Tigernuts, Shopping Lists, and Animal Skin

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April 19, 2016 by libroshombre


Tigernut Sweets may be on my menu soon. I read about this extremely old recipe on AncientNile.co.uk, where I also learned that no ancient peoples are known to have had cookbooks. Some recipes from those days survived long enough to be written down including, Tigernuts, which are made by making a paste of dates and water, adding lots of cinnamon and chopped walnuts, and rolling it into balls, dipping them in honey, and rolling them in ground almonds. The Egyptians might have struggled along without cookbooks, but not Fairbanksans. Our public libraries’ catalog shows 1,329 cookbooks that we own communally, and with 5,000 new cookbooks published annually, more are on the way.

Dallas Cowboy coach Bill Parcells once noted that whoever’s being asked to cook the dinner (i.e. “lead the team”) ought to be able to buy the groceries (i.e. “assemble the team to be led”). Interestingly, shopping lists exist that are far older than cookbooks, and they’re providing new insights into the writing of the Bible. A recent NYTimes.com article by Isabel Kershner describes the archeological findings of 100 “ostracons,” ink writing on pieces of pottery, that listed supplies needed at a pre-Roman Judean fortress shortly before the Babylonians conquered that land in 587 BCE. A typical ostracon read, “To Eliaship: And now, give the Kittiyim (Greek mercenaries) 3 baths of wine, and write the name of the day.” Another mentioned “Add a full homer of wine, bring tomorrow; don’t be late. And if there is vinegar, give it to them.” For the record, OxfordBiblical Studies.com says the liquid measure “bath” equaled 6.073 gallons, while “homers,” a dry measure equaled 6.524 bushels.

Kershner described how Tel Aviv University’s research has “combined archeology, Jewish history, and applied mathematics, and involved computerized image processing, and the development of an algorithm to distinguish between the various authors issuing commands.” They were able to determine that “even soldiers in the lower ranks of the Judahite army, it appears, could read and write … And they wrote well, with hardly any mistakes.” Scholars previously thought that the literacy rate in Judah was too low prior to the 586 BCE invasion to compile the Old Testament, but they’re having to reconsider.

Medical recipes also relate to our cookbook theme. In 2013 a German specialist on ancient Syria named Kessel was studying the oldest known copy of “On the Mixtures and Powers of Drugs,” an important medical book owned by a wealthy Baltimore collector that was written by the Greek physician Galen of Pergamon around 200 CE. The book was incomplete, but Kessel realized he’d recently seen one of the missing pages at a Harvard University library. The Baltimore copy of Galen’s book was a “palimpsest,” which is defined by Macmillan Dictionary as “a very old document that writing was removed from and the surface written on again.”

Parchment’s stretched animal skin, and it’s easy to scrape off handlettered ink, thereby recycling the pages, and in this instance hymns replaced Galen’s recipes. Fortunately, modern technology recaptured the old lettering, and valuable insights into ancient medicine are being regained. The Harvard page came from a catalog from the world’s oldest continually operating library, located at the Sacred and Imperial Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount of Sinai.

Cookbooks hit their stride in the 1800s. English food writers led the evolution of modern cookbooks according to the library’s copy of “Encyclopedia of Food and Culture,” and two cookbooks, “Plain Cooking for the Working Classes” (1852) and “Book of the Table” (1877) stood out in their opposing approaches. The former’s author was Queen Victoria’s personal chef, Charles Elme Francatelli, who “displayed compassion for women who fed their families on limited expenditures and who worked and baked at archaic hearths.” Book of the Table “asserted that talent for cookery was a matter of soul,” and with an author named Eneas Sweetbread Dallas, it’s unsurprising that the “overbearing rhetoric bolstered the image of the chef as an artiste who functioned above the plane of the ordinary kitchen worker.”

Public libraries have resources all classes need and use. The recipe for a successful library is simple: compile and organize a world of information, fold in a staff committed to public service, and add curiosity.

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