Cherries Galore in a Cesspit

By Merit Hondelink

As an archaeobotanist, an archaeologist specialised in studying plant remains found in archaeological excavations, I aim to reconstruct and interpret the relationships between humans and plants in the past. Archaeological plant remains, also known as subfossil plant remains, help us to reconstruct the former landscape and inform us how humans exploited it and even transformed the vegetation. Archaeobotanists do not necessarily study one time period, nor a specific region or topic. They can study plant remains from the Palaeolithic or the 20th century, and everything in between. They can focus on one specific site, work across the country or continent, and even work worldwide. They can delve into topics such as natural vegetation, forestation, domestication, trade, food consumption and much more. The one thing that all of this has in common is the link between humans and plants. But most archaeobotanists do specialize, most notably in the plant parts they study, such as fruits, seeds, pollen, wood or phytoliths. And most archaeobotanists have a beloved time period, favourite region or topic that they find most intriguing. In my case my research focuses on early modern Dutch urban food consumption.

I study what people ate in early modern Dutch cities, and how this changed through time. The best way to study what people ate in the past, is to look at their excrement and kitchen refuse, both of which can be found in the archaeologists treasure trove: the cesspit. These latrines were used to empty one’s bowels, but also served as a place to discard kitchen refuse and household waste. The content of a cesspit consists of organic remains from plants and animals, inorganic (culinary) material culture such as earthenware, glassware and ceramics, but also wooden cups and plates, as well as (decorative) objects, personal belongings and much, much more.

Figure 1: A selection of faunal and floral items found in a late medieval cesspit sample from Groningen. Photo: Dirk Fennema.

The content of an archaeobotanical cesspit sample consists of, among others, floral remains in different shapes and sizes (Figure 1). The items are sorted with the use of a microscope (Figure 2) and identified on a species level (and sometimes even on the level of species variety) by using a reference collection (Figure 3). The Groningen Institute of Archaeology offers a wonderful digital, open access, reference collection, see https://www.plantatlas.eu/.

Figure 2: A peek through the microscope. Visible is a fragment of text and different seeds and fruits, taken from an early modern Delft cesspit sample. Photo: Merit Hondelink.

When the content of a cesspit sample is analysed, sorted and identified, the interpretation begins. What can these plant remains tell us about past human-plant relationships? Most plant species are interpreted in a standardized way: wild plants inform us about the vegetation composition, make-up of soils and hydrology, whilst agricultural weeds in particular inform us about the crops grown and their local, regional, international or even global provenance. Wild but poisonous or toxic plants inform us about potential medicinal applications. A majority of plant species found in cesspits are classified as economic plants, grown as a food crop or cultivated for other useful purposes, such as fibres for textiles or seeds for oil. Identifying edible plants helps us better understand what plants people used for food and which parts people consumed. It also helps us better understand how food was prepared in the past, as preparation marks can be left behind on seeds and fruits.

Some preparation marks are easier to identify than others: nuts need to be cracked to get to the seed; apple seeds may be sliced when cutting up an apple, cereals can be ground, resulting into fragmented bran. But sometimes the archaeobotanist finds fragmented plant parts that, at a first glance, do not make sense.

Figure 3: A small selection of the tubes from the archaeobotany reference collection housed at the Groningen Institute of Archaeology (GIA) at the University of Groningen. Photo via GIA.

I have come across dozens and sometimes hundreds (or even more) cherry stones and plum stones in a single cesspit sample. No surprise there, cherries and plums were grown in local orchards, sold in the market and consumed with gusto. Most of these stones will have been discarded in the cesspit as a result from eating the fruits and spitting out the stones, or after de-pitting the fruits for dinner preparation. Only a small percentage is assumed to have been accidentally swallowed and secreted as excrement. Still, archaeobotanists find many fragments of cherry and plum stones (Figure 4). This is something that raises questions when you think about it. Why would these sturdy fruit stones be fragmented? A more pressing question when you are aware that the Rosaceae family, among others also including almond, peach, and even apple, contains – to varying degrees – hydrocyanic acid, also known as hydrogen cyanide and sometimes called prussic acid. The seed coat and fruit wall protects the consumer from digesting this acid, which can be poisonous when consumed. So why would someone break the stones of these fruits?

