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Ancient Food Bulletin Board November/December 2004

Have a question? Did you try a recipe?

Note: Board is now closed

Were all of these recipe items readily available and how often would this meal have been prepared? How would the quail have been heated in ancient times?

Julie Powell: When you're dealing with translations from remnants of recipes scribbled onto a few clay tablets in the seventeenth century BC, a lot of speculation obviously comes into play. I believe that the ingredients in the quail recipe, for instance, were probably readily available to many contemporary cooks - the constant employment of some combination of onions, leeks and garlic suggest that these ingredients were usually near to hand. Just as I used quail as a substitute for amursanu-pigeon (whatever that is), a Mesopotamian cook could have used any game bird he had access to. And barley was a staple food.

There is no context for this recipe - was it an instruction passed from one court cook to another? Written down quickly at some sort of Mesopotamian kaffee-klatsch? Who knows? So it is difficult to ascertain for sure whether this was considered daily fare or dish for special occasions. Given the attention give to presentation - the quail cooked two different ways, the arrangement with the flatbread - I tend to think of this is fancy food. Personally, I couldn't go to all that trouble for Wednesday night dinner.

Almost all cooking of meat in Mesopotamian times was done in a pot or kettle, with water, over a fire - poached, really. Interestingly, according to Jean Bottero in his fascinating book "The Oldest Cuisine In The World", Mesopotamians didn't have much use for roasting or grilling. They would do so for meats to be sacrificed to the gods, but thought the technique primitive and didn't much eat it themselves. The roasting, or dry cooking, of the quail in this recipes seems to be a bit of an anomaly, in fact.

What could I use to substitute for quail and blood? Is there a substitute?

Julie Powell: The blood used in the turnip recipe serves as a thickener, transforming the braising liquid into a sauce with more body. This can be accomplished by adding a paste of a couple of tablespoons of butter mashed together with the same amount of flour - what's known in french cooking as a beurre manie. Or you can spoon out a half cup of the cooking broth and whisk two teaspoons of cornstarch into it before stirring it back into the cooking dish. Of course, neither of these methods will produce the brick-red color of a blood thickener - might I suggest food coloring to add to the drama?

As for the quail - this method can be used with plain old chicken - but you will need to adjust the cooking times for the larger bird.

© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America