Thursday, February 2, 2012

history day

One perk of being a graduate of the History Department at Big Public University is the invitations to the annual History Day, an event designed for alumni at which professors give short presentations on their topics of research. I can't often get to these, but I did this year. The theme was the History of Food. We heard about whether the frequently and lengthy Eastern Orthodox fasts were debilitating or redundant on 19th century Russian peasants who were starving anyway, on contemporary gooseberry picking as a relic of the traditions of the yeoman American farmer, on surviving detailed descriptions of the dishes delivered by the bishops of medieval Florence as gifts to their general factotums (pork steaks with pork side dishes, giant fifty-egg quiches), and, most interestingly, on the history of olive oil.

The presenter began by showing pictures and diagrams of olive oil presses from various places and time periods, illustrating the great variety of ways in which the oil can be extracted, with or without crushing the pit, etc. In the 18th century Mediterranean, a traditional olive oil that was dark, opaque, and acidic, was replaced by an oil that was light, clear, and non-acidic - more like the extra virgin olive oil we're familiar with today - much to the distress of traditionalists at the time. Why did this happen? Well, most of that oil was being exported to Britain and the Netherlands. What? Was London experiencing an outbreak of Italian restaurants? No: it was going to lubricate the machines of the Industrial Revolution. The new kind of olive oil stored and lubricated better than the old, and indeed was the best oil for the purpose then available. (Modern mineral oil would arrive later.) Conclusion: what's good for machines is good for you.

After the fast talks, the feast: appropriately, a table loaded with sweets and savories, a huge swarm as people tried to figured out how to arrange themselves to get at the table, and a certain amount of standing around and talking. I spotted one fellow alumnus whom I knew, but he was intensely occupied.

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