Category Archives: Ancient Foods

Valentine’s Day: Why Hearts?

Vintage Valentine's Day Card - The History of the HeartSo, it’s almost Valentine’s Day and you might be wondering what’s with the cupids and hearts. Excellent question and the answers are many…or none, depending. The origin of the heart, for example, is said to have evolved from the ancient and now extinct plant silphium, used in the fifth century by Romans as a spice and birth control measure – application method unknown.  The plant’s seed pod apparently was heart-shaped.

Heart Shapes on 1545 German Card Deck

Heart Shapes on 1545 German Card Deck

Others claim the heart appeared as a sexual symbol in art around 1250, looking much like an inverted pine cone, while still others say it was an ancient depiction of the anatomical heart. The heart appeared in playing cards of the 1500s and art work (religious and otherwise) of the 14th and 15th century.

Valentine’s Day itself is equally mired in question. According to NPR, the holiday began with the ancient Romans who celebrated a three-day holiday, the feast of Lupercalia from Feb. 13 to 15, where the men sacrificed a goat and a dog, dried their hides and whipped women with them. Apparently the woman lined up for the ritual believing it spawned fertility. Others attributed the origin of Valentine’s Day to two Romans, both named Valentine, who were martyred on February 14th years apart, and yet others to Shakespeare and Chaucer.

1550 Danish Heart Shaped Manuscript of Love Ballads

1550 Danish Heart Shaped Manuscript of Love Ballads

One thing is clear: like Christmas, Valentine’s Day was gift-wrapped and sent to the U.S. because of Queen Victoria whose modes of celebration were quickly adopted here. And, like Christmas, Valentine’s Day owes its swank to a combination of turn-of-century marketing and industrialization, which enabled candy-makers and others to pump out cards, sweets and other gifts with relatively breath-taking speed.

Now, for the candy:

Heart-Shaped Candy Boxes: Thank the Cadbury’s for these – the Quaker family, among others, were instrumental in producing the chocolate we know and love today.

Jelly Hearts: We owe these to the 10th century lokum (aka Turkish Delight), the origin of jelly and gummy candies today.

French Chocolate Truffles - Valentine's Candy

French Truffles

Truffles: Started with the French and their late 1800’s penchant for romance and sex. Truffles and soon chocolates of all sorts became the gift of courtship and come-ons. (Thanks Montezuma and his legacy of many wives for the chocolate)

Hard Candies: From lollipops to love hearts, they evolved from medicines.

Conversation Hearts: Once a weeding candy, the stamped impressions were made possible by Daniel Chase, brother of NECCO-wafer maker Oliver Chase. And that’s why they taste so similar!

Sources:

Huffington Post, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/recycled/2007/02/the_shape_of_my_heart.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_(symbol)

NPR, The Dark Origins of Valentine’s Day

Sweet as Sin: The Unwrapped Story of How Candy Became America’s Favorite Pleasure

Chocolate Candy: An Aphrodisiac – Is It or Isn’t It?

Cacao BeansIs chocolate an aphrodisiac? The answer is yes. And no. And like so much about sex and lust, somewhere in-between. Here’s what happened: when 16th century explorers, such as Hernán Cortés, landed in Mesoamerica they come across a mesmerizing sight: the great Aztec leader Montezuma, bedecked in jewels and feathers, and attended to by 200 wives. And in his regal hand he cupped a golden chalice filled with the cacao drink.

Montezuma inspired Cortés, largely to overthrow him, which he did with a devastating, bloody blow. The cacaMayan People and Chocolateo also inspired the creative talents of Bernal Díaz del Castillo, who traveled with Cortés and recorded their journey many years later in The True History of the Conquest of New Spain. His accuracy is unknown, but the spirit of his account is impressive. It was from Castillo that we learned the improbable truth that each day Montezuma drank fifty servings of chocolate from a golden chalice, which gave him the virility to satisfy the sexual desires of his many wives.

