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UW Religion Today Column for Week of July 1-July 7: Kitchens on the Cutting Edge


June 28, 2012 — By Paul V. M. Flesher

Word association time. “Foodways.” Sounds boring, right? Try “technology” and “breakthrough.” They suggest excitement and newness. OK, one more: “kitchen.” “Kitchen” seems to lie on the unexciting end of the spectrum, nowhere near “technology” or certainly not near “breakthrough.”

But this perception is mistaken. Kitchens are centers of technology. Those changes affect how food is prepared when technology advances. Breakthroughs in technology quickly affect foodways and, thus, appear in the kitchen.

Cooking has moved from open fires to ranges -- fired by wood and then coal, gas and electricity -- to microwaves and George Foreman grills. Food preparation has changed from cooking everything oneself to having prepared foods, from just bread and cheese to frozen meat and vegetables to frozen fully prepared dinners.

When archaeologists excavate an ancient village, they pay attention to the evidence about foodways that reveals a great deal of information about the people who lived there. At the Late Roman village of Huqoq (4th to 6th centuries CE), where I have been excavating, this certainly is true. Huqoq lies near the Sea of Galilee, uphill from Capernaum and Magdala.

Numerous bones have been unearthed at the site; all the food animals are domestic. Most of the bones come from just three kinds of animals: sheep, goats and a few cattle. This reveals that the villagers were herders. Their foodways did not include much fish or mollusks, even though they lived near the Sea of Galilee.

Huqoq’s villagers did not keep chickens, which mean they did not have eggs. Nor did they eat pigs, which is a strong indication that the villagers were Jewish. This conclusion is confirmed by the presence of a synagogue just 100 feet away.

Many of the bones show signs of butchering, which tells us about the village’s use of technology. The cut marks on the bones reveal that the knives and other tools used were metal, most likely steel.

Steel is superior to bronze and iron; it holds a sharp edge much longer than the earlier-known metals. At Huqoq, most butchered bones have been chopped, a form of butchering that is practical only with steel tools. Earlier knives were primarily used for filleting (cutting the meat from the bone) or disarticulation (cutting at the joints). These practices helped the blade retain its edge.

Nearly all the butchered bones at Huqoq were chopped, and the remainder was sawn. Both practices are techniques of a professional butcher, which indicates that the village had a professional butcher with the physical strength and training to use them.

By contrast, the bones from the village’s later Arab period were not chopped but, instead, revealed numerous slice marks. This indicates they were filleted, mostly likely by individual farmers untrained in the more “industrial” technique of chopping.

Huqoq’s Late Roman kitchens reveal another type of technology, the grinder, which villagers used to grind grain into flour. In pre-historic North America, you may recall, grinders often consisted of a stone tray that held the grain which the women ground by pushing a flat, heavy stone across it.

Grinders at Huqoq were quite different. The top stone was circular in shape and had a hole cut through the middle. The grain would be poured through the hole into the grinder.

The grinder’s base square shows careful design. Cut to hold the circular stone for easy turning, it was not flat, but shaped with a slight slope up from the outer edges to peak in the center, underneath the top stone’s hole. This allowed the ground grain to move outwards during grinding. Four shallow grooves, one in each side, guided the finished flour towards waiting bowls. This design separated the fine flour from the partially ground grain and prevented it from jamming up in the grinder.

This grinder technology was similar to that used elsewhere in Galilee and the eastern Mediterranean. Its simple sophistication should not trick us into thinking of Huqoq’s villagers as well off. Early analysis of seed remains indicates they used barley. Barley produces a rather course bread and so suggests the village was fairly poor. Huqoq did not use the wheat, which was widely available at the time. Today, we do not even think of barley as a grain used for bread.

Huqoq’s bones may reveal what its inhabitants ate, but they also show the technology of meat preparation. They used steel knives and saws. Early indications suggest a trained butcher served the village which, in turn, indicates a significant consumption of meat in the village, either because of its size or because its inhabitants ate meat regularly. Grain, by contrast, was ground within the households on a two-stone “machine” designed to produce fine flour.

Flesher is director of UW's Religious Studies Program. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the web at www.uwyo.edu/RelStds. To comment on this column, visit http://religion-today.blogspot.com

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