Nixtamalisation

Image result for fulacht fiadh

The process of nixtamalization is one of my favourite cooking stories from history.  It is a sophisticated process involving empirical chemistry to convert maize from useless bulk into a nutritional food.

The nixtamalization process was vital to the early Mesoamerican diet.  Unprocessed maize is deficient in vitamin B3; niacin. A population that depends on untreated maize as a staple food risks malnourishment and is more likely to develop deficiency diseases such as pellagra, niacin deficiency, or kwashiorkor, the absence of certain amino acids that maize is deficient in.

To unlock the niacin you must cook the maize in a solution containing lime, and ideally calcium.   This can be done by adding lye (wood fire ash) to the kernels during boiling or by the addition of lime as a slaked rock.

Nextamalli is a Nahuatl (Aztec) word for the processed grain – also called Hominy which comes from the Algonquin word uskatahomen.

The spread of maize cultivation in the Americas was accompanied by the adoption of the nixtamalization process.

How this process developed may be understood by looking at cooking in Ancient Ireland, despite the fact that the Irish did not need the process.  If you look at the cooking arrangement in the photo above you will see what is called a Fulacht Fiadh.  In bronze age Ireland people did not have good cooking pots.  If you are really careful it is possible to boil a stew in a bark container or an anmial skin, but it’s not easy.

The Irish used a cooking pit.  The pit was lined with timber to prevent the sides from collapsing into a muddy hole.  It was filled with water.  Then a fire was built in the hearth and limestone rocks were placed on the fire.  When they heated up the “cooks” used large wooden paddles to lift  or roll the hot rocks and place them in the pit, which caused the water to boil and the meal to cook.

Using the same process in South America the locals found that the combination of slaked lime stone, and the wood ash from the fire had a magical effect on the maize.  It converted maize from a vegetable into a staple food that gave almost everything you needed to live.  Add a few beans, potato, tomato, chile and you have a feast.

When Europeans discovered maize in the new world, and saw how it formed a staple food, they brought it home and used it as a food in their colonies, especially in Africa and India.  But they didn’t know about nixtamalization and famine soon followed.  To this day pellagra remains a problem in some parts of the world where the grain spread without the process.  South Africa, Egypt and Southern India still see problems.

The British attempted to feed the Irish with maize during the potato famine.  Robert Peel imported Indian Corn from America and had it distributed at cost price.  Most people could not afford it and those that could were appalled by the garish yellow rock hard grain that was unfit to make bread.  They labelled it “Peel’s Brimstone” and many thought it was a plot to poison them.  They had no idea how to cook the food.  Those who persisted and boiled it down to a tasteless porridge were not feeding themselves in any case, because they had no niacin.

 

Talking Turkey

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Since today is USA Thanksgiving it is a good time to talk about Turkeys, their origin, their names and their use in language.

The Turkey had a strange introduction to the English language.   The Mexican turkey was domesticated by the Aztecs.  When the Spanish Conquistadors arrived in the New World they found a new type of domestic fowl.

To them it looked something like a peacock, so they gave it the Spanish word for the same:  Pavo.  The Peacock is now called the Pavo Real in Spanish, or the Royal Fowl.

When the Spanish brought the Turkey back from Mexico it spread rapidly across North Africa to the Ottoman Empire.  The Turks named the bird a “Hindi” or an Indian Fowl, because they then believed the New World was part of the Indian sub-continent. Hence we call the islands of the Caribbean the West Indies.

The French who purchased the bird from the Turks adapted the name “Hindi” to French.  They called it Volaille d’Inde (The Indian Fowl) which was shortened over time to Dindon.

The English called traders with the Ottoman Empire “Turkey Traders”.  When this new bird arrived they called it the Cock or Hen of Turkey.  So we get the name Turkey as a bird.

When English colonists set off to Virginia Colony and New England they included domesticated Turkeys in their compliment of farm birds.  When they arrived in the New World they were surprised to see a wild bird species remarkably similar to the fowl they believed came from Turkey.

The North American wild turkey ( Meleagris gallopavo silvestris) has not been domesticated, and is a different sub-species to the Aztec domestic turkey.