Accuracy aside, the cacao became known as a prized food fueling and enabling sexual desire first in Spain, where the Spanish kept the cacao a much coveted secret, and later Europe where the cacao traveled from one royal marriage to another and, eventually, North America and the world.

But is Chocolate an Aphrodisiac?

Is chocolate an aphrodisiac? Here’s the “no.” Chocolate does contain phenyl ethylamine, which can activate a feeling of giddy warmth, and it does contain serotonin, which can excite the senses. Unfortunately, neither chemical is present in significant amounts.

No worries. Here’s the “yes”: Sex is in the mind, as everyone from the makers of Victoria’s Secret to men’s magazines are fully aware. And chocolate is one of the most powerful mind-aphrodisiacs in history. Truffles, starting in the turn-of-the-century, for example, were the gift of courtship, i.e. sexual intrigue. Chocolatiers created voluptuous chocolates whose rose patterns were so much like the vulva even a gynecologist would be fooled. Today, chocolate as a gift of love and lust has no rivals.

All this, thanks to Montezuma. In spite of his fall at the feet of the conquering Spanish, Montezuma, in spirit and in legend, lives on.

What to Taste:

Cacao NibsCacao Beans

 

 

 

 

 

Nutmeg: Sure, A Flavoring in Candy but an Aphrodisiac and So Much More

Nutmeg on TreeIf you’re searching for an effective yet tasty aphrodisiac look no further than your local grocery store. The solution comes bundled up in the pit of a more-or-less remarkable spice humbly referred to as “nutmeg.” For thousands of years, the nutmeg has been used to inspire love and lust – even its name derives from the Arabic word “mesk,” or “musky,” as in fragrance.  Today, Americans enjoy nutmeg to limited degrees – in hot cider and apple pie, for example, unaware of the sultry – and dangerous – spice that it is.

But First… Nutmeg: The Early Years

Spice Island Map of 1576

Spice Island Map of 1576?: Porcacchi, Thomaso, ca. 1530–1585? “Isole Molucche.” Copperplate map, 10 × 14 cm. on sheet 30 x 20 cm. Page 189 from Porcacchi’s L’isole piu famose del mondo (Venice, 1576?). [Historic Maps Collection]

Even the early years of the nutmeg is intriguing. It originated in the Indonesian Spice Islands and appeared in the alcoholic beverages of the ancient Romans and Greeks, the cuisine of Byzantine traders, and by the 9th century, sprinkled on the pease pudding of monks in Constantinople. In the 12th century, nutmeg made a much admired presence in the cuisine of Europeans and in medieval and renaissance banquets.

All that is culinary light-heartedness leading to events that unfurled around 1512. In that year, the Portuguese naval commander Albuquerque sent a fleet to find the mythical Spice Islands. They found it all right and returned with nutmeg, among other spices, and a fire in their loins that ignited a bloody round of history that lasted for centuries. In it, the Portuguese were ousted by the Dutch, who founded the Dutch East India Company, who were ousted by the British over 100 years later.

As for the local inhabitants: You can imagine the carnage the ensued from the moment the first European boot made an imprint on the sandy Island soil. The natives were enslaved and abused in a style more or less typical of European conquers for centuries. Their land was looted and destroyed – the Dutch, for example, destroyed the nutmeg trees on every island except the ones they controlled. Eventually, the nutmeg’s roots took hold in Granada, where it still grows today.

Image of Clove Tree

1521: Pigafetta, Antonio, ca. 1480/91–ca. 1534. “Figure of the Five Islands Where Grow the Cloves, and of Their Tree.” From volume 2 of Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation. Translated and edited by R. A. Skelton (New Haven, Conn., 1969). (IMAGE OF CLOVE TREE)

History of Nutmeg

1669: Montanus, Arnoldus, 1625?-1683. “Ware affbeeldinge wegens het casteel ende stadt Batavia gelegen opt groot eylant Java anno 1669.” Copperplate map, with added color, 27 x 36 cm. Probably issued in Montanus’s Gedenkwaerdige gesantschappen der Oost-Indische maatschappy in ’t Vereenigde Nederland . . . (Amsterdam, 1669) [Historic Maps Collection].HOME of the Dutch East India Company with its magnificent homes

So why all the fuss?

