A Brief History of Food & Drink in Five Objects

Five ancient artefacts from The British Museum, London, related to food and drink.

The world’s greatest repository of antiquities? Or a vainglorious testament to the arrogance and narcissism of empire? Either way, the British Museum has long engendered discussion and debate.

But as a child, all this flew largely over my head. As far as I was concerned, the British Museum was always just a bit.. well, dull.

Egyptian mummy? So what! Roman statue? Meh! The sheer scale of time and place just washed over my youthful mind without tingling any neurones of appreciation.

And so years passed, and it was not until my 30’s that I ventured back. This time, I felt a palpable thrill as I gazed round the entrance hall – all the more gripping for its unexpectedness.

Stepping tentatively into the cavernous glass-domed Great Court was like venturing into an oversized snowglobe. But rather than chintzy little reindeers or rickety Brighton piers, there were actual sphinxes and sarcophagi – millennia-old relics staring back at me, like they were alive and breathing.

Over time, it struck me just how many objects related to food and drink: not only cutlery, crockery, and utensils, but also in the glorified representations of feasts or hunting.

I had such a sense that, regardless of time and place, food has always been a central pillar of civilisation. It is more than a sustainer of life: it’s a gatherer of people, a connector of communities, and a shaper of identity.

Over time, I’ve been steadily making note of display items that have piqued my gastronomic interest, and I’m picking out five of them here – each originating from a different era and region, each with a culinary theme and a story to tell about the society of the time.

One of these stories is about the museum itself, and how the shadow of colonialism has shaped its collection… but more on that later. For now it’s time to buckle up – you’re about to go 5000 years back into the past…

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Food Music – Nasi Lemak at MEI MEI

Nasi lemak at Mei Mei London - a Singaporean dish of fried chicken, fried egg, rice, cucumber, peanuts and anchovy.

How do we know things?

I don’t mean knowledge or facts. I’m not talking about words, labels or content.

I’m talking about perception. How do we perceive the world, at a level that’s most basic and raw? Without the steady stream of thought that continually tries to make sense of our perceptions. Or even ourselves.

I’m talking about the canvas, before we slather it with words and thoughts and worries and musings. A canvas that is ever changing, moment to moment, steeped in the restless world we find ourselves in.

Take this very moment. You’re reading words on a screen. Your brain is effortlessly crunching all those nouns, verbs, and conjunctions: framing them against your accumulated bank of knowledge, experience and attitudes.

But on another level, writing is just sticks and swirls.

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Eggy Dates at NANDINE – From Kurdistan to Camberwell

Eggy dates at Nandine in Camberwell is the perfect breakfast to showcase Kurdish cuisine

I was born by the mountains. I was born in the mist. Who knows exactly how or when I came to be. All I know is that it was long ago. And that time is best measured in generations and not in years.

I was born from people’s lips, as they gathered around the fireside, my words spilling out in the same breath as their old stories and tales. Words that mingle as they drift over the flames, forming and reforming. And in this way, I am forever being renewed.

And so it is. Generation to generation. From village to village. I am cast through space and time like pollen sailing in the wind.

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Togetherness and Solitude at Tooting UNWINED

Unwined in Tooting Market combines a food kitchen with a wine retailer

There are times in life when it’s just you. Whether by choice or circumstance, you are going it alone. It’s how it is.

And then there are times when someone joins you for the journey. It could be a relatively fleeting moment, a momentary crossing of ways, a connection that somehow touches you and makes you take notice of something you’ve not noticed before, or helps you along your path, whatever that path might be.

And then sometimes there are those that are with you for the long haul. Through thick and thin. Through richer and poorer. Till death do us part. View Post

Potato Latkes at BUBALA; Tackling the Climate Emergency

Potato latkes are the epitomy of Chanukah - and latkes at Bubala are the finest in London

“Adults keep saying we owe it to the young people to give them hope. But I don’t want your hope, I don’t want you to be hopeful. I want you to panic, I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And then I want you to act, I want you to act as if you would in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire, because it is.”

Greta Thunberg, Davos World Economic Forum, 2019

 

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The year is 160BC. The temple is on fire. The Seleucid Army is threatening to annihilate the Jewish community in ancient Judea, whose existence is poised on a knife-edge. But then come the small plucky band of Maccabees. Through their dedication and self-sacrifice, they manage to repel the might of the empire. Yet when they discover the temple all wrack and ruined, hearts turn from joy to sorrow: there’s barely a drop of oil to keep the sacred flame alive.

But this drop miraculously ends up lasting for a whole eight days. And so this story is celebrated – year after year, century after century – as Chanukah, the festival of lights. To remember how a community saved themselves against extinction. And how one little light fought against the dark for so long. View Post