What is Making Me Happy: Wordle

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Wordle

I stopped posting my Wordle updates to Twitter after just one or two posts. In part this was because of people pointing out that a wall of emojis is hard on screen-readers, but the bigger part was that I don’t find these posts interesting—from me or from anyone else. The game can inspire interesting conversations, I think, but Twitter is not to the place to have them.

For the handful of people who have not been swept up in the obsession, Wordle is a simple, no-frills word game. You have six guesses to identify the day’s five-letter word. If you correctly identify a letter in its location the game gives you a green square. If the letter is correct, but in the wrong spot the square turns yellow. This mechanic allows you to go through a process of elimination until you correctly determine the day’s word.

Wordle is not the first word game to go viral on the internet recently. Spelling Bee (and analogs) was a diverting game for a time, but it couldn’t hold my attention like this one. The difference is the amount of time that each game takes. I found that Spelling Bee required quite an investment of time, making it good for long trips but not something I could do every day. Wordle, by contrast, I do in just a couple of minutes first thing in the morning.

While I am not interested in seeing how people did on each day’s Wordle in the abstract, there are two things that fascinate me about the game.

First, I have taken to using my own guesses as an internal barometer for where my head is at in the morning. I think what I am obsessed with is how I choose the words I come up with un-caffeinated and barely awake. About a week ago, for instance, I was at a loss for a word when my brain threw out “capon,” which I knew was a word but couldn’t define (it is a castrated rooster). More frequently this just amounts to a goofy reflection on the order of the words as I throw them out.

These generally aren’t bad and I like to avoid re-using words where possible, but what does it say that I go from “doubt” to “vomit” to “joint” before getting to the right answer?

Second, the competitive part of my personality is taken by the strategy in Wordle. The game does not award bonus points for fewer guesses, just whether you get it correct or not. Everything else is just a matter of pride. But pride also makes it fun.

A few weeks ago I saw some discussion of “optimal strategy” that generally involved some variation on the approach to Wheel of Fortune where you should spam the most common consonants in the early words because, statistically, those are the most likely to get you letters on the board. I suspect that this strategy increases the odds of getting the correct answer on the first or second guess, but I have developed a strategy that has worked for all 22 puzzles I have done, all in the 3rd, 4th, or 5th guess.

My strategy mostly disregards consonants when coming up my first guess. All things being equal, I’d like to use several common consonants (tnshr), but since I also enjoy coming up with odd words I don’t worry too much. What I am looking for in my first and second guess are vowels because there are fewer vowels than there are consonants and the vowels will serve as my constraints going forward. Starting with my third guess, I start to consider possible double letters (the green/yellow system won’t alert you to these and will sometimes mislead). In one instance this strategy took me from a single yellow square on my first two guesses to the correct answer on the third.

One of these days Wordle will stump me. Nevertheless, I am quite enjoying this short, simple, daily word game.

The Bright Ages, or I’d love to write one of these for Ancient Greece

This is not a review of Matt Gabriele and David Perry’s The Bright Ages (Harper: 2021). The book is a Grand Tour of medieval Europe, a breezy romp that aims to counteract popular depictions of the period as backward and grim that has received a lot of praise and some disingenuous reviews for that purpose. It is an excellent book that sweeps from episode to episode demonstrating how the vibrancy of the medieval period was the result of its connection to a broader world. Rome didn’t fall, they argue, or, at least, Rome’s “fall” didn’t mean what people usually think. Likewise, this is a world filled with powerful women, muslims, Jews, and people with skin tones of multiple hues. There was violence and prejudice in the Middle Ages, of course, but one only needs to read modern headlines to see that violence does uniquely define the period. The result is a refreshing and synthetic introduction to the period that injects humanity and complexity into a period usually viewed through the lens of Romance.

But, like I said, this is not a review. There are other people who have done an excellent job contributing to the discussion around this book. Rather, I want to reflect on the value of something like this for Ancient Greece.

Last week a friend of mine reached out looking for a book to recommend to a student who wanted an introduction to Greek history. As much as I think there is a lot of great research available right now, I struggled to come up with a satisfactory answer. The textbook I use in class, Pomeroy et al.’s A Brief History of Ancient Greece, is okay, but textbooks and books have somewhat different purposes. However, I also struggled to come up with a good alternative because I am not satisfied with how most synoptic histories present ancient Greece.