Most food historians would say the nutmeg’s popularity was because of its flavor. Yes…but… a small amount of nutmeg is, indeed, a tasty addition to food. But in larger doses, the nutmeg acts as an aphrodisiac thanks to a “myristicin” and other compounds in the mescalin family. No doubt those nutmeg-rich banquets had many a happy and lustful ending.

In even greater quantities the nutmeg causes hallucinations. In fact, the nutmeg was called the “mystic’s spice” because mystics used it to induce visions that your average nutmeg fan could hardly imagine. These mystics also knew when to stop: while nutmeg may cure mild cases of diarrhea and flatulence, too much would kill them.

Sources:

Medicinal Plants; being descriptions with original figures of the principal plants employed in medicine and an account of the characters, properties, and uses of their parts and products of medicinal value. Bentley, Robert and Henry Trimen. London, Churchill, 1880. (WZ 295 B556m 1880)

UCLA Medical Library.  http://unitproj.library.ucla.edu/biomed/spice

Cambridge World History of Food, Kenneth F. Kiple & Kriemild Conee Ornelas [Cambridge University Press: Cambridge] 2000, Volume Two (p. 1823)

Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson, 2nd edition edited by Tom Jaine [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2006 (p. 546)

Maps: Princeton University https://libweb5.princeton.edu/visual_materials/maps/websites/pacific/spice-islands/spice-islands-maps.html

The Guy Who Invented Chewing Gum – A Life of Many Firsts

John B. Curtis (1827-1897)

John B. Curtis (1827-1897)

John Bacon Curtis was the one who started it all – he ushered in the world of chewing gum, bringing the nation a new pastime and treat. In the process, he ignited many other firsts, most so commonplace we forget anyone could be first to do them.

Curtis was born in Hampden Maine in 1827. He went to common school for a few years then left to help bring in money for his family. He worked as a farmhand and later a “swamper,” clearing the underbrush and forests to make way for roads. At that time, the Native Americans of Maine used the  spruce tree resin to clean their teeth, exercise their jaws, and even heal  skin irritations and sores. They also used the sticky sap to repair their canoes.

Spruce Tree with Sap

Spruce Tree with Sap

It was either Curtis’ time as a swamper, his familiarity with the Native American’s use of spruce resin, or both that gave Curtis, then 21 years old, an idea-why not make a gum that would appeal to a more general market. He, with help from his reluctant father, tested numerous possibilities, boiling the spruce on the kitchen stove, cleaning it, cutting it into strips, wrapping it, and, finally, sealing the deal with their own label. They named the creation “State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum.”

According to a bio of Curtis written in 1909, he went from store to store trying to sell the stuff for two days but didn’t have any takers. On the third day he found a shop willing to carry it. The gum didn’t sell well at first, but eventually had a limited following – not enough money to support the family in style but, evidently, enough to give them hope. In 1850, Curtis took the gum, patent medicines and other goods on the road as a wholesale “peddler.”

Although the peddler game was competitive, Curtis was aggressive and did well at it. The 1909 account quotes him as saying: “When the other fellows thought I was in bed, I was on the road. By driving nights I got in ahead many times, and had the trade all to myself.” He also claimed to have the best horses available for his buggy – and within a year had traveled throughout New England, raising $6,000.

That amount may have been enough – or possibly not quite enough – to encourage Curtis to expand his time on the road while his father oversaw gum production at home. They got their resin from a new subclass of workers known as “pickers.” An 1889 New York Times article, retold in the Adirondack Almanac (2010), described the position this way:

“…Very few people know how extensive [spruce gum picking] is, or how many people depend on it to help out a scanty living…Most of the Adirondack gum pickers are gum pickers from necessity, not from choice. They are a nondescript class… They are found among farmers, mechanics, lumbermen, guides, and even some of the young and robust maidens who dwell on the borders of the woods.”

