Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Strangest Dinner on Earth?

I have a fascinating story for you today. It is the story of a banquet in 1909 attended by many famous archeologists, scientists, and ‘savants’ of the time, and the menu was composed entirely of extraordinarily ancient foods.

It would be an even more fascinating story if it were true. Urban myth has never been so colourful. There does not seem to be a shred of real evidence that anything like this ever took place. The article is however, a fascinating example of extreme fantasy masquerading as pure truth. It is fun though, and I give it to you to show that lack of truth in food writing is not a modern phenomenon. Perhaps the secret to this sort of reporting is in having so much detail that it could not possibly be seen as anything but the truth?

I found the story in an Australian newspaper, the Goulburn Evening Penny Post (NSW) of 7th September 1909, but I suspect it was syndicated widely.

The most remarkable banquet recorded in history has just been given by Professor Herz, of the Imperial Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburg. Every article of food served it the banquet was more than a thousand years old, and the piece de resistance was, according to conservative scientific estimates, fully 20,000,000 years old. This was a magnificent joint from an ancient hairy mammoth, who died in the Old Stone Age, and was buried beneath the eternal ice of Siberia.
In addition to that there was bread made from wheat stored in the Pyramids by Pharaoh Rameses the Great; wine that had been buried beneath the ruins of Corinth when that most luxurious city of ancient Greece was sacked by the Romans; fruit that had been concealed and preserved beneath the ashes of Pompeii overwhelmed by Vesuvius; plates and goblets found beneath the site of Babylon that had perhaps been used at the feasts of King Nebuchadnezzar, and many other authentic relics of the earliest antiquity.
The officials of the Academy of Sciences recently obtained, from North-Eastern Siberia the most wonderfully preserved remains of an ancient mammoth yet discovered. The body lay in an enormous pocket of ice between the mountains, near the river bank. The ice was the relic of the great glacier that had existed here in prehistoric ages. The body, when exhumed, was complete, down to the smallest details, including hair, ears, eyes, tail, and all the extremities. In the stomach was a quantity of undigested grass, indicating by the character of the vegetation that the animal had died in the late autumn. His position showed that he met his death by slipping down a slope.
Out of scientific curiosity, Professor Herz, who superintended the stuffing of the  the perfect hide, tasted a portion of the mammoth meat, and was rather surprised to find that it was quite good, remarkably tender, resembling venison of a very superior quality, and just gamey enough to please an epicure. It then occurred to the professor that he might secure a legitimate advertisement for his new acquisition and the other fine features of the museum by giving a banquet of mammoth meat to scientists and prominent persons. He sent out invitations to scientists and archaeologists all over Europe, and was pleased to find that they not only accepted, but offered to bring many other antiquities that would help to make the banquet even more curious and picturesque than the mammoth steak alone would do.
Monsieur Amelineau, the distinguished Egyptologist, undertook to furnish enough grain which had been recovered from the Pyramids of Egypt to make bread for the banquet. It is well known that large quantities of wheat dating from the times of the Pharaohs have been found in Egypt. That country is the great wheat-growing centre of the ancient world, and when the wheat crop was short owing to the failure of the Nile there was trouble and famine in the land.
It was Joseph's wisdom in advising Pharaoh to store up grain against the years of famine that caused him to be advanced to the highest place in the kingdom. Thenceforward grain was stored with regularity.
In the chambers carved within the pyramids which served both as tombs and fortresses to the Pharaohs, wheat was stored in large quantities. It was carefully sealed up, and this fact, combined with the dryness of the climate caused it to last for ages without germinating or spoiling. It must have been awesome and inspiring to the guests to think that the wheat from which the bread they feasted on was made was growing when Pharaoh was opressing the children of Israel, and that perhaps the patriarch Moses fed upon grain that had grown side by side with this.
Another interesting contribution to the banquet consisted of wine that had been stored in a vault in ancient Corinth. It was contributed by M. Homolle, director of the French School of Archaeology, in Greece. This beverage dated from before the time of Julius Caesar, for Corinth, the richest and most luxury so great as Athens in intellectual achievements, rivalled the latter city in richness and artistic adornments amid the magnificent manner of living of her wealthy citizens.
The wine was probably of the brand known as Thrasian. It was light in colour and delicious in taste, resembling very old and dry sherry. It pleased the savants to believe that they were drinking the wine that Aspasia was accustomed to open for Pericles when he called upon her.
Perhaps the most astonishing feature of the menu consisted of apples from the ruins of ancient Pompeii, presented by Professor Fischetti of Naples. These apples had actually been preserved by a Pompeiiun housewife, who put them in a jar with spices and other efficient preservatives, corked them up tightly, and stored them in her cellar. Then occurred the great eruption of 70 A.D., during the reign of Titus, and the ashes of Vesuvius destroyed Pompeii and sealed up the cellar with its apples and peaches and onions even to this day.
The apples when found were dried and shrunken, but they were soaked in water, and then they were unmistakably recognised as apples, and had a very agreeable flavour. The mammoth steaks served at Dr. Herz's banquet was pronounced delicious. It was cut thick, grilled, and served with a strong sauce piquante in order to conceal any evidences of antiquity that might intrude themselves unduly upon the attention of the learned and enthusiastic guests. Perhaps the most peculiar circumstance about the mammoth steak was that the blood ran freely when it was cut. 
The archaeologists, scientists, and savants who attended the banquet were enchanted by it. The huge cut from the mammoth recalled to them the Paleolithic or Old Stone Man, living in a cave in the rocks, clothed principally with his own long hair and striving to defend himself against cave bears, aurochses, mammoths, and other extinct beasts. When they broke bread they saw before them the grave and terrible figure of Rameses the Great, with his hawk-shaped head-dress, the conqueror of the world in his day. They drank wine and they recalled the glories that then were. They conversed with Pericles, Themistocles, Socrates, Alcibiades, and perhaps with Aspasis and Phryne. They looked at the plates and goblets, and they thought of Nebuchadnezzar in his mighty city of Babylon. Then came the dessert, and as they partook of the preserved apples and cream they thought of ancient Rome and Pompeii.They saw the great Emperor Titus, in whose reign Pompeii was destroyed and the apples preserved. And when they went to bed they must have had some curious dreams.

