The taste of yesteryear
May 24, 2012 7:31 AM   Subscribe

What foodstuffs taste the same today as they did millenia ago?

Idle query. Currently on a lifeless conference call eating a salad.

It strikes me that the taste and texture of this salad may be completely unique to the time we live in, since most (if not all) produce has been subject to aeons of selective breeding and latterly genetic modification.

This begs the question: what is the least fubar'd foodstuff? What can I eat today that tastes the most similar to me as it did to Oscar Wilde, Isaac Newton, Chaucer, King Cnut, Jesus, Cleopatra, and Solomon Which of nature's bounty is still as close as possible to how it evolved naturally?
posted by 5imon to Food & Drink (32 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
 
Berries and nuts.
posted by empath at 7:33 AM on May 24, 2012


Water? Honey? Salt?
posted by box at 7:34 AM on May 24, 2012 [6 favorites]


My first two thoughts were sea salt and honey comb.
posted by gnutron at 7:35 AM on May 24, 2012


And game and non-farmed fish. Though, as with all, pollutants will be in everything. So, I guess, not much?
posted by likeso at 7:36 AM on May 24, 2012


Venison.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 7:44 AM on May 24, 2012


Wild-caught (not farmed) fish
posted by mkultra at 7:47 AM on May 24, 2012


I'm not entirely sure that there are enough people around from so long ago to tell you what tastes different...

Honey is a poor example. Honey tastes different depending on what flowers the bees have been using. The bears in the supermarket are often just blends of various types of honey so they all taste relatively the same.

I will agree that salt probably still tastes like it did a millennia ago, though.

Without being able to record exactly what an orange tastes like, there's no way or us to tell. (People have been breeding fruits and vegetables for specific colors, flavors, and other traits for a long long time. This is why we have different colored carrots.)
posted by royalsong at 7:47 AM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


Frankly, much of Nature's bounty didn't evolve to be especially tasty for humans; most of what we think of as "unprocessed" has, as you pointed out, undergone millennia of selective breeding, from carrots to corn grains to cows. Even in the last few millennia there were processed food products that do probably resemble modern versions-- fish sauce, for example, and maybe olive oil? So yeah, certain wild berries; raw, wild honey; definitely salt; certain fish species (though overfishing has also caused problems in the last couple of millennia so our view of wild species is almost certainly slanted); some wild game. Wild bird eggs, maybe? Certain herbs/weeds.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:50 AM on May 24, 2012


I think it's basically unanswerable.

But interesting side thing, I was in Pompeii last year on an archaeology program, and people have been working on reviving varieties of grapes and olives grown in the region, based on DNA evidence, pollen evidence, casts of root stock, and evidence in artwork. There are now grapevines growing in the same plots they were in 79 AD.

Is it "the same," though? Probably not quite. The soil has changed a lot, after all, due to a massive volcanic eruption in, um, 79 AD. The climate is different. The air quality is different. The insect life (pollinators) is different. The harvesting and handling of the grapes might not be exactly the same as first-century winemaking technique.

So I'd say you can get pretty close by making these concerted efforts to back-breed, grow old seed, and re-establish agricultural practices, but we can never exaxctly recreate past ecosystems. They're far too dynamic and the earth has changed far too much. Even the oceans are different, as are the practices of catching and processing fish. So we must expect never to taste the exact tastes of the past, though I think it's fascinating and instructive to get as close as you can.
posted by Miko at 7:54 AM on May 24, 2012 [3 favorites]


I will agree that salt probably still tastes like it did a millennia ago, though.

Only if you define salt as 'pure salt' which is uncommon. There are different types of salt people consume as salt.
posted by vacapinta at 7:56 AM on May 24, 2012


Just a thought. But since it is a pine, it might be possible to make a tea out of the needles of this or a similar tree, which would probably have had the same taste for thousands of years as they'd have come from the same organism.

That requires one to extend ones view of foodstuffs to tea made from pine needles. I have always had a hard time with that one. But apparently it *is* A Thing.
posted by jph at 7:57 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Another thing to consider is cultural and physical changes. Who's to say how a caveman perceived taste compared to us? Who knows if his palette or even his perception of taste was the same as it was today even given the same exact food that we eat today.
posted by inturnaround at 8:12 AM on May 24, 2012


Cockroaches. If you're into that kind of thing.