Figure 4: Two fragments of cherry stones found in an early modern cesspit in Vlissingen. Photo: Merit Hondelink.

To test the assumption that cherry stones were fragmented intentionally, and not through, for instance, pressure, an experiment was devised. Cherries were bought at the farmer’s market and taken to a physics lab to measure the pressure required to fragment the stones. After a number of tests, the calculated force to fragment a cherry stone averaged 23,9 kg or 239 Newton (Graph 1). This makes it more plausible that the stones were intentionally fragmented, as opposed to – for instance – fragmentation due to soil pressure.

Graph 1: Force needed to fragment a cherry stone. On the vertical axis the force (N), on the horizontal axis the elongation (μm). The point where the line falls is the moment the cherry stone breaks (max. force – max. elongation).

Consulting early modern cookbooks provided me with a list of recipes requiring the cook to de-stone cherries for the preparation of jams, sauces, syrups and tarts. Delicious experiments ensued, but I did not manage to fragment cherry stones whilst cutting and de-stoning, pressing through a cloth or colander, or by just baking the fruit with stones in a tart in the oven. Working a batch of cherries with a mortar and pestle did the job, though. But than you would have to pick the fragmented stones from the mushy cherries: not ideal at all. Picking up the eighteenth century encyclopaedia compiled by Noël Chomel gave me the hint I needed. In the Dutch version of his Dictionnaire œconomique (Algemeen huishoudelijk-, natuur-, zedekundig- en konst- woordenboek), he mentions different recipes for preparing cherries. Two recipes for cherry liquor instruct the reader to fragment the cherry stones by using a mortar and pestle (Figure 5). The fragmented fruits, including the stones and (I assume) the seeds are added to the brandy (Dutch: brandewijn) and, after closing the bottle, the mixture is put in the sun to infuse. Adding spices such as cinnamon, cloves and sugar is optional, according to the author.

Figure 5: How to make a pleasant cherry liquor (Noël Chomel, 1778).

So, it is plausible that the fragmented cherry stones found in early modern cesspits are the result of the domestic production of cherry liquor. Other fruits, such as plums and peaches, are also used to make a fruity liquor according to Chomel’s encyclopedia. However, what happens to the acid contained in the seeds? That requires further research. It might be that the prescribed infusing in the sunlight helps denature the acid into harmless molecules, leaving only the (bitter) taste behind. This line of research will be undertaken come summer with the aid of a brewer and some chemical analysis. In the meantime, a cherry and cinnamon flavoured lemonade is my poison of choice. Bottoms up!

A Roman Vegetarian Substitute for Fish Sauce

By Edith Evans

Roman cookery has been one of my research interests since the 1980s; I’ve accumulated a large repertoire of ancient recipes and usually do at least one live demonstration a year.  Most of the recipes include garum or liquamen – fish sauce – as a taste enhancer, providing salt and umami. Whilst finding fish sauce is fairly easy nowadays in Britain (the Romans used the same techniques to make it as the modern Thai and Vietnamese), using it at demonstrations disappoints vegetarians who would otherwise like to sample the plant-based dishes.

I found the answer to this problem in a Late Antique agricultural treatise:

Liquamen from pears: Ritually pure liquamen (liquamen castimoniale) from pears is made like this: Very ripe pears are trodden with salt that has not been crushed. When their flesh has broken down, store it either in small casks or in earthenware vessels lined with pitch. When it is hung up [to drain] after the third month without being pressed on, the flesh of the pears discharges a liquid with a delicious taste but a pastel colour. To counter this, mix in a proportion of dark-coloured wine when you salt the pears.
– Palladius: Opus Agriculturae 3.25.12

Liquamen castimoniale must have been required for people observing certain religious strictures (castimoniale means ‘to do with religious ceremonies’). Why would ordinary liquamen have been thought unsuitable? Was it the fish? (Pliny the Elder writes of a special fish sauce for Jews (Natural History 31.95) that he calls garum castimoniarum, although he’s obviously got the wrong end of the stick when it comes to Jewish food laws because he says it’s made using fish without scales). Alternatively, was it because liquamen was the product of fermentation? Fermentation was often considered a form of decomposition, which might have led it to be regarded as ritually unclean.