Herewith I give you some instructions for preserving apples by means of cold storage, from
Experiment Station Work: Storing Apples Without Ice, ….U.S.Dept. of Agriculture (1899)

A striking example of the possibilities of cold storage in the preservation of apples is furnished by the work of the Nebraska State Horticultural Society at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition of 1898. The fruit was gathered and put in cold storage during the fall of 1897, most of it during the month of October, though some not until December. Each apple was wrapped first in a sheet of waxed paper, using 9 by 12 inch sheets for small apples and 12 by 12 inch sheets for large ones. Then another covering of common newspaper was added. This double wrapping made practically an air-tight cell for each apple, thus preventing any spread of decay. The fruit was then carefully packed in barrels, filling them up so as to require considerable pressure to get the heads in. The temperature of the room in which they were stored did not vary over one degree from 36° from the time they were placed in it until they were removed. A number of varieties were still in good condition November 1 of the following year.

And for today’s finale, a very do-able recipe for apples to keep for a short time, from Fannie Farmer’s Boston Cooking School Cook Book (1896)

Apple Ginger.
Wipe, quarter, core, pare, and chop two and one-half pounds sour apples. Put in a stewpan and add one and one-half pounds light brown sugar, juice and rind of one and one-half lemons, one-half ounce ginger root, and enough water to prevent apples from burning. Cover, and cook slowly four hours, adding water as necessary. Apple Ginger may be kept for several weeks.

1 comment:

Kaye Baillie said...

I look forward to your daily posts and often file them away so I can look at them again later. Today's post is interesting not only because of the strange story that you found, but that I have been writing a story about an Australian author, Miles Franklin, and she sent one of her novels to the editor at the Penny Post, when she was living in Goulburn, New South Wales. Only in the last few days I typed the very words, 'Penny Post'. Did your article have an author's name with it or contributor's name? Interesting coincidence. Thanks for your fun and interesting posts.