Here is how I articulate the problem as I see it in the book I am writing:

Histories of Classical Greece tend to follow well-trod paths. A series of political and military events like the Persian and Peloponnesian Wars mark the trail and point out a standard set of sights. Athens is well-represented, for reasons of evidence as much as anything, and puncturing the Spartan mirage has done little to blunt popular fascination, while Thebes and Macedonia make grand appearances in the fourth century. And yet, if one were to complete this metaphor, most of Greek history takes place elsewhere in the forest and only obliquely intersects with the usual paths. 

That is, the story of ancient Greece is not the history of Athens or Sparta or Macedonia, but the history of more than a thousand independent poleis scattered across the breadth of the Mediterranean and Black Seas bound by ties like language, culture, genealogy, and Panhellenic institutions that together created an imagined community of “Greeks.”

The primary exception to this rule that I could think of is Paul Cartledge’s Ancient Greece: A History in Eleven Cities (now in the Oxford Very Short Introduction Series). To his credit, Cartledge chooses cities outside of the Balkans, but the approach also atomizes the selections into discrete units that he parachutes into as representative of a time or theme where they interact largely through conflict. Similarly, while Cartledge does not deny interaction with the Near East, I often find off-put by the framing of “Western Civilization” that runs through his accounts of Greek history.

When I teach Greek history I like to seed the ground by pointing out to them the complexity of the topic. Any history is, if you look close enough, but other survey courses I teach have a few choices for narrative arcs to follow that, while imperfect, work for the purposes of the course. A survey of Roman history, for instance, usually centers on Rome. Greek history, by contrast, is more like a Medieval history survey in that there is a plurality of actors continuously in states of conflict and cooperation with one another as well as with those outside the “in” group. What I try to convince my students is that that complexity is what makes Greek history interesting, and we usually conclude the semester engaging with how it often comes to be centered on Athens.

It was perhaps inevitable that at the same time that I read The Bright Ages I found myself making mental notes for the sorts of scenes I would include in a comparable volume on ancient Greece — Cynisca’s victories at the Olympics in the 390s BCE, average Athenians choosing to write “hunger” (ΤΟΝ ΛΙΜΟΝ) rather than a name during an ostracism vote in the 480s or 470s, Greek soldiers in Egypt leaving graffiti on a statue of Rameses II at Abu Simbel in the 590s, and the Greeks working at the Persian palace complexes in the 6th century, the poet Choerilus of Samos spending his large stipend from the Macedonian king on fish, the metics credited by the Athenians with saving the democracy in 403, workers constructing the monumental temples and people petitioning small oracles, to name just a few. This hypothetical tour wouldn’t ignore Athens, Sparta, or major figures, but they wouldn’t dominate the narrative and it would have to push back against both histories dominated by the story of military conflict and those dominated by the so-called Greek miracle

I have strong ideas about what I want to see from this book, but equally inspiring about The Bright Ages was its collaboration that seemed to embody some of the larger themes on the page. Were I to write one of these covering ancient Greece I wouldn’t want to produce it like Athena bursting, fully-formed, from the forehead of Zeus. Rather, like Greece itself, it should be the result of a lively exchange that enriches the overall project.

Sourdough Culture

I picked up Eric Pallant’s new book Sourdough Culture: A History of Bread Making from Ancient to Modern Bakers (Agate Publishing: 2021) a few months ago but only read it during a short break around the new year. In truth, I come into a book like this wearing several hats. I am an enthusiast, someone who enjoys both baking bread and reading food history. I am also a historian who has been slow-cooking a project on ancient bread. If this review comes off as overly-critical, it is because I couldn’t take the latter hat off and found numerous nits to pick with an otherwise-engaging read.

Sourdough Culture is an entertaining but, frankly, rather curious book. Pallant, a professor of Environmental Science and Sustainability at Allegheny College. The book is organized around two broad through-lines that sat somewhat uncomfortably together.

The first narrative hook is a personal mystery wherein Pallant investigates the genealogy of his Cripple Creek starter that has been continuously cultivated since the Cripple Creek Gold Rush of the late 19th century.

The second is a history of “sourdough” bread, ostensibly because the conceptual lineage of Cripple Creek starter can be traced back to the earliest domestication of wheat in Mesopotamia. While individual parts of that history were compelling, I often found the connection to the personal narrative strained.

