23 March 2009

Food & Drink: Party Time in Ancient Egypt

By Jean Adams

If there was one thing the ancient Egyptians loved, it was a good party. In fact almost every day of the year was dedicated to one religious festival or another, although I doubt many of them were an excuse for a good knees-up.

One interesting fact I discovered was that their equivalent of December 25 was celebrated as the birth of Horus, the holy child. Hmm. Interesting.

Food was plentiful especially a vast amount of grains, fish, vegetables, and fruits. They enjoyed beef and other red meats very much, but the common people could not afford them. The arid land made it very hard to raise grazing animals, so beef was expensive and eaten only at special banquets. The primary food of their diet was grain, because it could be used for many purposes.

Grains offered an endless supply of food and could be stored with little spoiling. The grain was taken and stored in local community granaries and could be used for making bread, pastries, and cakes, a favourite being honey cakes. The breads would be flavoured by adding honey, fruits, nuts, and oils to the dough before baking.

Fruits and vegetables were also a major part of the diet. Vegetables included leeks, onions, garlic, cucumbers, lettuce, cabbage, and radishes. Onions and garlic were a major part of their diet because they believed they were especially good for the health. Cabbage was considered a delicacy, boiled and eaten before the rest of the meal. Green vegetables were often served with an oil and vinegar dressing to enhance the flavour. Few fruits could be grown in Egypt because of the hot, arid climate, but the most popular grown were grapes, figs, pomegranates, melons, and dates. Olives which could not be grown, were imported for oil.

Fish, like grain, was a part of most Egyptian's daily diet, although eating fish was shunned by some of the upper class Egyptians. Fish was served boiled, fried, roasted, or dried.

Meat was eaten by the common people only on special occasions, because of the high price and scarcity of cattle, although the rich could have it at every meal. These included beef, pork, geese, duck, various birds, sheep, and goats.

Honey was a great addition to the Egyptian diet, used for many applications. It would be added to different breads and cakes to enhance their sweetness.

Beer was the preferred drink of humans and gods, of rich and poor, of grown-ups and children.

"The mouth of a perfectly contented man is filled with beer." -- Inscription dating to 2200 BC

Water along the Nile was rarely in short supply, though its quality was often poor. While the river was not used as a sewer, human excrement did enter it and with it pathogenic agents. This, of course, was unknown to the ancient Egyptians, who thought of disease as the result of daemonic activity; but people, aware of unseen dangers lurking in water--in the hereafter at least--prayed to the gods.

Milk, considered a delicacy by many, was kept in egg-shaped earthenware jars plugged with grass as protection against insects and was drunk shortly after milking. It is often assumed that milk not destined for immediate consumption was processed into something similar to yogurt.

Wine was known to the Egyptians before 3000 BC. On festive occasions, such as the yearly Hathor Celebrations at Bubastis, Hathor being the goddess of love, joy and drunkenness, wine was drunk by everyone, as seen here.