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.

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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.

My 2021: Resolutions

As is now custom, my year-end series ends with my resolutions for the new year.

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The eternal, nebulous, unquantifiable

  • Continue learning to let go of things that are beyond my control. Most things are.
  • Be more patient and charitable.
  • Smile more often.
  • Exercise to improve health, diet, flexibility and fitness. I made gains on this in 2021, but age, anxiety, and injury gave almost all of it back.
  • Take more time for mindfulness exercises, including both yoga and meditation.

The specific, concrete, actionable

  • Take at least one day each weekend not working, as defined by no work email, no grading, no preparing for courses, and no academic writing. This has been a really important habit for me in recent years.
  • Continue my daily yoga routine that I started back in 2020. Whenever I miss a day I can tell that my equilibrium is off.
  • Start running again and get to the point where I can do (the arbitrarily-set) ten miles in one session.
  • Lose five pounds. I aim to accomplish this both by eating a little less and by gradually increasing my activity levels.
  • Submit the completed manuscript for my first book—due in February.
  • Clear the back-work that I owe. Eep!
  • Draft one (1) chapter for an edited collection due in 2023.
  • Find (1) new academic book to review. I failed in this in 2021, but one book feels to me like the right goal: enough to be engaged and write something; not so much that I spend all of my time writing things that are not appreciated in the academic world.
  • I exceeded my target of reading (12) ancient history or classics books not connected to my research for the second straight year in 2021. I like the practice, so will re-up at at least (12), or one per month. I also have a goal to read more articles but hope to get that off the ground before talking about it.
  • I crushed my goal of 52 other books for 2021 along with most of my diversity markers, but will re-up at the same level:
    • 33% of those books should be by women
    • At least (5) should be by African American authors
    • These books should represent at least (10) different countries and (7) different languages
  • I want to engage in more artistic pursuits this year. Writing is too obvious and measured in other ways and while I would like to do more drawing and/or painting, I don’t have a readily-available target. The obvious direction to take this is, then, is photography. In 2022, I am going to set up a Flickr account and use is to organize and post pictures I have taken over the years. This will also give me motivation to sort through my photograph collections and practice photo editing.

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Finally, to conclude this series a message for readers: thank you for following along. I have some ideas for posts in 2022, but, as usual, content here will reflect my year, what I have the energy to write about, and the fickle fortune of pursuing an academic career.

Whatever I write, I hope you’ll join me. In the meantime, may the coming year be one of warmth and joy for you as we all work to build a better future.

My 2021: Using My Words

I don’t know what to write in these end-of-year posts anymore.

I’ve written in the past about the various struggles with depression and anxiety. Those are both still features of my life. The struggles of trying to forge an academic career are a recurring theme. Last year, I wrote at length about the pandemic and explained my skepticism at the idea that the Biden administration would be the magic bullet. That is not a prediction worth taking a victory-lap through the Omicron-haunted streets for, and I was hardly alone in making it.

Add in that pandemic generally contracted the number of activities I do and that I find my attempts at sincerity turn out saccharine, and I find myself flailing about for words.

For as much as 2021 passed in a blur, it was a big year for me.

I started a new job. I moved into a house in a new city. I took major steps toward publishing my first book. I accepted several positions within academic organizations. I started to travel a little bit again. While ultimately premature, these trips gave me a little hope for a trip abroad in the near future, which is both something I want to do and something that could help jump-start a few different writing projects I have in mind.

And with all of this going on I eclipsed 75 books read, the largest number since before I entered graduate school more than a decade ago, and generally managed to meet most of my fitness goals.

My personal journey over the past several years, starting even before COVID-19 plunged the world into a seemingly-perpetual state of emergency, has been one of coming to grips with my own limitations. Some of this has been the simple realization that I am now in my mid-30s and with the aches to prove it, but the larger part has been learning to accept the absurdity of trying to pursue a career as both a scholar and a teacher at the university level.

Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. I might have started graduate school in equal parts because I graduated college at the height of the Great Recession and because I wanted to become someone who got to write history books, but, by the time I finished, I had resolved that I would do everything in my power to become an excellent teacher. (I have my strengths, but this is still a work in progress.) I love wrestling with ideas to put them on the page, provided that I am not pressed too much for time and I get as much satisfaction working with students.

But none of this changes the fundamental absurdity of it all. Sometimes that absurdity is comic. Sometimes it is tragic. Sometimes it is satyric.

Wait. Scratch that. I’m getting my typology of academic absurdity crossed with the genres of Attic drama.

The point is that I spent several years making peace with the possibility that an academic career might be something I wouldn’t never achieve, no matter what I did. I would be able to keep writing, of course, but there were just too many factors beyond my control to pin my hopes on it as a source of income. After all, when 2021 opened, I was in my fourth year of cobbling together part-time employment, barely being part of any department, rarely knowing what I would teach more than a month before the semester started. Only once in eight semesters had I been considered a full-time employee and only one other time did the aggregate employment add up to something approximating a full-time salary.

Nothing is guaranteed, even now, but that journey also makes appreciate my current job all the more. There were growing pains that came with starting a new job, of course, and the fifth consecutive pandemic semester made everything harder. But I am also part of a department where my work goes toward a larger program and I am encouraged to think past the current semester. This sort of support goes a long way toward offsetting the grind of a long semester.

Everything I had going on this year also meant that I had less time to focus on the world at large, for better and for worse. After the Trump era I also had less bandwidth to engage with the outrage. I couldn’t stop myself from following along online and remain deeply frustrated by the state of the world for pandemic reasons and in general, but I had to opt out of engaging.

In short, I am entering 2022 in as good as a place as could reasonably be expected. I am healthy, gainfully employed, and in a place to make meaningful strides on both my teaching and writing. Yes, the cumulative effects of the past few years are still present and I am still prone to bouts of anxiety, but I have a sense of optimism about what the year might bring, at least on a personal level. That is quite a privilege indeed.

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This is the penultimate post in my year-end series, following a roundup of my writing, best posts, and lists.

My 2021: Lists of Note

Every year around this time I try to make sense of my year, though I haven’t had quite the motivation for the usual slate of half-serious, half-tongue-in-cheek series of posts this year. However, I did a recap of my Best* posts and figured I should at least put out my annual list of recommendations for various media that I enjoyed this past year (and assorted other lists).

6 favorite novels I read this year:

5 favorite non-fiction books I read this year:

5 books I’m looking forward to (maybe) reading in 2022 (three repeats from 2021)

  • American Pastoral, Philip Roth
  • An Unnecessary Woman, Rabih Alameddine
  • The Makioka Sisters, Junichiro Tanizaki
  • Border, Kapka Kassabova
  • Speaking Bones, Ken Liu

5 Movies and TV shows I enjoyed watching this year

1 Podcast that I added to my regular rotation this year

  • 60 Songs That Explain the 90s

1 Video game I played this year

  • Ghosts of Tsushima

6 songs I listened to quite a lot this year, even as 2021 was mostly a year of listening to old favorites.

  • “Jump on my shoulders,” AWOLNATION
  • “The Pursuit of Happiness,” Honeybucket
  • “The It Girl,” Raye Zaragoza
  • “Put the Gun Down,” ZZ Ward
  • “Bible on the Dash,” Corb Lund and Hayes Carll
  • “Golden Child,” The Honeycutters

Find the past lists here: 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020.

Adaptation and Authority: Some Thoughts on Amazon’s Wheel of Time

I only managed to watch a handful of episodes of HBO’s Game of Thrones when it initially aired and have since seen a handful of partial episodes when my partner puts it on around the house.

This may come as a surprise given my affection for all things fantasy. While I can appreciate that the show is well-done, with good acting and investment in scenery, too much of what appeared on screen jarred with the story as it appeared in my head. In this sense, my deep investment in the books, which goes back more than a decade when the show came out (I started reading them in middle school), served as a barrier to my enjoyment of the show.