Pallant is at his best when he explores the technology behind bread-baking. In that vein, I thought the strongest individual chapter was “A Reign of Yeast” in which he traced the emergence of modern yeast in the 1800s and explored the emergence of the industrial machines for producing bread, including a machine for injecting carbon dioxide directly into loaves as a mechanical hack to expedite production. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this transition was also the subject his Fulbright Fellowship. The transition to modern bread is also a process that has well-documented discussions of taste preferences for different types of bread, which is another of Pallant’s recurring interests as a sourdough baker.

Putting on my professional hat, my difficulties with Sourdough Culture emerged from the wild inconsistencies and historical faux-pas that make their way into Pallant’s account of the past. Some of these inaccuracies were just problematic throwaways like nebulous and nonsensical terminology like: “At the end of the Dark Ages, when Columbus was sailing…” (“Dark Ages” is not terminology we ought to be endorsing, but, even if it were, Columbus sailed a few hundred years after they “ended.”) Others treated periods with very broad generalities, like this from the first of just four paragraphs dedicated to bread in Ancient Greece:

In 332 BCE, Greece [ed. Alexander the Great, Greece is not a useful descriptor here] conquered ancient Egypt. One would think ancient Greeks, aware of Egyptian baking techniques and smart as they were, would have relied on a similar diet [ed. why? wouldn’t climate and ecology make a much bigger difference?]. However, most Greeks were poor—peasants, farmers, field hands, and their children, everyone except a small handful of elites [ed. this was also true in Egypt…]—and did not consume much wheat bread.

Pallant’s overall point in this section works well enough: the Greek diet was not the same as the Egyptian diet, in no small part because the soil in Greece is not well-suited for producing wheat. However, the way he gets there is muddled and misleading.

I could grump about what Pallant gets right and wrong in those four paragraphs all day, but that misses the point. It is symptomatic of the first of the two big issues that my professional side repeated bumped into while reading Sourdough Culture.

Pallant is not a historian by training which meant that he largely relied on what professional historians and archaeologists had done. His bibliography for this book was not comprehensive (and entirely omits anything on the robust grain trade in ancient Greece), but it also largely reflected the volume of output of research into bread in a given subfield. Egypt and Rome, both of which have relatively lengthy bibliographies on bread baking, received robust sections while, by comparison, the paucity of work on Greece led to cursory treatment.

(This feature of Sourdough Culture inspired my first post of the year.)

The second thing that I kept coming back to was what, exactly, Pallant meant by “sourdough.” The hunt for the Cripple Creek starter’s origins seems to imply that he is investigating the history of nurturing a unique starter that provides the yeast for baking as though that might be able to provide for him the origin of his heirloom starter.

It is unlikely, though not impossible, that the starter in my Meadville kitchen was once used in San Fransisco and Mexico.

This could all be tongue-in-cheek to provide a narrative hook (Pallant acknowledges the implausibility, after all), but he includes a story about talking with French bakers who put little stock in the age of their starters. The issue is that yeast for baking is readily available. Different strains will have different taste profiles depending on how they were isolated and what they are fed, but the you don’t necessarily need to carry a starter with you in the modern sense if you can just produce a new one when you arrive. Pallant is aware of this, of course, but he mentions is almost as a concession, disappointed to find the Romance of his Cripple Creek starter dashed by the practicalities of human existence.

In short, the adherence to the Cripple Creek starter as a rhetorical device introduces issues to this narrative. There is a simplicity of the path from the Mediterranean to Western Europe to the Americas to his kitchen that implies a coherent tradition that didn’t really exist. To my mind, naturally-leavened bread is a technique that exists in equal measure in glorious complexity and glorious simplicity that exists anywhere that bread does and is not limited to the traditional loaf. For instance, there are traditions for natural leavening that don’t involve a modern-style starter at all, including in Italy where the archaeologist Farrell Monaco has created a technique for a starter that uses Chickling Vetch and barley rather than wheat. Simplifying these traditions into this narrative does a disservice to these other breads.

