From Florets to Guacamole
An inessential history of food, Part I
by Gay Lyons
It all started with a broccoli floret. I was making a simple supper. We had bacon-wrapped filets, steamed broccoli with just a dab of butter and red pepper flakes and mushrooms sautéed with rosemary, with a little Crown Royal to deglaze the pan. Anyway, I was standing in the kitchen, mushrooms simmering, filets broiling, admiring the little bonsai-like broccoli, when I thought, “Where does broccoli come from anyway? Where did it first appear?”
For answers to questions like these, one of my favorite sources is www.foodtimeline.org . It’s an ambitious website, discussing everything from smelt to Pez.
The first “food” listed was water. The assumption seems to be that water has been with us always. Insects were also an early food. According to Pliny, the 1st century B.C. author, Roman aristocrats were fond of beetle larvae. David George Gordon, author of The Eat-a-Bug Cookbook , says eating insects never caught on in Western society, but much of the rest of the world savored delicacies such as winged termites, aquatic fly larvae, locusts, grasshoppers, de-winged dragonflies, grubs, cicadas, tarantulas, agave worms and ants. Aristotle, recognized most often for his non-culinary writings, wrote in the 4th century about the best time to harvest cicadas—early for males, later for females.
One of the earliest foods was emmer grain, dating to 17,000 B.C. Since fossil remains indicate that game was consumed during the Paleolithic era, emmer may have been used for the first hamburger bun. Moving swiftly through the timeline, to 6th century B.C., I found the first mention of broccoli, a member of the large Brassicaceae family, which includes cabbage, cauliflower, collards, Brussels sprouts, kale and kohlrabi. At this point, having learned that broccoli has an ancient and honorable origin, I could have stopped, but I was too intrigued. What I found was interesting—and way more fun than what I should have been doing. This month, I’ll cover the first few hundred thousand years; next month, I’ll tell you about some of the foods introduced in the last century or two, beginning with Underwood Deviled Ham, which has the oldest existing trademark in the United States.
Pistachios have been traced to parts of Turkey and the Middle East in 7,000 B.C. They were introduced to Europe by the Romans in the 1st century A.D. Red-dyed pistachios, which used to be popular in the United States, apparently originated with a Brooklyn vendor who dyed his nuts to distinguish them from others being sold. At three to four times the price of other nuts, pistachios are considered a luxury, something I once pointed out when I caught my husband snacking on my small cache of hulled pistachios, meant to be used in recipes but not for snacking. I think we once had the same conversation about pine nuts.
I was surprised to find that French toast may have been around as early as the 1st century A.D. Conventional wisdom traces this dish to medieval origins. Old stale bread was revived by milk and eggs and heated on a griddle. The French referred to the dish as “pain perdu,” which literally means lost bread. However, the dish has been traced to ancient Roman times. The original French name for the dish was “Pain a la Romaine,” or Roman Bread.
Sushi has been traced to a dictionary compiled in China during the 2nd century A.D. Originally, sushi-making was a method of preserving fish by fermentation which required both salt and rice. Salted fish was wrapped in rice, which was discarded when the fish was eaten. In the 7th century, sushi was introduced to Japan, and at some point, consumption of the rice along with the fish became common.
Eggplant may have originated in both India and China, but it seems to have been carried by Arabs to the Mediterranean in the early Middle Ages. One of the oldest records about eggplant is in a Chinese book written in the 5th century. The next oldest records are from Arabia in the 9th, 10th, and 12th centuries. The Moors introduced eggplant to Spain. Eggplant in America, introduced by Spaniards, was mostly ornamental until the mid-20th century. At one time, eggplants were known as “apples of love” by those who considered them a love potion, or as “mad apples” by those who thought eating them caused insanity.
It is thought that Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez introduced avocados to Europe, but the fruit has been traced to Oaxaca and the Tehuacan valley of Mexico as early as 8,000 B.C. Guacamole is thought to have been served in pre-Columbian, 14th century America. The Aztec ahuaca-hulli, which consisted of mashed avocados, chopped tomatoes, onions and coriander leaves, sounds similar to our modern guacamole.
It’s quite a change to move from early grains and vegetables to Kool-Aid, Oreos and M&M’s, but tune in next month to read about the origin and history of some famous 20th-century food products.