Of course, it didn’t help that I was what one might call hasty at that stage of my life and the adaptation lay in part behind a three-part rant about Hollywood that I posted to this blog.

In the aftermath of that experience I vowed that I simply wouldn’t watch adaptations of books I like. I don’t bear the projects any ill-will, but watching them made me unhappy and made the experience less pleasant for those around me.

Live and let live, I figured.

In the years since then, I have largely avoided such adaptations. I enjoyed the recent Dune film, but I read the book relatively late and so don’t have the same realtionship with it. Further, it is a story that is heavy on setting, atmosphere, and ideas and relatively light on plot and character. (For what it is worth, I also thought that the weakest point of the film was the characterization of the side characters who are the ones I gravitated toward in the book.) I suspect, for similar reasons, that I would enjoy the Foundation adaptation on Apple TV+ that I haven’t watched becuase I don’t have an account. Likewise, I have enjoyed the Expanse series on Amazon, but, since I watched the series before reading the books, I am getting to appreciate the world of the series expanding in complexity rather than collapsing.

If there is any post-Tolkien fantasy series that has been part of my life longer than Game of Thrones, it is Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I read the first book in fifth grade, at an age when I found a lot of scenes terrifying. Eight books had been published in the series when I started reading it; by time the ninth book was released I was someone who would reread the entire series in anticipation.

I had a lot more spare time when I was younger.

All of this is to say that I mostly ignored buildup to the Amazon adaptation of The Wheel of Time. Then I started to hear buzz and I gave in.

I approached this adaptation with more of an open mind than I did Game of Thrones. This series has thirteen books that expand quite dramatically in the middle in a way that I love but that generally consensus found distracting, so of course the material would need to be reworked for length and to fit into the structure of a television show. And, to the show runners’ credit, the cityscapes are stunning, the casting works across the board, and there are numerous small touches, some suggested by Brandon Sanderson, that capture the atmosphere of the world.

And, despite it all, I haven’t managed to finish the first season. In the end, there were just too many disjunctures between the books and the series for me to overcome.

Some of these were small changes that I understand but did not love. For instance, Emonds Field in the books is a fairly bucolic place with small-town concerns, only to see that peace broken by the Trolloc attack. This allowed Jordan to complicate it later in the series when the now-worldly heroes (mostly Perrin) return to find their village not as they remembered it. By contrast, the show turned Emonds Field grittier and accelerated “character development” by giving Mat a broken family and Perrin a wife to kill (literally, unfortunately).

Other small changes were fine, but seemed superfluous to me. Hiding the identity of the Dragon Reborn, for instance didn’t add anything in my opinion (calling all of the main characters ta’averen was fine, though). Likewise, I didn’t understand what was gained by moving the introduction of Min Farshaw from Baerlon to Shienar.

Then there were bigger changes. Most notable was the decision to have the people go directly to Tar Valon (which doesn’t happen for some of the characters until book 2, others until book 3, and not at all for others) in place of going to Caemlyn. I have some sympathy for the show runners: introducing the White Tower and the Amyrlin Seat in the first season makes them concrete players from the start.

But this is also where my long familiarity with the books threw up a barrier for me. The Eye of the World is hardly a perfect novel, but it impressively well set up to 1) follow a single coherent adventure from beginning to end and 2) plant seeds that develop as the series goes along. No show can, or should, film a book shot for shot, but I became increasingly frustrated to see these seeds moved or, in some cases, ignored. So, when the show seemed to make a big change involving Mat near the end of Season One, I gave up.

I hope the show finds its audience. The scenery is gorgeous and if people can enjoy what it has to offer, then I wish them well. I just won’t be among them. I could do a point-by-point discussion of what Wheel of Time gets wrong and right, but that misses the point of adaptation and I have little interest in doing such an exercises even if someone wanted to pay me for the time and effort (please don’t).