To get the sap, the pickers scored – or wounded – the tree. The sap would bubble up to heal and fill the wound which, months later, the pickers would gather with an ax, a long pole with a scraper at the end, or a bucket with a sharp edge. The pickers, as well as other lumbermen and forest workers, might spend days, or even months, in the woods. During that time, they made little boxes with sliding tops, often etched with a design called “gum books.” They filled the interior with chunks of spruce gum which they later gave their sweethearts at home.

"Gum Book" made by the Naturalist today

“Gum Book” made by the Naturalist today

Curtis, meanwhile, broadened his territory, breaking ground as the first Easterner to set up commercial relationships in the Wild West and as one of the first – if not, the first – sales reps in the nation. When you imagine a salesman, you likely think of train rides, circa the Music Man, with crafty salesmen huddled together in coach class, saloons with beds one floor up for the weary (and intoxicated) traveler, and skeptical townspeople who eventually became won over by the sales guy’s quick talk.

But for the first chewing gum salesman, the narrative is entirely different. First his travels predated the railroad, or, as Curtis stated: “In those early days Chicago had but one railroad and nothing but wooden sidewalks, through the cracks of which when the ground was wet the water was projected upward in streams that copiously sprinkled the passer-by.”

This usually meant he traveled by water – rivers, canals, and lakes – and by stagecoach. Here’s what Curtis was quoted as saying about the matter:

“I have passed hundreds of nights camping out on long trips, with only a blanket for a covering and the ground for a bed. We, who drummed the trade in the West then in behalf of Eastern houses, did not mind that, but we did object to the rattlesnakes sometimes. It didn’t pay to have them get too familiar. We were happy when we could travel by canal-boat or by steamboat, but the dreadful Western stages were what tried our patience. Time and again, but for the fact that my samples and baggage had to be carried, I should have preferred to walk, and would have beaten the stages under ordinary circumstances. Many times I did walk, but it was beside the stage, with a rail on my shoulder, ready to help pry the stage itself out of the mud.”

Curtis & Son Factory

Curtis & Son Company  Factory in Portland Maine

Regardless of the harsh travel conditions or, for that matter, the year it took to get paid by customers, Curtis was a stunning success. To keep up with demand, he invented a gum-making machine that enabled them to produce the gum faster and easier than by hand. In 1852, the Curtis & Son Company opened the nation’s first chewing gum factory with 200 employees producing 1800 boxes of gum a day, and the chewing gum industry was born!

Why Curtis stopped making chewing gum isn’t clear. Before he did, he experimented with flavors, such as licorice, and ingredients, including the popular paraffin wax, the parent to the wax lips kids still use today. Competitors bubbled up throughout Maine and beyond but Curtis remained king. One reason could be that Curtis’ father died in 1869, changing the nature of the business. Another could be that spruce resin, in spite of the boiling and flavoring, still had a strong taste and bitter aftertaste – with new and fanciful flavors appearing with the industrialization of food, spruce just couldn’t compete.

It’s also possible that Curtis, who went into dredging, ship-building, mining and, finally farming, was a true entrepreneurial spirit who loved the adventure of breaking ground but had no interest in staying there. And he was good at it – his many endeavors made him a very rich man and he died that way at the age of 70 in 1897.

Regardless, his legacy lived on. The machinery Curtis invented, but never patented, was used for decades afterwards. The chewing gum industry he started blossomed, and his spruce resin continued to play a part. In 1892, a baking powder salesman decided to offer spruce gum as a free gift to encourage people to buy his product. It turns out the customers were more interested in the spruce gum than the powder and the salesman switched careers. His name was William Wrigley and he went on to become the most powerful player in the gum industry anywhere.

