Archive for the ‘History’ Tag

History: beer came before bread?   Leave a comment

This is a slightly edited account of a new story that broke last week. The original full version can be found here. Charles Q. Choi,, Nov 8, 2010. SY

May beer have helped lead to the rise of civilization? It’s a possibility, some archaeologists say. Their argument is that Stone Age farmers were domesticating cereals not so much to fill their stomachs but to lighten their heads, by turning the grains into beer. That has been their take for more than 50 years, and now one archaeologist says the evidence is getting stronger. Signs that people went to great lengths to obtain grains despite the hard work needed to make them edible, plus the knowledge that feasts were important community-building gatherings, support the idea that cereal grains were being turned into beer, said archaeologist Brian Hayden at Simon Fraser University in Canada. ‘Beer is sacred stuff in most traditional societies,’ said Hayden, who is planning to submit research on the origins of beer to the journal Current Anthropology. The advent of agriculture began in the Neolithic Period of the Stone Age about 11,500 years ago. Once-nomadic groups of people had settled down and were coming into contact with each other more often, spurring the establishment of more complex social customs that set the foundation of more-intricate communities. The Neolithic peoples living in the large area of Southwest Asia called the Levant developed from the Natufian culture, pioneers in the use of wild cereals, which would evolve into true farming and more settled behavior. The most obvious explanation for such cultivation is that it was done in order to eat. Archaeological evidence suggests that until the Neolithic, cereals such as barley and rice constituted only a minor element of diets, most likely because they require so much labor to get anything edible from them – one typically has to gather, winnow, husk and grind them, all very time-consuming tasks. Hayden told LiveScience he has seen that hard work for himself. ‘In traditional Mayan villages where I’ve worked, maize is used for tortillas and for chicha, the beer made there. Women spend five hours a day just grinding up the kernels.’ However, sites in Syria suggest that people nevertheless went to unusual lengths at times just to procure cereal grains – up to 40 to 60 miles (60 to 100 km). One might speculate, Hayden said, that the labor associated with grains could have made them attractive in feasts in which guests would be offered foods that were difficult or expensive to prepare, and beer could have been a key reason to procure the grains used to make them. ‘It’s not that drinking and brewing by itself helped start cultivation, it’s this context of feasts that links beer and the emergence of complex societies’, Hayden said. Feasts would have been more than simple get-togethers – such ceremonies have held vital social significance for millennia, from the Last Supper to the first Thanksgiving. ‘Feasts are essential in traditional societies for creating debts, for creating factions, for creating bonds between people, for creating political power, for creating support networks, and all of this is essential for developing more complex kinds of societies,’ Hayden explained. ‘Feasts are reciprocal – if I invite you to my feast, you have the obligation to invite me to yours. If I give you something like a pig or a pot of beer, you’re obligated to do the same for me or even more.’ ‘In traditional feasts throughout the world, there are three ingredients that are almost universally present,’ he said. ‘One is meat. The second is some kind of cereal grain, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, in the form of breads or porridge or the like. The third is alcohol, and because you need surplus grain to put into it, as well as time and effort, it’s produced almost only in traditional societies for special occasions to impress guests, make them happy, and alter their attitudes favorably toward hosts.’ The brewing of alcohol seems to have been a very early development linked with initial domestication, seen during Neolithic times in China, the Sudan, the first pottery in Greece and possibly with the first use of maize. Hayden said circumstantial evidence for brewing has been seen in the Natufian, in that all the technology needed to make it is there – cultivated yeast, grindstones, vessels for brewing and fire-cracked rocks as signs of the heating needed to prepare the mash. ‘We still don’t have the smoking gun for brewing in the Natufian, with beer residues in the bottom of stone cups or anything like that,’ Hayden said. ‘But hopefully people will start looking for that – people haven’t yet.’

Posted November 18, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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History: the wine-methanol crisis of 1986   Leave a comment

The wine-methanol crisis of 1986 is certainly the most serious of all modern Italian alimentary scandals and proved catastrophic for both Italian wine producers and for Italian wine consumers.

By 1986 a series of wine makers across northern and central Italy had begun to include methanol (illegally) in their wines to increase their wine’s alcohol content. However, the company that truly set off the crisis and that killed and maimed dozens of people was Ciravegna based in the province of Cuneo. Indeed, from December 1985 to March 1986, Giovanni and Daniele Ciravegna cut two and a half metric tons of methanol into their wine! The practice ceased in March because the first deaths had been registered and arrests were then made.

The consequences were grave: twenty three killed and dozens left blind or with serious neurological problems. The Italian wine industry had seen its international reputation ruined: some countries – particularly Germany – temporarily blocked the sale of Italian wine.

And the moral of the story is?

Well, actually there are two…

(i) Already in 1984 a local quality inspection had mentioned problems with methanol in the Ciravegna’s production: better forewarned…

(ii) Giovanni Ciravegna was given a fourteen year sentence and when he was released in 2001 he went back to producing wine: pick your bottle carefully then. SY

Posted November 3, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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History: The Great Spaghetti Hoax of 1957   Leave a comment

The following extract comes from Alex Boese’s outstanding Museum of Hoaxes (Orion 2002) and is a reminder of just how alien spaghetti was as late as the 1950s in much of western Europe.

On April 1, 1957, the British news show Panorama broadcast a segment about a bumper spaghetti harvest in southern Switzerland brought on by an unusually mild winter. The audience heard Richard Dimbleby, the show’s highly respected anchor, discussing the details of the spaghetti crop as they watched a rural Swiss family pulling pasta off spaghetti trees and placing it into baskets. ‘The spaghetti harvest here in Switzerland is not, of course, carried out on anything lie the tremendous scale of the Italian industry,’ Dimbleby informed the audience. ‘For the Swiss… it tends to be more of a family affair.’

The narration then continued in a tone of absolute seriousness. ‘Another reason why this may be a bumper year lies in the virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil, the tiny creature whose depredations have caused much concern in the past.’ Some viewer questions were anticipated. For instance, why does spaghetti always come in uniform lengths? ‘This is the result of many years of patient endeavour by past breeders who succeeded in producing the perfect spaghetti.’ Finally, Dimbleby assured the audience, ‘For those who love this dish, there’s nothing like real, home-grown spaghetti’.

Soon after the broadcast ended, the BBC began to receive hundreds of calls from puzzled viewers. Did spaghetti really grow on trees, they wanted to know. Others were eager to learn how they could grown their own spaghetti tree. To this the BBC reportedly [is this really true? ed] replied that they should ‘place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best’. To be fair to viewers, spaghetti was not a widely eaten food in Britain during the 1950s and was considered by many to be very exotic. Its origin must have been a real mystery to most people. Even Sir Ian Jacob, the BBC’s director general, later admitted that he had to run a reference book to check on where spaghetti came from after watching the show. The prestige of the Panorama show itself, and the general trust that was still placed in the medium of television, also lent the claim credibility. The idea for the segment was dreamed up by one of the Panorama cameramen, Charles de Jaeger. He later said that it occurred to him when he remembered one of his grade-school teachers chiding him for being ‘so stupid he would believe spaghetti grew on trees’.

Link to youtube video

Posted October 26, 2010 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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