In short, I find myself back where I started. These shows just aren’t for me. I will enjoy my books, other people can appreciate their adaptations, and that is just fine. These stories don’t belong to me.

The Veiled Throne

Ken Liu’s Dandelion Dynasty books are the best fantasy stories I almost never see anyone talking about, full stop. Yes, they have received positive reviews from outlets like NPR, but I very rarely encounter anyone who has read them, perhaps because in form they are so unlike most major fantasy novels currently available.

Set on Dara, a self-contained continent protected by the wall of storms and a pantheon of gods, the series begins with The Grace of Kings, which tells the story of the rise of Kuni Garu and his eventual triumph over his onetime friend, the Hegemon, Mata Zyndu. The second book, The Wall of Storms, appears set to turn this tale of banditry and adventure into one of courtly intrigue centered on Jia and Risana, Kuni Garu’s two principal wives. However, Liu completely upturns these expectations with the introduction of warlike Lyucu.

Under a previous dynasty the scholars of Dara discovered that the Wall of Storms intermittently opens, so the emperor Mapidere organized an expedition on enormous city ships in order to conquer this new land, called Ukyu-Gonde. Despite the apparent backwardness of the Lyucu, they nevertheless defeated the expedition and, under the leadership of Pekyu Tenryo, launched an invasion of Dara during the next opening of the Wall of Storms. This expedition seized the outlying islands of Dasu and Rui, but the forces of Dara turned them back when they attempted to invade the main island. This victory, won by the barest of margins, cost the people of Dara. Kuni Garu died, his first heir (Prince Timu, turned Emperor Thake) sacrificed himself as the bride of Tenryo’s successor Tanvanki, and the next in line, Princess Thera, engaged herself Takval of the Agon, the anscestral enemies of the Lyucu enslaved by Tenryo, and led an armada to Ukyu-Gonde.

Such is the situation in Dara when The Veiled Throne opens. Empress Jia holds the regency in Pan where she tries to maintain the delicate ten-year truce with the Lyucu while the emperor, her step-son Phyro, agitates for direct action. Timu tries to find accomodation for the people of Dara against their brutal Lyucu overlords, and Thera tries to stage a rebellion among the Agon.

The Veiled Throne actually starts with an extended flashback to Ukyu-Gonde before the Lyucu invasion of Dara. During the period of the Dara invasion, Goztan Ryoto had been one of the Lyucu women enslaved by the foreigners, and her “master” named her “Obedience.” However, Goztan was a plant, one of the women Tenryo persuaded to feign subservience in order to kill the men of Dara and so was rewarded by becoming one of the loyal thanes who would in time lead the invasion of Dara.

However, something unusual happened during her captivity. Goztan came to appreciate that not all men of Dara were abjectly evil. Eventually this led her to become particularly attached to one of the Dara slaves, Oga, even taking him to bed, despite her other five husbands.

Back in the contemporary timeline, Goztan is the leader of the moderate party in the Lyucu territory, preaching accomodations and even having her son Savo educated by an independent scholar of Dara. This is a capital offense, particularly when discovered by Goztan’s rival thane, Cutanrovo, who believes that the only good Dara is a dead Dara. This political conflict will kick off a chain of events that send Savo (also known by the Dara name Kinri Rito) spinning into exile on the mainland of Dara where he will be adopted first by the Widow Wasu, proprietess of The Splendid Urn, the greatest restaurant in Ginpen, and then by the Splendid Blossom Gang, a motley crew of vagabonds who wander Dara doing good deeds. It is at the Splendid Urn where he meets the beautiful and enigmatic Dandelion, a young woman who everyone seems to know the backstory of except him.