I remember reading in a Michael Pollan book that somewhere in Kazakhstan grows the tree that's the predecessor to modern apples.

Or any of the foods in Europe that they protect with those "Designated Origin" labels. Balsamic vinegar, pink garlic, Camembert, etc.
posted by thebazilist at 8:19 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Cockroaches. If you're into that kind of thing.

I suspect that, because of the crap that they are likely eating, even this won't be true.

As mentioned above, even wild game and wild berries are likely to taste differently due to pollutants and a generally different climate than would have existed thousands of years ago.

With the possible exception of pure salt, I don't think many things will taste the same now as they did millenia ago.
posted by asnider at 8:49 AM on May 24, 2012


It depends on what you mean by "the same." If you really want to get picky, who's to say that even pure salt tastes "the same," since our perception of taste is affected by genetics and culture.

If, on the other hand, you just want to stay away from modern selective breeding, farming practices, and genetic engineering, then there are some foods that are essentially unchanged over the centuries.

what is the least fubar'd foodstuff?

Grape vines are propagated by (essentially) genetically identical cuttings, which means some varieties can be traced back centuries or even millennia. For example, limnio is believed to date back to the 4th century BC. The climate of the Mediterranean has not changed too dramatically since that time, so limnio grapes grown in the same region and turned into wine using traditional methods (e.g. using wild yeast) would taste extremely similar to what Aristotle drank.

Similarly, apple cultivars are propagated by cuttings, since apples are notorious for not breeding true (e.g. if you plant an apple seed the resulting tree will produce fruit very different from the parent plants). There are several apple cultivars that date back to the Middle Ages. Calville Blanc d'Hiver, for example, dates back to the early 1600s and is still produced today.
posted by jedicus at 9:11 AM on May 24, 2012 [5 favorites]


Some varieties of plantains are relatively un-fubared. You can also try a Gros Michel banana, which was previously what Americans referred to as a generic "banana" until the 1950s.

I remember reading in a Michael Pollan book that somewhere in Kazakhstan grows the tree that's the predecessor to modern apples.

Indeed. Moreover, if you want to taste an ancient apple (or at least a reasonable facsimile), take any apple you have and plant the seeds. Apples are highly heterozygous, meaning apples grown from seeds don't look anything like their parents. In fact, if you go down to a nursery and look at apple trees for sale, you'll notice they are all grown from graftings.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:18 AM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


I would imagine that the majority of herbs and spices taste pretty much as they have for millenia.
posted by pipeski at 9:21 AM on May 24, 2012


Moreover, if you want to taste an ancient apple (or at least a reasonable facsimile), take any apple you have and plant the seeds

But my understanding is that you won't get an ancient apple variety from this, you'll get an entirely new variety that will share qualities with apples that previously existed, but not likely be a genetic match.

Apples are extremely hard to type, but there are still a lot of living apple trees which have survived a long time and can be used to generate new grafting stock to keep those unique apples in production. Some of my Slow Food friends have a hobby of searching out old apples that live in margins and backyards and public lands where a farmstead was once. The kind of people who will suddenly brake on a country road and throw it in reverse because they spotted a gnarly old apple tree and want to check it out. Or will drive hours on a rumor of an unknown old variety out behind an abandoned house or something. Something like these wild-apple aficionados.
posted by Miko at 9:33 AM on May 24, 2012 [2 favorites]


Green onions?
posted by oceanjesse at 9:35 AM on May 24, 2012


But my understanding is that you won't get an ancient apple variety from this, you'll get an entirely new variety

Correct, you will. But they were getting entirely varieties back then, too, so it's a wash. ;-)
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:55 AM on May 24, 2012


entirely new, that is.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:56 AM on May 24, 2012


I've had an apple from a tree cloned from a tree that first grew in c1600 AD.