This has a bearing on how we interpret the recipe. Although Palladius tells us the ingredients to use (whole pears and salt, plus optional red wine) he does not give any information about the relative proportions. This leaves us with two possible techniques. Either you use a high proportion of salt and effectively create a brine utilising the juice of the pears, or you use a low proportion and promote a lactic fermentation by incubating the mix a suitable temperature (although Palladius doesn’t mention this). When used to flavour food, the product of the first method adds a strong taste of salt but no umami. The second would add some umami but also acidity, but a much lower amount of salt. However, if the problem was the fermentation itself, the second method would have been as unacceptable as standard fish sauce.

I’ve had a go at the lactic fermentation method, using 2% of the weight of the pears in salt, but when I tried it, the mix went mouldy before fermentation had a chance to take hold.  I’ve had much more success with the first method and have repeated it enough times to get a consistent product. The best pears to use are juicy varieties with very tannic skins, like Williams (also known as Bartlett) and Comice. I mash up the pears – stalks, skins, cores and all – mix them with 25% – 50% of their weight in coarse sea salt (I don’t bother with the wine), and leave them at the back of the fridge in a glass jar with the lid only lightly screwed on. At the end of two months (unlike us, the Romans counted inclusively), the pulp has started to separate out. The heavier elements form a pale layer at the bottom of the jar, whilst the top part of the mixture is more liquid and is a pale pinkish-brown. When drained through a nylon sieve, the colour of the resulting liquid is a very pale version of the colour of fish sauce. 

I’ve tried various proportions of salt, and found that, if you use 50%, you seem to get more liquid, probably because the mixture doesn’t draw in moisture from the air to the same extent.  But a smaller percentage of salt allows more of the delightful pear flavour comes through – I find it much more difficult to detect in the 50% version. Stored in a clean bottle it will keep for months without refrigeration.

Figure 1: The pear liqumen is in the flask with dark blue trim

I’ve only had a problem once, when spots of mould had appeared on the surface of a batch six months after I’d made it. As I was due to give a Roman cookery demonstration in a few days’ time I had to quickly rustle up something I could use, so I cored and cut up a pear, boiled it with 25% salt and a little water, removed the peel and pulped the flesh in the blender. It was much too pale, but the taste was the same and I decided it would be a useful method for someone who couldn’t wait two months – in fact that’s what I recommend for my Roman Cookery School videos (https://m.youtube.com/user/GGATArchaeology and https://en-gb.facebook.com/GGATarchaeology/).

Say Ohm: Japanese Electric Bread and the Joy of Panko

By Nathan Hopson

In 1998, the New York Times introduced readers to an exotic new ingredient described as “a light, airy variety [of breadcrumb] worlds away from the acrid, herb-flecked, additive-laden bread crumbs in the supermarket,” with a texture “more like crushed cornflakes or potato chips” than its plebeian brethren (Fabricant 1998). That ingredient was panko, which has since become a staple for American home and professional cooks alike. In 2007, panko accounted for only 3% of US breadcrumb sales, for instance. Five years later, one in six American households regularly stocked panko in the pantry. Panko caught on because it is crunchier (and stays crunchy under restaurant heat lamps), absorbs less oil, and adds more volume than traditional breadcrumbs (Nassauer 2013).

Why are these Japanese breadcrumbs different? How did they get to be that way? The story told by American manufacturers such as LA-based Upper Crust Enterprises―an ironic name given that the secret to panko is crust-free bread―is that “Japanese soldiers during World War II discovered [that] crustless bread made for better breadcrumbs as they cooked it with electricity from tank batteries, not wanting to draw the enemy’s attention with smoke from a fire”(Nassauer 2013). Upper Crust’s president, Gary Kawaguchi, affirmed this account in a recent interview.

This is a cool story. Turns out, the truth is just as cool.