So Much Resin, So Much Time: The First Chewing Gums Ever

Throughout history, people have chewed tree resins: they were the first and longest-standing chewing gum, appreciated for their flavor and medicinal and health value. Amazingly, the shift from gum as a natural resin to a popular industrial wonder spanned a mere 75 years – a fraction of a hiccup in time. Here are some of the originals:

Birch: The oldest chewing gum in the world was found by British archeology students on a volunteer dig in Finland. There, they discovered a clump of birch-bark tar, complete with teeth marks. Finish archeologist Sami Viljamaa says the chunk is between 5,500 and 6,000 years old and that Neanderthals used it to treat sore gums and stomach distress. Modern science proves they were right: the bark, which they boiled to make the tar, contains antiseptic compounds called “phenols.” It also contains xylitol, the natural sweetener you see advertised on gum packages today, which fights tooth decay.

5,000 Year Old Birch Gum

5,000 Year Old Birch Gum

Mastic: Largely from the Greek island of Chios, the mastic resin is a favorite of mine – it’s the first in written history and one we carry at the shop. It comes from the shrubby mastic tree which looks like an overgrown bonsai: the pearls are the stuff of jewelry – yellow beads with a subtle glistening quality. The resin is also called “Chios Tears” because it seems to “weep” from the tree and makes a crying sound when you step on the branches. Some scholars believe the “bakha ,” in Psalm 84 of the bible,  which comes from the Hebrew word for weeping, refers to the mastic tree.

First century botanist and physician Dioscorides recorded the mastic’s medicinal  value in his treatise, “De Materia Medica.” The ancient Greeks chewed the resin to clean their teeth and relieve stomach troubles, as did countless others since then. Modern studies at such a places as the Universities of Nottingham, Thessaloniki and Meikai found mastic contains antibacterial and anti-fungal properties, can cut over 40% of bacterial plaque in the mouth and heal peptic ulcers, among other advantages.

The Beautiful Mastic Resin

The Beautiful Mastic Resin

 Spruce: The hard amber nuggets from the spruce tree are closely tied to U.S. history. Native Americans of the Northeast originally chewed them, taking pieces on long hauls when fishing, hunting or exploring. It moistened their mouths, cleaned their teeth, and likely had other medicinal qualities. In 1847, John Curtis, a European American in Maine, packaged the resin as “State of Maine Pure Spruce Gum,”  making it the first commercial chewing gum in U.S. history.

The spruce was so successful, Curtis built a factory to manufacture resin sticks. Curtis’ father managed the factory as Curtis hit the road, selling spruce gum throughout the country. Other companies joined in, including American Flag, Yankee Spruce, 200 Lump Spruce, and Kennebec and spruce resin became an American success. Around this time, another entrepreneurial spirit came on the spruce scene. The son of a soap salesman, he was selling baking powder when a marketing lightning bolt struck: why not give free spruce gum with the baking powder? It turned out that people preferred the gum to the powder and he ended up making and selling chewing gum, instead. His name: William Wrigley.

Amber gems

Amber gems

 Sapodilla: No tree has influenced American’s chewing habits quite the same as the sapodilla tree. Its resin probably sounds familiar: it’s the chicle and the native peoples of Mesoamerica have been chewing it for thousands of years. Like other tree resins and gums, they used it to clean their teeth and freshen their breath.

A bit like today, the Aztecs had rules of decorum for chewing gum – women who chewed gum in public were considered harlots and men, effeminate.  In her book, “Chicle: The Chewing Gum of the Americas, from the Ancient Maya to William Wrigley,” author Jennifer Mathew quotes 16th-century Spanish missionary Bernardino de Sahagún as saying: “All the women who unmarried chew chicle in public. One’s wife also chews chicle, but not in public…with it they dispel the bad odor of their mouths, or the bad smell of their teeth. Thus they chew chicle in order not to be detested.”

The chicle reached the U.S. via the deposed president of Mexico, General Antonio Lopéz de Santa Ana who hooked up with former Civil War photographer, glass-maker, and inventor Thomas Adams. After failing to use the resin to make rubber for tires, dolls and other items, which would make them both rich, Adams turned to chewing gum, instead. The result was the first soft chewing gum in the U.S., “Adams’ New York Gum No. 1 — Snapping and Stretching.” Adams became incredibly wealthy as a result –Santa Anna lost interest and returned to Mexico broke.

