Because Damascus had neither the grass to support beef cattle, together with the Jewish and Muslim prohibition on pork consumption, sheep and goats would find themselves on the menu. Able to survive in the rugged, arid climate of the region, these creatures are often depicted in a range of artifacts dating back to the second millennium, B.C.E. Striking examples, delicate in their conception and rendering are two examples in the Penn collection: a golden apple pendant thought to have hung from a necklace of blue lapis lazuli; and a striking mixed media tomb sculpture called, “Ram Caught in a Thicket,” comprised on gold, silver, copper, shell, lapis lazuli, red limestone and bitumen. Evocative of Old Testament imagery, there are only two known to exist—one at the British Museum, the other on the Expeditions tour at the Penn Museum.
Left: ‘Ram Caught in a Thicket,’ Ur, Mesopotamia (Iraq), 2250-2450 BCE.
The full breadth and flavor (literally!) of this volume can only be hinted at with this small sampling of the Culinary Expeditions narrative. The text, illustrations and sample recipes are carefully curated to underscore the point that one important means of understanding world cultural heritage is through an examination of its food culture. As the introduction points out, “A culture’s cuisine is as intimately tied to its identity as are geographic or political boundaries. But the difference between food and geopolitics is this: whereas boundaries are drawn to create exclusivity, food bring people together. Meals are the anchors for social interaction.”
To this I would add that the cross-pollination of food preparation methods—traveling as they do with conquering armies, as well as with emissaries of trade and diplomacy—have an assimilative effects on cultures. The best of a nation’s culinary heritage is boosted and diversified through exposure to the tastes and smells of a hearty soup or succulent roast, simmering over a fire, made only more extraordinary by the addition of a handful of spices, herbs or that rare vegetable from a faraway place.
By Katherine Arcano, Contributing Editor
The publication, Culinary Expeditions: A Celebration of Food and Culture is a product of extraordinary effort by the Women’s Committee, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. Their decades’ long efforts to promote the museum’s mission have raised awareness regarding the unique offerings of the museum, raising funds and hosting events for the community, organizing tours throughout the world, assisting and underwriting many of the museum’s important curatorial and conservation activities. This well-written 134-page text combines the best of both worlds for anyone interested in the cultural history of food and food preparation throughout the ancient and modern world. It contains dozens of color illustrations drawn from the Penn Museum’s collection, as well as kitchen tested (and tasted) recipes modified form the original to provide a special culinary experience.
On the cover: Golden Apple Pendant, Ur, Mesopotamia (Iraq), 2550-2450 BCE
Culinary Expeditions: A Celebration of Food and Culture Inspired by Penn Museum Treasures
134 pages, in color. $25.00 with all proceeds benefiting the Penn Museum
© 2014, All Rights reserved.
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