Japanese inventors had tinkered with electric cooking prototypes since at least the 1920s. Then in 1933, the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) commissioned a “field kitchen that can prepare both rice and bread”(Aoki 2019, 11). Cost was no object and time was of the essence. As Katarzyna Cwiertka has noted, the military generally advocated bread, but there was a special urgency in light of the logistical difficulties of supplying rice to new front lines in Siberia and Manchuria. In 1937, paymaster captain Akutsu Shōzō’s design became the “Type 97” field kitchen, first deployed with the IJA’s First Independent Mixed Brigade that year (Uchida 2020, 2–4). The 97’s cooker was an insulated wooden box with electrode plates attached to the base and four sides of the interior. The highly efficient cooking process Akutsu used goes by several names, including ohmic and Joule heating. It is a form of electroconductive heating that passes electric current through foods to heat them rapidly and uniformly, quickly producing a light, yeasty, crust-free bread.

Figure 1: Type 97 field kitchen interior structure. Courtesy of JACAR.

After the war, companies such as Sony began selling rice cookers and bread machines that adapted these wartime technologies, and DIY home bread makers were showcased in magazines and newspapers. Influential women’s magazine Shufu no tomo and the inaugural issue of boys’ DIY magazine Shōnen kōsaku both featured instructions for bread makers derived from Akutsu’s design in 1946, reflecting the popularity of electric power in light of consumer fuel shortages and, conversely, excess generating capacity with military factories shut down (Uchida and Aoki 2019, 484).

In the 1960s, the new postwar frozen food industry hungered for high-quality breadcrumbs. Wheat had poured into Japan after 1945, the result of food aid; the use of bread and other wheat products in Japan’s school lunch program; and endless marketing promotions. Although ambitious American visions to recenter the national diet on wheat were soon abandoned, US agricultural imports and food technologies remained critical to Japan’s changing postwar food systems. Improved and upscaled food processing equipment met a market awash in cheap wheat, enthusiastic consumers (about half of whom owned electric refrigerators by the mid-1960s), and improved logistics. Frozen foods were among the shiny new things of postwar Japan’s shiny new “bright life,” and the mass use of frozen foods to cater the 1964 Olympiad and 1970 World’s Fair made them even more attractive symbols of Japan reborn.

These factors spurred rapid growth in breadcrumb demand, which was met in large part by the industrial-scale use of ohmic heating to create “electric breads” that were airy and uniform, and fried up crisply and uniformly when made into panko (Uchida and Aoki 2019, 485).


Sources Cited

Aoki Takashi. 2019. “Denkyokushiki chōri no hatsumei kara panko e tsuzuku rekishi oyobi saigen jikken.” Science Journal of Kanagawa University, no. 30 (June): 9–16.

Fabricant, Florence. 1998. “From Japan, the Secret of Crunchy Coating.” New York Times, December 1998.

Nassauer, Sarah. 2013. “Panko Tries to Find a Place in Every Pantry.” Dow Jones Institutional News, March 7, 2013.

Uchida Takashi. 2020. “Suihan o kigen to shi panko seizō ni tsuzuku denki pan no rekishi (1): Rikugun suiji jidōsha to Kōseishiki denki suihanki to Takara ohachi.” Tōkyō Yakka Daigaku kenkyū kiyō, no. 23 (March): 1–14.

Uchida Takashi, and Aoki Takashi. 2019. “Suihan, denki pan, pan seizō ni itaru Nihon no denkyokushiki chōri no rekishi: Rikugun ‘suiji jidōsha’ o kigen to suru denki pan jikken.” Nihon Yakugaku Kyōiku Gakkai ronbunshū, no. 43: 483–86.


This post is part five in an ongoing series by Hopson on the history of nutrition in modern Japan. You can read his previous post here.

Grandma Sloan’s Houska

By Lina Perkins Wilder

My family makes houska wrong.

Author’s mom’s recipe card.