Events in Ginpen, and particularly a delightful culinary competition between The Splendid Urn and The Treasure Chest run by the awful Tiphan Huto that reads like an extended restaurant wars out of the TV show Top Chef, come to the foreground in the latter section of The Veiled Throne. This section culimates with the Splendid Blossom Gang’s true objective: the infiltration of the imperial laboratory and archive hidden near Ginpen. However, much like the first two books, the narrative actually whips between several discrete storylines that variously intersect in both themes and events, while each chapter is situated in time, with a countdown pointing toward the next opening of the Wall of Storms. Thus:

On Ukyu-Gonde, Thera establishes contact with the Agon and works to establish a joint society, even while needing to collaborate with her husband’s duplicitous uncle who might betray them to the Lyucu at any time.

In a secret base in the mountains, the emperor Phyro oversees the raising of Garinafins, enormous, flying, fire-breathing creatures that are one of the secrets to the Lyucu military supremacy. Phyro continually petitions the regent to build up an invasion of “Unredeemed Dara,” all the while dreaming of military glory.

In Pan, the capital of Dara, Empress Jia plays politics, holding the state together for an emperor with little experience or interest in governing, preserving a delicate peace, and making preparations that suggest she is not so oblivious to the need to reclaim the lost territories as Phyro might think. However, her secrecy leads to conflict with members of the court like the Farisight Secretary Zomi Kidosu, the daughter of a Dasu fishing family (Oga and Aki Kidosu), whose mother was killed during the Lyucu invasion.

The Dandelion Dynasty rejects many of traditional fantasy narrative beats. Each book spans years and many scenes feel like vignettes to a larger epic story that I once likened to the Chinese epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Sometimes this means a particular storyline will just get one short scene before skipping ahead several years, while others, like the restaurant wars described above, will get multiple lengthy chapters. Further, each individual scene conforms to the demands of its subject, with Liu seemingly pulling from inspirations as diverse as heists to a reality television show, to the Chinese ancient dialogues like Han Dynasty’s Discourses on Salt and Iron. Far from feeling uneven, though, these imbalances allow Liu to build in depth to the world and often to imbue it with playfulness and life.

Reading all of that, one might be forgiven for being overwhelmed. This book, much like the two that came before it, are a lot, and I often had to refer back to the dramatis personae to keep the relationships between the various characters straight. However, since the reviews of the first two books in the series are among my least favorite posts I have ever written here, I wanted to give this book its full due.

Ultimately, each of the three books to date follows a single compelling theme. The Grace of Kings is the simplest: it is the rise of power of Kuni Garu, the bandit who would become king. The Wall of Storms is a story about the clash of civilizations and the lengths people will go to in times of desparation. The Veiled Throne, in turn, is about negotiating cultural fusion, particularly when faced with the twin challenges of history and misinformation.

When I wrote about The Wall of Storms, I framed one of my comments as a way to get ahead of potential criticism, saying that Liu has a way of addressing contemporary issues in fiction. This was the wrong way to frame the issue. These books feel fresh exactly because Liu deftly weaves contemporary issues into the larger threads of the story. That is, he didn’t write a story about homosexual relationships, women in the military, bigotry, ethnic cleansing, standardized tests, refugee camps, or disability, but he did write a story with each of these elements. Similarly, the “silk-punk” technology that is a hallmark of these stories is a fanciful reimagination of, for instance, the technologies found in the treasure fleets created for the Yongle Emperor in the fifteenth century. Moreover, in bucking many story patterns typical of a lot of Sci Fi and Fantasy books, Liu is able to create a world that is more interesting, more vivacious, and more true to life than those in a lot of other books in the genre.

In short, The Veiled Throne is an excellent novel that only builds on the achievement of the earlier books. While there is so much going on that I sometimes found myself struggling to remember what had happened in earlier books, that mostly made me want to revisit them. My only complaint here is that we have to wait for the conclusion of the story, which, while written as a single book with The Veiled Throne, is being released under the title Speaking Bones in June 2022.

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My reading over this holiday has been David Graeber and David Wengrow’s fascinating The Dawn of Everything, which looks to overturn a lot of the conventional wisdom about the early history of human civilization and ask critical questions about how we became frozen in a broadly similar set of social structures. This is a book that gives a lot to think about.