Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A drink before we decide

We have neither recipes nor detailed descriptions of the foods eaten in Achaemenid Persia, but we do know a lot about the ingredients available and something of what was made from them.  Common foods distributed according to the Persepolis tablets include barley, wheat, beer, sheep and goats.  Wheat flour was made into bread, doubtless similar to modern flatbreads (nan), and the Greeks speak of Persian cakes or pastries.  Fruits and nuts native to the area include figs, dates, pistachios and walnuts.  According to Herotodus, meals were generally light and followed with many desserts.

He also notes that at birthday parties, it was customary to serve whole roasted beasts:  oxen, horses, camels or donkeys if one could afford it, or otherwise small cattle.  Royalty and nobles enjoyed hunting, both in the wilderness and in royal paradises (parks), by which they also trained for war.  Pierre Briant notes that Persians seem to have eaten more meat than Greeks.

The ancient Mediterranean was wine country, and Persia was no exception.  Wine remained important in Persian culture even after Islamification, right up until the IRI banned it.  Herodotus claims that Persians would deliberate on important issues while drunk, then reconsider the decision while sober; if they were sober when they first considered the problem, they reconsidered it while drunk.  (Jona Lendering suggests that this is in fact a misinterpretation of the haoma ceremony.)  While the Middle East is best-known for grape wine, 2nd-century military author Polyaenus in Strategems wrote that half the wine consumed at the king's table in Babylon and Susa was palm wine.  Wine and beer were considered important sources of nutrition; kurtaš women who had just given birth were given extra rations of one or the other.

No one may vomit or urinate in another's presence: this is prohibited among them.
- Herodotus, I.133

The royalty ate very richly, as attested both by the brief entries of the Persepolis tablets, where large amounts of animals, flour, oil and wine are sent wherever a member of the family travels, and the lavish descriptions of Greek writers like Polyaenus, who provides several vertigo-inducing pages of livestock, game, waterfowl, veggies, fruit and nuts, oils, herbs and dairy products described as "the Great King's lunch and dinner."

Food at reenactment camps takes quite a bit of work simply because of the numbers of people being fed.  At the Marathon 2011 camp dinners, grills were set up on the beach well away from the treeline.  Arrangements for keeping meat cold (or allowing the time to buy it right before cooking) and having enough water for washing and drinking have to be made ahead well ahead of time.  In order to be served fresh, vegetables were trimmed by hand shortly before.  The upshot of this is that most of the food has to be kept pretty simple.

Next up:  The case for bows.

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