Saturday, October 24, 2009

Informal book review - Egyptian Food and Drink

Egyptian Food and Drink
Hiliary Wilson
Shire 1998
64 pages

This book looks at the production, preparation and consumption of food by the rich and poor of ancient Egypt

List of illustrations
Bread and beer
All growing things
Wine and fruit of all kinds
Meat, fish and fowl
The condiment shelf
The kitchen
Museums to visit
Further reading

The introduction deals mainly with the types of evidence for available for food and drink in ancient Egypt. Most of the data is concerned with food required for the afterlife and there is little about food preparation, horticulture and cooking methods.

Bread and Beer
Both bread and beer were made from grain – either barley or wheat. Grain was the staple ingredient in Egypt and was subject to taxation. Wilson goes on to describe the sowing, harvesting and post-harvest processing of barley and wheat, and lists some of their uses. Bread was of particular importance and Wilson covers the different types, shapes and production methods. Beer making is described at the end of the chapter. Hops were unknown in Egypt so the beer was unlike anything that would be recognized as beer today.

All growing things
This chapter opens with a look at the type of growing that took place in the form of irrigated fields growing cereals and flax, and garden plots forming small beds with raised mud-brick partitions. This chapter is concerned mainly with legumes and pulses including garlic, onion, lettuce, cucumbers, lupine, broad bean, lentils and yellow peas as well as parts of water lily. In each case Wilson explains both what evidence exists for usage and often provides modern parallels of Egyptian equivalents.

Wine and fruits of all kinds
This chapter is devoted to fruit and products derived from fruit. Fruit were valued in their own right but were also processed to form purees, jams and flavours for other foodstuffs. Grapes were used to make wine, as were pomegranates. Wilson discusses a number of different fruits and their uses.

Meat, fish and fowl
Wilson opens with the observation that the “problems associated with keeping food fresh in a hot climate led to an apparent class distinction in the eating of meat”. She next points out that the lower a person’s class the smaller he was likely to eat, and that only the wealthy could afford to slaughter large animals. Wilson looks at what would have been consumed by both the wealthy and those at village level. She also discusses tabus associated with different meats and fish. Wilson then goes not to look at how fish and fowl were cauth, processed and prepared. A description of butchery and the resulting products follows. Wild game supplemented the diet.

The condiment shelf
Wilson describes products that were used to preserve and to add flavour ingredients and meals. Fats, oils, salts, and herbs were used and would have produced the same sort of flavours, textures and effect familiar to anyone accustomed to modern Egyptian cookery.

The kitchen
The last chapter looks at the kitchen and its contents. Wilson says that most village cooking took place out of doors and that in wealthier households it would take place on upper floors or in open courtyards to enable smoke and cooking smells to escape. She goes on to describe cooking fires, domestic stoves, the variety of pots and pans used, and a number of cooking utensils including knives, paired sticks, spoons, spatulae, ladles, pestles and mortars and mixing bowls. Vermin clearly presented problems and Wilson mentions that pottery rat traps are known from the 12th Dynasty in Kahun.

The book ends with a useful glossary, a list of museums to visit (in the UK, Egypt, France, Italy and the USA – of which the Museum of Agriculture at Dokki in Cairo is a must!), a short Further Reading list and the index.

The book is full of black and white photographs and illustrations, mainly showing representations from tombs, clay models and surviving examples of foodstuffs.

To me there are only two minor omissions. The first is that there is very little discussion of how little Egyptian agriculture evolved over a period of 3000 years and why this might be. The second is that the few innovations and imports were often valuable at different levels, but they are not discussed here. But this is a very small book and there's only so much information that you can stuff into that number of pages without sacrificing clarity, so I'm certainly not grumbling.

I very much like that Wilson looks at all levels of Egyptian society and what sort of foods people of different classes would have had access to for consumption, not just what the wealthy would have had access to.

Overall this is a well presented and informative introduction to a vast and fascinating topic.

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