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  • Ali Tadlaoui

Why food connects us so well to history

"Unwinding" stew (a vegetarian stew). Beet and lamb stew. Lamb broth. A Yale museum curator and a digital imaging specialist brought these Babylonian dishes to life at an NYU event a couple of years ago. The other day I watched a recording of them following the steps of these ancient recipes; recipes captured on cuneiform clay tablets. The prepared dishes looked interesting. More than that, they were relatable, even though the recipes are 4,000 years old. Beets. Onions. Cilantro. Parsley. Leeks. Ale. Milk. Squab (tastes like chicken, right?). Lamb, not so much, but my palate holds the distinct flavor and texture of lamb in its memory. I'd venture to say that you remember lamb too even if you've had it only once.


Imagine sitting down to a meal with a Babylonian. You'd realize just how much you do not have in common well before getting to the food. What are they wearing when they open the door (is it even a door we recognize?) to welcome you? Definitely not khakis. How do you greet one another, since you don't speak the same language, and do you fumble through the non-verbal stuff? Do you sit on furniture or the floor to partake of this feast? Fingers or forks? Well, you'd have to have a spoon of some sort to eat the stews. And I haven't touched on how different our value systems are likely to be.


Still, after a few bites you will have found a common bond, especially if you like the taste of the "unwinding" stew or lamb broth. But there is a connection between you even if you don't. Your Babylonian host and you share a relatable experience of something salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. And satiating. Umami is umami, no matter whose mouth processes it. The Babylonian recipe is unfamiliar but the eating experience has got to be familiar.


This potential for food to bridge millennia got me thinking about other ways we experience history, and how they maybe fall short of how food can connect us with people of the past.


We dedicate expensive spaces to house the most interesting and important relics and records of history. Many of these art masterpieces are meant to accurately and precisely represent the reality of what the artist saw, and heard, and smelled. I do relate to these two-dimensional representations when I walk through a museum. To a point. But the interiors are often darker and gloomier. The fashion statement of yore is not likely to be in vogue. Domestic life is just too different. The chores, and the tools used for those chores. Our hobbies. Who reads anymore, and by candlelight? How many of us gather for the hunt anymore? And the tools of battle are no longer what they were even fifty years ago.


So art can connect us to history, but does it do it as well as food might help us feel what it was actually like to walk in a very distant ancestor's shoes or sit down for a meal in whatever garment they wore?


What about literature? Of course literature speaks to all our timeless virtues and vices. It is said that there are no new ideas. They've all been captured in oral or written histories. That's what makes reading Confucius, Plato, Ibn Khaldun, Homer, Rumi, Bocaccio, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Voltaire, Dickens, Tolstoy (some top of mind "documentarians") captivating still today,


No matter how masterfully descriptive and evocative the writing, though, I'm not sure I really can know what it was to be in the belly of the Trojan horse. Having to wade through Elizabethan english, or the endless, repeating poetic and thematic structure of the Iliad or the Koran makes experiencing history through these literature masterpieces less effective than eating a meal made from ingredients available then and now even if combined in an unfamiliar way.


Music is primal...but I don't feel transported to any particular time or space. The Blue Danube can soothe the savage breast but doesn't necessarily place you among waltzers on a nineteenth century Vienna ballroom floor. I can't say that I have even an idea of what Babylonian music sounded like.


We tend to discount history, I think, because of this difficulty in relating. We are so caught up in the here and now. Many of us sense that the most recent three generations - us, our parents, and grandparents - represent the most capable of any set of humans in history. Food can be a conduit to a distant, different era, like Babylonian times, that can maybe help revalue history. There's something of a lesson in that for how we find common ground today.

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