There were no egg sandwiches in 2600 BC
Though there was no Instagram to document what people ate for breakfast in 2600 BC, the citizens of Crete, Greece’s largest island, during the Minoan Civilization still left plenty of clues about their dietary habits. The culinary style of this group of people was simple; there wasn’t much more than ceramic cooking pots and a hearth fire when it comes to cooking equipment. The range of ingredients they used, however, was much more expansive.
Research from archaeologists, botanists, and environmental scientists shows that the Minoan Civilization (about 2600-1600 BC) cooked with various types of meat and seafood, legumes, herbs, spices, fruits, and nuts. Even at this relatively early stage of commerce, Minoans also used ingredients that were brought from long distances—either cultivated on the island or imported from other areas of the world.
“What is exciting about these ingredients is that in this context it creates an image of food culture in Greece and the Mediterranean before there were tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini, potatoes, and other foods that we typically associate with modern Mediterranean and Greek cuisine,” Dr. Jerolyn Morrison, founder of Minoan Tastes, a Crete-based organization of archaeologists, potters, and cooks specializing in educating the public on Minoan culture through cooking lessons and dinner parties, told me in an email. Morrison, an anthropologist, archaeologist, and potter who uses these disciplines to teach people about Minoan culture explained that the contrast between what the Minoan Civilization ate and what is eaten in the area now is particularly exciting. “It challenges one’s mind and sense of understanding about the past and the present.”
More specifically, Morrison says these discrepancies allow Minoan Tastes to become what she calls a “living-type museum,” providing new culture culinary and educational experiences to those who have lived in the area their whole lives and tourists alike. By taking the elements of Minoan culinary culture researchers have unearthed, like simmering dishes for hours in clay pots (she calls it “the ultimate slow-food experience”), Morrison can infer what kinds of dishes the society may have eaten regularly. For example, while she can’t know for sure what the Minoan civilization ate for breakfast—or even if they ate breakfast at all—she can pair her expertise in the field with imagination and suggest a morning meal might be made up of items that didn’t need to be cooked for hours over a slow fire. According to Morrison, roasted nuts, seasonal fresh or dried fruits would likely be on the menu, perhaps with a few leftover emmer wheat and barley cakes from the night before topped with honey.
Though a great deal of discoveries have been found about the Minoan Civilization, a lot is still a mystery. “The Minoan Period is considered to be a ‘prehistoric culture,’ meaning that there are no real written records on Crete about daily life.” said Morrison. “This includes cooking and eating practices, as well as written recipes. While we have a list of food ingredients, it is not known if people liked their foods sweet, salty, or sour. In fact, we do not even know if they distinguished the difference in these tastes.”
One might think that would make running an education program on the civilization's culinary traditions quite challenging—and that would be correct—but Morrison sees these hurdles as constructive. “Everything we do in research or in creative fields remains fresh and exploratory.”
While historically speaking, there are no concrete culinary records from the period, Morrison coined the term “Minoan-style food” as an educational tool. By piecing together the information we do have about the society through the lens of food, she can tell stories about the culture. “We can talk about whether food was farmed, forged, hunted, trapped, fished, or traded from abroad,” said Morrison. “‘Minoan-style food’ was created in a modern way to feed the mind, the body and the soul.”