It tasted very different from a modern apple. Even in 400 years, foods have changed substantially.
posted by jb at 10:39 AM on May 24, 2012


But they were getting entirely varieties back then, too, so it's a wash. ;-)

Right, but it's not the same apples they were tasting. They really vary. So to the OP's question, you can't taste the same array of apples that were produced then. You can't even produce the same set of apple stocks people cultivated from them.
posted by Miko at 10:47 AM on May 24, 2012


It tasted very different from a modern apple. Even in 400 years, foods have changed substantially.

I've had some old, old apples too, and they vary so much it's hard to believe it's the same plant. There is lots of growing of heirloom apples still. A lot of the difference between today's grocery-store apple and old apples isn't that the old apples stopped existing - they survived if only in refugia or small production - as that varieties have been cultivated to deliver what the consumer market seems to want. In the past, there were hundreds upon hundreds of apple varieties, some best for storage, some for fodder, some for cooking, some for cider, and really relatively few to eat out of hand. Today, all anyone on the consumer end wants is to eat them out of hand, and that means that only varieties that work for this are in commercial production, and a very narrow range of them at that, and they're constantly engineered to be ever sweeter and ever more even-colored.

There are a handful of apple trees around 200 years old in the Northeast, and there are many that were grafted from much older trees and so are producing the same apple varieties as centuries ago. So in a sense, you can taste a glimpse of the past. Still, I think that subtle differences must happen with the variance in climate (they bloom a lot earlier now) and pollinators (different mix because the time of bloom has changed) changes the number and size of fruit the tree bears, and then perhaps environmental stuff like exhaust fumes and soil contaminants may also contribute changed flavors.
posted by Miko at 10:54 AM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


Salt would probably even taste different. Early last century, iodine was intruced into most salts for various reasons.

To the best of my knowledge, salt without iodine is rare to find these days.
posted by WestChester22 at 2:08 PM on May 24, 2012


To the best of my knowledge, salt without iodine is rare to find these days.

Nah, most kosher salt is iodine free, for example. It's pure sodium chloride.
posted by jedicus at 2:10 PM on May 24, 2012


I'd wager that Jabuticaba hasn't changed much in the last few millenia.

1- It's a very fragile fruit and it goes bad very quickly, so it's not suited for mass commercialization and the breeding that goes with it.

2- It grows very very slowly, seed grown trees take 10-20 years to bear fruit, so breeding it is very very hard.

3- It's from South America, so it's been known to tampering Europeans for no more than 512 years.
posted by Tom-B at 2:12 PM on May 24, 2012


Olives? Olive trees can grow for hundreds of years. The olives from one specific tree probably wouldn't change all that much.
posted by deborah at 2:43 PM on May 24, 2012 [1 favorite]


What about mushrooms, truffles, things that grow pretty much in the wild?
My husband wonders about honey and corn. He also says beer and uses, as an example, beers such as Dogfish Head's ancient ales series where they are recreating old beer recipes.
posted by echo0720 at 3:21 PM on May 24, 2012


Maybe einkorn wheat, barley, lentils, peas, chickpeas, bitter vetch and flax?
posted by aniola at 3:34 PM on May 24, 2012


Maple syrup
posted by pintapicasso at 3:46 PM on May 24, 2012


Corn is definitely a wholly human intervention in a very, very different kind of grain. Dr. Patrick McGovern is the wonderful archaeologist and guy behind the Dogfish Head beers; his books detail much of what we know about early alcohol, but the modern beers are interpretations using modern ingredients and most importantly, modern processing techniques based on excavated evidence. Ancient meads and beers lacked preservative ingredients and frequently had the husks of yeast floating around on the surface, which you can see in some Sumerian illustrations of drinking with straws. (There are some beers, especially from Asia, that do still use a similar technique, but I don't know if the exact ingredients and yeast strains are the same.) Alcohol production is very, very old, but things we think of as key, like hops, weren't introduced until fairly recently-- 1st millennium A.D. or so. McGovern's latest book does have a great story about lambics and the habitat of the essential yeast strains, which suggests that some breweries haven't changed much for a couple of centuries... So while beer itself is very old, the grains it uses and the processes we use make a very different beverage.

That said, beer is an awesome example of one of the longest-standing human culinary traditions! And it is far closer in many ways to ancient food than things like "white bread" or "filet."
posted by jetlagaddict at 3:51 PM on May 24, 2012


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