To ‘Talk Turkey’ is a synonym for talking real business.  It appears to originate in a joke where a white man suggests to a red indian that they share the spoils of their hunting as follows: ‘I can take the Turkey and you can take the crow, or you can take the crow and I can take the Turkey’ to which the Indian replies ‘you no talk turkey to me”.

To go “Cold Turkey” means to give up a habit or an addiction completely.  The phrase comes from the fact that drug or alcohol addicts to completely cease using can get cold clammy sweats and goosebumps on their skin, so their flesh looks like refrigerated Turkey.

A Turkey Shoot is a situation where a person or group has an unfair advantage over others.  In business it is a situation where unexpected demand creates an environment for supernormal profits and frequently arises in disaster situations or in times of war.  If you have the product the consumers will pay through the nose for it.  In military situations a classic case of a turkey shoot was the Battle of the Crater in Petersburg, when union soldiers ran into the crater created by the detonation of a huge mine.  The sides were too steep for them to exit the hole and the Confederate troops were able to shoot down on them with ease from the rim of the crater.

The origin of the term ‘turkey shoot’ is uncertain.  Many rifle clubs in the USA hold pre-thanksgiving turkey shoots where the prizes are frozen turkeys.  What characterizes these competitions is that skill is replaced by luck.  Most of them involve blasting a target at short range with a shotgun.  Older versions involved shooting rifles at staked live turkeys, requiring slightly more, but not a huge amount of skill.

Human Sacrifice

Human-Sacrifice

Yesterday morning I came across an interesting study which shows that the practice of human sacrifice is more prevalent in highly stratified societies.  Study on Human Sacrifice

In equal societies people tend to work together for the good of the commune.  Where a society develops a ruling class the position of that class is maintained by the labour of the low status individuals.  In many societies the position of the ruling class is supported by organised religion.  One facet of this religion is the act of human sacrifice.

The victims of sacrifice tend to be those from the lowest strata of society, especially slaves or captives.

There is a positive counter argument to all of this.  A highly stratified society is one that can be planned.  Specialist workers can be supported by the labour of the peasant class.  As a result you can have architects, scribes, taxation etc and build a civilization.

The greatest monuments ever constructed by mankind were the products of civilizations that were highly stratified.  Mesopotamian ziggurats, pyramids in Egypt, central America and Cambodia, Harappan step wells etc.  In one sense the subjugation of a peasant class was a pre-requisite for the creation of civilization.  Human sacrifice as a religious act is simply one mechanism for protecting the position of the ruling class.

It is interesting to look at the modern workplace and observe the stratification that exists.  Serfs, peasants and slaves have been replaced with minimum wage workers on zero hours contracts, or unpaid interns.  Partners in law and accounting firms and senior medical consultants all earn large salaries by harnessing the work of their juniors.  What are the modern equivalents of human sacrifice?  Workplace references?

*Spoiler Alert:  Walking Dead Season 6 Finale*

Last night in the Walking Dead we were finally introduced to the character called Negan, leader of the Saviours.  In his speech to Rick Negan laid out all the elements of the new world order.  And it sounds very much like Bronze Age civilization.

The Saviours are a warrior class.  Like the Spartans of ancient Greece they specialize in fighting and killing.  Like the people of the “Iron Isles” from Game of Thrones their motto could be “we do not sow”.

The Saviours need food to survive, but farming is hard work.  So they are outsourcing the farming to a new peasant class.  The peasants need only sufficient weapons to protect themselves from the walkers.  Negan will round up all their projectile weapons and leave them with only knives and spears.

This further cements the position of the Saviours as the warrior elite, as they become the only ones with guns.

Finally, to cement his position of absolute control, Negan practices Human Sacrifice.  It is a raw and powerful demonstration of the mechanism that underlies the academic study into sacrifice in Pacific Island societies.  We see them engage in a manhunt with fatal consequences.  At the end of the episode Negan practices a highly ritualised form of sacrifice.  He has named his weapon, a common feature of bronze age warrior societies.  The demonstration of raw power is aimed not at Rick and his group, but rather at the Saviours themselves.

Of course the question everyone is asking……who did he choose?  Season 7 bait!