"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Some Like It Hot–Spices From Prehistory

BBC News (8.21.13) reported that traces of food spices have been found in pottery shards over 6000 years old.  The spice is garlic mustard, and since it has no nutritional value, researchers concluded that it was used exclusively for taste. Although coriander seeds were found in a cave in Israel 23,000 years ago, there was no evidence how they were used; and these recent findings in Denmark and Germany are the first to positively link spices with cooking.

What is particularly interesting about the finding is that the flavoring of garlic mustard – a flowering plant common in Europe – is mild. 

Garlic mustard seed

It would take a lot of seeds to make the spicy Dijon mustard of today, even if our early ancestors had the time, patience, knowhow, and especially energy to pound them into paste and blend them with other ingredients to mitigate the bitterness.  One chef describes raw mustard seeds as having “a face-warping bitter taste” and inedible unless blended with chervil, thyme, ginger, wine, and cinnamon. The implication is that the earliest Danes and Germans were not using the spice to cover up rotten meat or other nasty tastes in the free-range game of proto-states; but to flavor it.  Once nomadic hunters and gatherers settled down, and domesticated and imported spices became more common, cooks could prepare a mighty brew that would kill the most rancid, ugly-


tasting meat; but the cooks of the Stone Age had to forage, scratch and sniff, pound, and flavor. They were the original locavores.  They ate animals caught on the hoof, roots and tubers pulled up from around the campsite, nuts and berries, and a few seeds and leaves from weeds and.wild plants in the forest.

The chili pepper was one of the most important imports from the New World.  These blazing hot berries could disguise the most rotten, foul-smelling, and putrid food.  The hottest I have ever eaten is the chiltepe from Guatemala.  Only one of these tiny red buds blazes like cold fire, numbs the lips and tongue, makes the scalp sweat, and burns the sensitive membranes of the asshole the next morning.

I lived for a number of years in India a number of years ago, and travelled in rural areas where few foreigners had gone.  The food was native, uninteresting, and blazing hot.  So intolerably hot that the only way to eat it was to wash the odd bits of meat and potato, and to flush the rice.  One day I was picking through my South Indian meal for grains of rice which had escaped the curry bath, and saw a mangy, emaciated, three-legged dog sniff around my pants leg, hoping for a scrap from the table.  I tossed him a piece of gnarly chicken doused in curry.  This hungry, scrofulous cur wouldn’t go near it. The poor beast confirmed what I had concluded long ago.  Eating fiery food was not natural; and the ingredients of olden times must have been nasty indeed to have to be so penitentially spiced.

After the garlic mustard of six millennia ago, Northern Europeans pretty much gave up spicing their foods. Agriculture and the domestication of animals came soon enough;  farming, gardening, and husbandry assured good eating, and the cold climate,smoking, and pickling helped preserve food.

Southern Europeans evolved in a hotter climate, one in which foods spoiled more quickly, but one which provided the right environment for a profusion of spices.  Italian cooking, considered the mother of all Western cuisines, benefitted most.

I grew up in an Italian American family.  My mother worked hard to keep the stink of garlic and guinea food from her kitchen; but gave in occasionally to my father who insisted on something that at least resembled the dishes his mother had made, and occasionally added some garlic to the spaghetti sauce.

My mother’s cooking, however, was a riot of tastes compared to that of the Irish American mothers of my friends.  Meat and potatoes were the staples, and salt and pepper were the only spices.  My aunts, less concerned about expunging the last bits of the Old World from their meals, cooked ‘real’ Italian food – baked artichokes stuffed with parmesan, garlic, and parsley and doused with olive oil; eggplant parmeggiano with a thick, garlicky sauce rich with oregano and rosemary; lasagna bubbling with cheese, spicy Italian sausage, and baked in an all-day meat sauce.

I grew up with spices and learned quickly how you could be liberal with basil, but that too much sage can ruin a meal. Rosemary doesn’t go with everything, and thyme is particular.  I knew that lightly browned garlic gives a wonderful, caramel taste; that the taste of undercooked garlic stays with you for hours (“She doesn’t know how to cook”, said my aunt, referring to a rival’s spaghetti sauce. “It’s repeating on me”); and that even only slightly burned garlic has to be tossed.

The more I travelled, the more spices I used.  My basic curry sauce combines coriander, mustard, cumin, fenugreek, cardamom, and poppy seeds; clove, ginger, and cinnamon; and of course roasted garlic, bay leaves, and hot chili pepper flakes.  My cabbage salads are prepared with dill, caraway, and anise seeds; dill leaves, and mustard; or with curry powder and sweet mango chutney.  I make roasted Asian eggplant with garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil, and hot pepper.  I make Spanish paellas with spicy sausage; and gumbos with Cajun and Bay spices.  I marinate fish in different spices every day. I use strange rubs, blend East and West in soups and purees, and have three shelves for spices.

I am a non-spice purist only for certain foods.  A fresh ear of corn, picked only hours before, needs nothing – no butter, salt, or seasoning.  A soft, ripe avocado needs only a shake of salt and a drizzle of olive oil.  A garden-ripe tomato needs nothing. On the other hand zucchini, broccoli, and green beans need at least some unsalted European-style butter.

I love to cook, and cannot imagine a life in the kitchen without them.  Today’s article on our Stone Age ancestors and the lonely garlic mustard plant made me appreciate them even more.

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