Pallant is a talented baker, and the recipes included in Sourdough Culture give me some ideas for my own kitchen. Similarly, there is a fascinating discussion to be had about taste and consumer preferences when it comes to bread. In Sourdough Culture, Pallant has produced a book that puts a toe into these waters and reflects on some crucially unresolved issues about sourdough that are being addressed by research programs like the Puratos Bread Lab and the NC State Sourdough Project. However, reading it as a historian only served to remind me how much space remains for historical research into bread traditions.

ΔΔΔ

At this point I’ve basically given up writing about most of the books I read. Book posts will still make up a non-negligible percentage of the posts here, but I just don’t have time and generally prefer to spend that time reading. Recent reads that may or may not make their way into a full post include David Graeber and David Wengrow’s polemical and hot-button book The Dawn of Everything, Oliver Burkeman’s self-help manifesto Four Thousand Weeks that seeks to recalibrate how we think about the work that we do, Matt Gabriele and David Perry’s breezy grand tour of Medieval Europe, The Bright Ages, and Mel Brook’s show-biz memoir All About Me. I am currently reading the third book in The Expanse series, Abaddon’s Gate.

What is Making Me Happy: Best Baker in America

Following the model of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour and, to a lesser extent, the Make Me Smart daily podcast, I want to remind myself that there are things that bring me joy. These posts are meant to be quick hits that identify and/or recommend things—usually artistic or cultural, sometimes culinary—that are making me happy in a given week. I am making this quick format a semi-regular feature.

This week: Best Baker in America, Season 4

Okay, let me get something out of the way. I hate the name “Best Baker in America.” I think it is clunky and overly pretentious given that any given season will only have a few contestants, so the nominal crowning of “best baker in America” is meaningless.

What I don’t hate is this show, a reality baking competition on the Food Network that I first encountered on a recent plane flight.

If it wasn’t obvious from previous posts here, 1) I bake a lot; 2) I enjoy watching food television, particularly when it involves baking. Best Baker in America, Season 4 meets both criteria.

Anyone familiar with the Great British Baking Show should be broadly familiar with the template. Ten bakers from around the country come together to bake their way through a gauntlet of challenges set by the quirky hosts until only one remains to be crowned champion. However, there are also some significance differences, including that all of the bakers are professionals and the competition is based almost exclusively on pastry.

Each episode in this season involves two challenges. Every baker completes the first challenge, a signature dish on based on various flavors and ingredients. The judges choose a winner and some number of bakers who are safe. The two or more bakers who made the least successful dishes then compete in a bake-off, a second challenge to see who gets eliminated, at least until the finale.

Personally I found the quirkiness of the judges (Carla Hall, Jason Smith, and Gesine Prado) over the top, perhaps because they play a double role of host and judge where those jobs are separate in Great British Baking Show. Despite this, the judges exhibit my favorite thing about a lot of baking shows: they are unabashedly enthusiastic about the work that the contestants are doing. That is, they openly root for them to succeed, even while they offer critiques of the product.

In a similar vein, I like the simplicity of the format. Where the Great British Baking Show puts the contestants through three challenges over two days and then judges them holistically, this show has just two that are judged individually. If a contestant screws up that bake, they have a chance at redemption.

Other shows and, indeed, earlier seasons of this same show, use a format taken from reality competitions where the first challenge in a given episode earns immunity from elimination that happens after the second, but I found that I vastly preferred this format when I tried watching one of the others seasons. For one thing, a head-to-head competition raises the stakes and allows you to concentrate on what is happening on a smaller number of stations. For another, the other competitors remained in the kitchen, meaning both that they turned into a designated cheer-squad, much like what happened in the most recent season of Top Chef‘s Last Chance Kitchen, but also that they got to taste what the bakers made and called upon to assess the dish.

I suspect that some of the particulars of this season and its coziness were shaped by the demands of filming during a pandemic (Season 3 came out in 2019, but the show only returned for Season 4 in 2021), but I found the final product to be an excellent—if also over-the-top and frequently silly—addition to the genre.

It took Peisistratos three tries to become tyrant

This past week was the first anniversary of January 6, a day on which a crowd of people stormed the capitol building to disrupt the peaceful transition of power between presidential administrations. Increasingly, evidence is revealing that this was not the spontaneous action of an enthusiastic mob, but the result of coordinated action on the part of people who wanted to undermine American institutions.