Hoska [sic]

  • 2 cakes yeast
  • ¼ c lukewarm water
  • 1 c milk scalded
  • ½ c sugar
  • ¼ c shortening
  • 2 t salt
  • 4 ½-5 c sifted flour
  • 2 T fennel seed
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ c raisins
  • ½ c cut up almonds

In Czech, the word houska means roll, and as one might expect from such a pliant name, the bread has many variations. International cookbooks describe houska as a braided bread roll topped with seeds, salt, or cumin. All of these toppings suggest a savory rather than sweet bread. You can also find recipes for houska that are much sweeter and call for mace, coriander, or lemon zest. Some include citron peel or candied fruit in addition to the raisins. Marie, the proprietor of Little Prague Bakery, in Seattle, and an acquaintance of my mother’s, confirms that this sweet bread is normally called vánočka, but the internet abounds in Czech-Americans who inherited a recipe for a buttery sweet bread called houska. Marie makes vánočka at Christmastime in huge nine-strand braided loaves.

Our houska isn’t very sweet, but it is a Christmas bread (so Marie thinks it should be called vánočka). The recipe calls for braiding, but Mama always makes it in two large loaves. You can braid them, but it’s really too much trouble. It always burns. It is best eaten toasted, with butter and honey. It is flavored with fennel seeds. (Marie says that fennel would be too strong for her customers.) Our recipe comes from my great-grandmother, my mother’s father’s mother, Emma Helen Kolarik Sloan (1895-1992).  

Emma Kolarik was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her parents, Wencil and Helen Zamastil Kolarik, immigrated to the United States, separately, from Bohemia, in the late 1870s. They got married relatively late, a second marriage for him, a first for her. Emma’s mother was almost 40 when she was born. The Kolariks weren’t religious. Emma got “saved” at a rally led by Billy Sunday.

She met Fred Sloan when he came by her home in the Czech neighborhood of Cedar Rapids. He was there selling sweet corn door-to-door using a few words of Czech that he had learned for the purpose. They married in 1919. They had two sons, Fredric (my grandfather) and James.

Emma had high cholesterol and was told not to eat ice cream, but she ate it anyway, in the kitchen, with the serving spoon. Like a lot of evangelical Christians, she was an enthusiastic Zionist. She sometimes said that her family was Jewish, but that probably isn’t true. Her son Jim liked to tell her Czech jokes, just to get her goat. Grandma Sloan made houska during Advent, in braided loaves the size of a cookie sheet. She would cut the loaf into three pieces and send one home with each of her sons’ families when they came over for Sunday dinner. She was 96 when she died.

Grandma Sloan’s short-term memory didn’t work very well during her last years. This is when I remember visiting her. On one visit, I was about ten and I wore my hair in two braids. The ends curled a lot more in the Iowa humidity than they did in western Washington, where the summers were dry. I stood in my braids in Grandma Sloan’s room in the old folks’ home. She greeted each of us, going around. “Oh and how are you? And who is this handsome young man? Oh”—coming to me—“she looks like me when I was a girl!”

A photo of the author as a baby with her Grandma Sloan. (L to R, it’s Heather Simko [the author’s cousin], Paul Perkins [the author’s father], the author, and Emma Sloan [the author’s grandmother].)

 

Mama made houska around Christmas, most years. I never liked it. I don’t like the taste of fennel.

I looked up houska recipes on the internet a few years back and thought that I had discovered the problem: in the recipe I found, the first step in making sweet houska is to make a sponge. My new recipe contained a full four times the sugar called for in Grandma Sloan’s recipe, twice the fat, and butter instead of shortening, mace and ginger instead of fennel seeds, and candied fruit peel and yellow raisins. I made the bread in the traditional braided shape. It was beautiful. It was delicious. It did not burn.

A photo of the houska made by the author.

 

I called Mama. “I figured out why the houska always burns! You’re supposed to make a sponge! So there’s less sugar left in the dough and it doesn’t burn!” Mama was less than enthusiastic. She read me her recipe over the phone. I wrote it on a recipe card along with notes about the new recipe.

A few days before Christmas this past year, I reposted a Facebook “memory” from 2017, a photo of Mama baking Christmas cookies with my two children. My sister commented asking for the houska recipe. My sister-in-law also asked for the recipe. I posted a photo of my annotated recipe card. Mama replied, “I sent a text with the recipe. Best eaten with butter and honey!”

With thanks to Patricia Perkins.