As for the Maya in Mesoamerica – the story is more bitter than sweet. The sapodilla forest was depleted, owing to the European and European-American taste for gum. American companies  employed locals, but exploited them in numerous ways,  leading to what some call the second fall of the Mayan Empire.

 

The General, Lithograph, 1852

The General, Lithograph, 1852

Thomas Adams

Thomas Adams

 

                                                                                  Gums Today

The chewing gum industry’s reliance on natural resins ended only during World War II when manufacturers sending gum to the soldiers realized the natural stuff wouldn’t meet the demand. Today, the majority of gum is synthetic. Still, some gums promise to give the same value as the ancient resins.  Experts say these claims have some merit, especially about sugar-free gum – it causes you to salivate which cleans the teeth.

                                                                         Pitch? Gum? Resin

In this piece, I have used the term “resin” to describe the early chewing gums. But there is a difference between the stuff that flows from the tree, depending on where it comes from in three and how you treat it. The USDA Forest Service explains the distinction at http://www.fs.fed.us/wildflowers/ethnobotany/resins.shtml.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ancient Confections: The Secret to Harmony? Who Says?

Who knew that two ancient confectionery ingredients could provide evidence that 1. two starkly different cultures could come together in a perfect union; 2.opposites can find perfect balance when brought together; and 3. at least men and women really can co-exist no matter what the sitcoms say.

We discovered this symbolically (and tastefully) with two new products we introduced at the shop. One involves the cacao nib – the  essence of chocolate in its rawest, most naked form. At the risk of

Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl_16th century

Aztec god, Quetzalcoatl_16th century

sounding sexist, the cacao is male in nature – the taste is deep, rich and complicated and the bean  fortified by an amour-like shell. Since the Olmecs of Mesoamerica about 4,000 years ago, the cacao was considered everything from a gift of gods to currency.  While likely shelled and prepared by women, it resided in the domain of the chiefs.

Cross the ocean to the Middle East, Mediterranean and Asia of the same time period and you find a reoccurring symbol in the pomegranate. This fruit, with wet, red, voluptuous seeds was represented fertility and appeared in the Buddhists’ “Three Blessed Fruits,” the ancient Greek’s myth involving Demeter, goddess of fertility, the Biblical “Song of Solomon,” and many more. The flavor is sweet, the surrounding flesh soft, and the inner seed hard or, you could say, strong.

We decided to put the two together in the shop’s section on the early makings of candies: the sweetness of the pomegranate mixed beautifully with the chocolatey-bitterness of the nib. Perfect to eat by the handful or use in muffins, atop cereal, and other possibilities. We taste-tested, including with the production staff at a television station where I was appearing. All those involved came back for more and more – the perfect complement in a healthy, versatile treat.

Pom and Nibs                                                  Poms and Nibs Ready for Packing

We duplicated the process with another combination – again, the cacao, only this time in the present form of dark chocolate. Our chocolate-maker, Randy, is a true craftsman, a trained chef well-versed in the nuances of the bean. For this effort, he prepared a deliciously dark chocolate – very pure and very rich. We complemented the chocolate with a fig which has long been symbolic of the female genital.* A great demonstration of this is in Ken Russell’s 1969 movie “Women In Love” based on D.H. Lawrence’s novel, you’ve missed one of the sexiest scenes in movie history and one that demonstrates the true nature of this succulent fruit:

Randy bathed the fig in the dark chocolate, covering it completely from the stem to the base. As for the taste test? I can only say that when I passed out samples at the TV studio there was a general pause amongst the crowd after the first bite. Then a sigh of pleasure. The guest who followed me, a romance writer, put it this way: “Oh my God, my mouth just had multiple orgasms!”

chocolate covered fig                                                         Chocolate Covered Figs

Obviously, world peace, cross-cultural harmony, and happy passion between the genders doesn’t rest on the merging of two ancient flavors. But I do think the symbolism is revealing of the potential – the delicious potential – that exists in the universe. I’m looking forward to finding more.