I let the anniversary pass without much attention. For one thing, I have been attending a virtual conference while also trying to get my syllabuses together for classes that start on Monday. For another, there have been more incisive reflections than anything that has come to me.

But also, for as terrible as that one day was, I am having trouble balancing in my mind remembrances of January 6 for the events of that day and that the events of that day are a particularly violent reflection of an ongoing crisis. This is not to say that people aren’t talking about the latter. In a recent issue of The New Yorker, Evan Osnos profiled the right-wing radio host Dan Bongino who frames his show in terms of information warfare and there is a congressional committee looking into the events of that day—to say nothing of the talk about a so-called “national divorce.” The division also manifested in the contrasting comments made by politicians, including from John Cornyn who thinks that the day shouldn’t be memorialized at all.

My thoughts are complex, perhaps because this is my first time living through an attempt to overthrow the government, constitutionally or otherwise.

The events of this week, combined with the salient reminder in David Graeber and David Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything that premodern people were, well, people, and my preparations to teach Greek history for the first time in a few years has had me reflecting on coups and coup attempts in ancient Greece.

There are a lot.

Perhaps the most poignant from Classical Athens occurred in 411 BCE when conspirators established a new government and dissolved the democratic institutions (Thucydides 8.65–73), which temporarily created two Athenian power centers when they failed to sway the fleet then at Samos. In fact, a parallel attempt at Samos resulted in the execution of thirty conspirators and the exile of three others (Thucydides 8.73). Seven years later, another coup established the notorious Thirty Tyrants in Athens when the men chosen to revise the constitution unsurprisingly just empowered themselves (Xenophon Hellenica 2.3). Attempts like these allegedly led to the creation of an ancestral law at Athens to disenfranchise those who attempt insurrection. However important these coups are, though, I keep coming back to events from an earlier epoch of Athenian history.

At the risk of making a banal observation, it took Peisistratos three tries to secure his tyranny in Athens.

Peisistratos was born in Athens in the late seventh century BCE, a time when Athens was divided by deep, regional divisions (despite the reforms of Solon). He was prominent enough to become strategos and won popularity in a war with Megara before carving out his own faction, the Diacrioi, from the people who lived in the Northeast of Attica. He hailed from this region and claimed to speak to their grievances, the core of which were that their isolation from the political processes taking place in Athens itself (1.59). Of course, Herodotus says, his real ambition was absolute power.

In 561, Peisistratos made his first attempt at power. The story Herodotus provides is that rushed into the Athenian agora covered with self-inflicted wounds and with a story that he had survived an attack. The Athenians decided he deserved a bodyguard. Peisistratos armed his guards with clubs and proceeded to capture the Acropolis, the easily-defensible ritual precinct that also served as the symbolic center of the city.

Other than Herodotus’ dramatic retelling of the story, the details of this plot are not that unusual. Less than a century earlier, the Olympic victor Cylon had attempted something similar at the urging of his father-in-law, the tyrant of Megara (Thucydides 1.126). Cylon’s followers seized the Acropolis where they were besieged by the other Athenians and killed. The people responsible for killing them in the sacred precinct, the powerful Alcmeonid family, were forced into exile on the grounds that they had committed sacrilege. They were allowed to return during the period of the Solonian reforms a generation later and members of this lineage would provide some of the most famous names in the Athenian democracy. For my part, I am more interested in how Peisistratos initially lost the tyranny, which happened four or five years after he first claimed it (Herodotus 1.60):

Not long thereafter, the partisans of Megacles and Lycurgus collaborated to drive him out. Thus Peisistratos first had Athens and, because his tyranny did not have strong roots, lost it.

μετὰ δὲ οὐ πολλὸν χρόνον τὠυτὸ φρονήσαντες οἵ τε τοῦ Μεγακλέος στασιῶται καὶ οἱ τοῦ Λυκούργου ἐξελαύνουσί μιν. οὕτω μὲν Πεισίστρατος ἔσχε τὸ πρῶτον Ἀθήνας, καὶ τὴν τυραννίδα οὔκω κάρτα ἐρριζωμένην ἔχων ἐπέβαλε.

Herodotus adds a note to say that Peisistratos ruled well during his first stint as tyrant, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, his tenure had done nothing to blunt the grievances that had brought him to power in the first place. Thus, it was not much later that the same Megacles who had driven him from power offer him a daughter in marriage and political power again. Peisistratos again turned to political theater to gain entry to the city. This time, Herodotus reports, he had a tall woman, Phya by name, dressed as Athena carried toward the city in a chariot with heralds declaring that Athena herself was carrying Peisistratos back to power.

Once again, things broke down. Peisistratos married Megacles’ daughter, but refused to have children with her, and when the stories of their “irregular intercourse” (whatever that means, ἐμίσγετό οἱ οὐ κατὰ νόμον) got back to Megacles, he patched things up with Lycurgus and drove Peisistratos from the city (Herodotus 1.61). Not to be denied, Peisistratos spent a decade building support from his friends around the Aegean before returning to Athens in 546. This final attempt culminated in a battle between his supporters and opponents at Pallene, but when his enemies broke, Peisistratos ordered his sons to chase the fleeing Athenians and tell them to return to their homes. The ensuing tyranny only ended in c.510 when the Spartan king Cleomenes I invaded Attica and forced Peisistratos’ son Hippias into exile, prompting another round of political upheaval before the Cleisthenic constitution established a new status quo.

Political theater cosplay notwithstanding, the rise of Peisistratos and the contemporary moment are not directly analogous. That is not the way of history. But there are two broad points worth considering.

First, Peisistratos did not go quietly into retirement when one attempt at a coup failed. He regrouped and returned, finding new friends and adapting whatever systems he could to his advantage.

Second, in that final coup, Peisistratos took pains to convince people that it was in their interest not to cause a stir. To his credit, Peisistratos allowed the Athenian constitution to continue to function, so much so that Aristotle’s Constitution of the Athenians describes it as “more constitutional than tyrannical” (πολιτικῶς μᾶλλον ἢ τυραννικῶς, 14.3). (Tyrannos in Greek refers to an extra-constitutional ruler, which may or may not entail suspension of the constitution, though Aristotle seems to suggest that suspension was the norm.) The virtue of a democracy, at least in theory, is transparency and accountability, both of which are lost under a tyranny. Peisistratos’ moderation might have made it more tolerable to many among the landed classes of Athens, particularly because he consciously eschewed the violence that often accompanied these ancient coups. But neither did that make his rule less tyrannical.

In Defense of the (Historical) Study of Food

I was thinking again this week about a conversation I had with my advisor back in graduate school. I was already on the job market and we were talking about how I was marketing myself in cover letters. My first book project would obviously be the revised version of my dissertation project and I had (and have) plans for a second book that is a natural continuation of that research. But I was already starting to lay the groundwork for a new research project into bread in ancient Greece.

The trajectory of my research has never been solely dictated by the relationship with my Doktorvater, but this was a conversation about how to market myself to jobs and branding is something he is particularly good at. Ultimately, his concerns about mentioning this future project came down to two points:

  1. That this project marked too great a departure from my current research such that there might be questions about my creating a coherent research portfolio. Scholarly publications often build on each other, as it were, with books begetting articles and new leads, so too much dilettantism can just be a distraction.
  2. That telling people I wanted to study food would mean that my research is not taken seriously.

His first point is both more and less valid than it was when we had this conversation maybe a half decade ago. I suspect that there is some benefit on the job market to being a generalist unless you happen to research the specialty that is hot in a given year, provided, of course, that your research in whatever you do is compelling to committees. But, at the same time, I have recently found myself wondering if the various strands of my research are too dissimilar from each other. That is, I currently have ambitions to write four books (three non-fiction, one fiction) after the one I am currently writing. Each one scratches a different itch that I have as a person, but they only tangentially intersect with each other.

However, the second point is the one I want to develop further here. Some of my advisor’s concern is a matter of his personal research, which skews to the political and diplomatic with a heavy dose of biography. He is not so myopic as to think that these are the only things that matter as far as I am aware, but he raised the possibility that the study of food might be regarded as too frivolous to be taken seriously.

I suspect that he is right, at least in some circles.

Without question, some of this is discipline- and sub-discipline-specific. For instance, here are excellent books on food written by modern historians. For instance, I particularly enjoyed Jeffrey Pilcher’s Planet Taco and my friend and graduate school colleague Christopher Deutsch is working on the delightfully-titled Beeftopia, which looks at how the United States became a beef-eating country. Although Maria Balinska is a journalist by trade, my favorite one-star Amazon review calling her The Bagel “Jewish social history” warrants honorary status.