 *A great resource for this and other female symbols is Barbara Walker’s “The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myth’s and Secrets,” Harper & Row (1983).

The Amazing and Mighty Date

1280px-Dattes_Kenta

Dates, Wikipedia Photo by Madhif

If you love sweets, ancient history, ancient symbols, and the miracle of certain plants…then you have to love the date. This remarkable fruit has been cultivated since 7000 BCE – longer according to some reports. Its very existence defies the endurance of other plants: it grows in hot, arid conditions, its palms rise up in the desert like large, ungainly umbrellas in the midst of dry earth.

When food in the Mideast was often scarce, and sugar unusual, the date must have been a marvel. More than half of the fruit – roughly 54% – is sugar and the tree remarkably prolific: eight bunches can produce 440 pounds of fruit.(1)(2) It was a tasty food, a fermented beverage, a mild aphrodisiac, and a remedy for such things as fever, constipation and the pains of labor; in the Qur’an, (19:23-26) Maryam, was advised to eat dates to ease her labor pains.

The date also hails as one of the first confections in written history and a favorite of the Classical Romans. Apicius, the ancient Roman cookbook whose recipes are attributed to Marcus Gavius

Modern Date Roll, Nuts.com

Modern Date Roll, Nuts.com

Apicius, contains stuffed dates with nutmeats covered with honey. Apicius himself had a fetish for edgy, gourmet foods: when his money ran out and these foods became unavailable, Apicius killed himself.

Given the date’s culinary significance, naturally the ancients endowed it with symbolic meaning. The ancient Jews called it “‘tàmâr,’ and considered it a symbol of grace and elegance: King David named his beautiful daughter “Tamar.” (3) In Mesopotamia, people thought the tree originated in

 BCE Ra and Imentet and Ra from the tomb of Nefertari. 1298-1235 BCE

BCE Ra and Imentet and Ra from the tomb of Nefertari. 1298-1235 BCE

heaven and they, as well as the Egyptians and Chinese Taoists, considered it a Tree of Life and a symbol of immortality. (4) The date palm was also sacred to Ra, the sun god, symbol of life over death, and the most widely worshiped deity among the ancient Egyptians.

The ancients’ reverence for the date – and the death-defying attribute they bestowed upon it – was merited according to modern reality. In 1963-1964, archeologists in Israel were excavating Herod the Great‘s palace in Masada, Israel when they discovered date palm seeds radiocarbon dating placed between 155 BCE and 64 CE. In 2005, after being pre-treated in a fertilizer/hormone solution, three seeds were planted at Kibbutz Ketura in the Arabah desert. One of the seeds sprouted and, three years later, was almost four feet tall. The Israelis named the plant “Methuselah,” after Noah’s grandfather, who was the oldest character in the Bible, living to be 969 years old. (5)

Given the date’s history, its flavor which rivals any modern gourmet confection, and its abundance in California, not to mention Israel and other parts of the Mideast, it’s amazing that dates aren’t considered a mainstream American fruit, holding its own against other imports such as the peach, apple, and pear. The “why” is hard to explain and not worth the trouble. What matters more is the “but” – as in, but it still might become a front-line favorite today. Given the date’s history, no one should be surprised.

.Methuselah, at Kibbutz Ketura                                                          Methuselah, at Kibbutz Ketura

  1. Cambridge World History of Food, Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Conee Ornelas, Volume Two, [Cambridge University Press:Cambridge] 2000 (p. 1767-8)
  2. Oxford Companion to Food, Alan Davidson [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 1999 (p. 243-4)
  3.  Plants of the Bible, Michael Zohary, Cambridge University Press 1982
  4. Nectar & Ambrosia: An Encyclopedia of Food in World Mythology, Tamra Andrews [ABC-CLIO:Santa Barbara CA] 2000 (p. 79)
  5. Roach, John (2012-11-22). “2,000-Year-Old Seed Sprouts, Sapling Is Thriving”. National Geographic News.