My casual survey of work from the ancient Mediterranean suggests that food studies receive more attention among archaeologists. Patrick McGovern, for instance, is a molecular archaeologist who collaborated with Dogfish Head brewery on their Ancient Ales series and delivered a keynote address at the AIA meeting in Philadelphia in 2012. Likewise, Farrell Monaco and J.T. Benton are both archaeologists who work on bread and technology in the Roman world. And yet, just two years ago the zooarchaeologist Flint Dibble nevertheless published a “manifesto” at Eidolon where he conducted a survey of recent research and defended the study food because of what it can reveal about climate and a given society.

In a similar manner to Flint in his manifesto, I want to suggest that food isn’t just a valid topic of historical study, but an important one.

The truth is that I receive very different responses from people when I talk about my work on Ionia (that is, all of my publications so far) and when I talk about even the little bit of food research I have done to this point. This is not meant as a strike against my other work. I think it is important and hope that the book will help change some ideas on how to look at Classical Greece, but I also once delivered a paper on Ephesus, perhaps the best-known of the cities in the region, and had an ancient historian tell me on the way out that he wouldn’t have been able to identify Ephesus on a map. That is, there are more barriers to entry for my work on Ionia. Sometimes it results in long, sprawling conversations. Sometimes I can see eyes glaze over.

The latter almost never happens when talking about food.

There is an appetite for learning about food. This likely explains the burgeoning market for food-related books, almost all of which are historical in nature but relatively few of them are actually written by historians. (To say nothing of Gastropod, which looks “at food through the lens of history and science.”) Other than a handful of exceptions like those listed above, two broad groups of people write these books: journalists and scientists. Both make sense. Journalism is where a lot of food writing takes place and books are a logical extension of this form in much the same way that science journalists turn their reportage into books. Thus you get Jonathan Kauffman’s Hippie Food and Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer. Scientists, on the other hand, have multiple points of entry. Food involves at minimum chemistry, biology, and agronomy, so books like Cheese and Culture (Paul Kindstedt, a chemist and food technologist) and Sourdough Culture (Eric Pallant, an environmental scientist) are natural extensions of these disciplines. After all, the Global Sourdough Project at North Carolina State University belongs to the Ecology Department.

These are all fascinating projects, but their history is, to put it nicely, wildly inconsistent. I will write a full post of Eric Pallant’s Sourdough Culture later this week, but it can stand in as an example here since I just finished reading it.

Pallant is telling a particular story about trying to trace the origins of his Cripple Creek starter, in much the same way that Kindstedt’s book follows a particular arc for cheese and Balinska’s book largely treats New York bagels as normative until starting a discussion of how the Lender’s company took the bagel mainstream. What Pallant does here is blend the story of learning about his starter with a longer discussion of attitudes toward sourdough breads. In this second objective, his discussion of the transition to industrial bread was particularly fascinating. Not coincidentally, this was also a topic that had served as the basis of a Fulbright project. By contrast, other parts of his historical discussion weaker and included a few turns of phrase that made me physically wince.

Sourdough Culture is not the sort of book designed to have a comprehensive bibliography and a review of the references revealed omissions that could have strengthened the book. At the same time, though, I found myself reflecting on how at least some of the limitations reflect the contours of the existing scholarship, meaning that Egypt and Rome are better represented than was Greece. This is understandable, at least to an extent; Pallant is not an ancient historian. However, it did lead him to give Greek in particular only cursory treatment when there is a more compelling to story to tell there.

I like these books, broadly speaking, and am not at all saying that scientists and journalists need to stop writing about historical food. However, when historians pass the responsibility for writing about historical food to non-historians then they forfeit the right to complain when their historical periods get misrepresented.

Providing material for scientists to improve their books is just a side benefit. Food offers insight into a whole range of historical topics, from gender roles, to cultural values, to turns of phrase, to economic and political systems. Food also provides opportunities for historical work to be interdisciplinary in the best ways possible. Not every scholar needs to start studying food, of course. But where food’s ubiquity may make it seem banal, the very fact that food (or its absence) is intimately connected to every single person’s daily existence means that it is threaded into every historical time and place, if we’re only willing to look for it.