Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Not-So-Humble Artichoke in Ancient Jewish Sources

The Not-So-Humble Artichoke in Ancient Jewish Sources
Susan Weingarten
Susan Weingarten is an archaeologist and food historian living in Jerusalem. This is an adapted extract from her paper 'The Rabbi and the Emperors: Artichokes and Cucumbers as Symbols of Status in Talmudic Literature,' in When West met East: the Encounter of Greece and Rome with the Jews, Egyptians and Others: Studies presented to Ranon Katzoff on his 75th Birthday. Edited by D. Schaps, U. Yiftach and D. Dueck. (Trieste, 2016).
There has been a lot of discussion of artichokes recently in the wake of the ruling by the Israeli Rabbinate that they are not kosher. A recent post on Seforim Blog traced their ancestry as a Jewish food back to the 14th century. But we can go back further, to the talmudic literature, where artichokes appear as qinras. We can identify many Greek (and fewer Latin) food-names in the Aramaic and Hebrew of the written texts of the talmudic literature. The rabbis sometimes use Greek terminology to explain food names. Thus, for example, biblical regulations on agriculture include a ban on growing two different kinds of crops together. Mishnah Kilayim tells us that thistles (qotzim) are allowed in a vineyard, i.e. they are seen as wild growths, but artichokes (qinras) are not allowed, so that it is clear that artichokes are seen as cultivated rather than wild growths.[1] Qotz, the wild thistle, is a biblical Hebrew term, while the Aramaic qinras appears to be derived from the Greek for artichoke, kinara or kynara. Artichokes were carefully cultivated in the Graeco-Roman world; presumably their name came with the agricultural methods which turned wild thistles into cultivated artichokes. It is still difficult to know whether the artichoke proper is meant here, or rather the closely related cardoon.[2] It is clear, however, that there were a number of edible thistles which grew wild, and that the artichoke is a cultivated variety. The medical writer Galen describes the artichoke as ‘overvalued.’[3] This was partly because of its negative health properties, for he saw it as unwholesome, sometimes hard and woody, with bitter juice. So he recommends boiling artichokes and adding coriander if eating them with oil and garum;[4] or frying them in a pan.
But Galen’s objections to artichokes may not be merely medical. They may also be an echo of the attitude we find in Pliny,[5] who tells us that artichokes were exceptionally prized by the gourmets of Rome, and that there was a roaring trade in them. Pliny disapproved:
There still remains an extremely profitable article of trade which must be mentioned, not without a feeling of shame. The fact is that it is well-known that at Carthage, and particularly at Cordoba, crops of carduos, artichokes, yield a return of 6000 sesterces from small plots – since we turn even the monstrosities of the earth to purposes of gluttony ... they are conserved in honey-vinegar with silphium and cumin, so that there should be no day without thistles for dinner.[6]
Pliny, writing in the first century, uses all the tricks of rhetoric to put over his disapproval of this ridiculous fad of over-valuing artichokes, and eating them out of season: note the alliteration and assonance of carduos with Cartago and Corduba, which he presumably despised as far-away provincial cities.[7] He is also indignant about the enormous prices charged for them, satirising the rich who eat the artichokes as being lower than the animals who despise them.[8] His diatribe does not seem to have been generally successful. Artichokes were still clearly prized in the Roman world of the third and fourth centuries: a mosaic from the so-called ‘House of the Buffet Supper’ in Antioch shows them on a silver tray as a first course for dinner.[9] And in a Palestinian context, another mosaic with what look like two purplish artichoke heads and a silver bowl, dated to the third century, has been found recently in excavations of ancient Jerusalem – or rather Aelia Capitolina.[10]
The classical picture of artichokes as food for the rich and upper classes is confirmed by the talmudic literature. For example, Midrash Esther Rabbah, writes:
Bar Yohania made a feast for the notables of Rome … What was missing? Only the qinras (=artichoke).’[11]
S. Klein in his article ‘Bar-Yohannis from Sepphoris at Rome,' suggested that this may be the first reference to the famous Roman Jewish artichoke dish carciofi alla giudia.[12] (For a recipe see E. Servi Machlin The Classic Cuisine of the Italian Jews [NY,1981, 1993] p. 180-1). Unfortunately there is no proof to confirm Klein’s charming suggestion, since, as we have seen, artichokes seem to have been famously popular among the Roman pagan nobility.[3] One of the reasons for the perceived desirability of artichokes as food may also have been the effort needed to prepare them – an effort usually only available to the rich through their slaves – the poor would have had little time for this. But one time when the poorer Jews would have had time would be on a festival, when ordinary work was not allowed, but food-preparation was permitted, as it contributed to the enjoyment of the festival. The Tosefta specifically states that while cutting vegetables was generally not allowed on a festival (in case people actually went and cut them down in the fields), trimming artichokes and ‘akavit/‘aqubit, a wild thorny plant, was allowed, as this was part of the preparation needed for cooking these prickly vegetables, which was allowed on a festival:
[On a festival] they do not cut vegetables with shears but they do trim the qinras, artichoke, and theakavit/‘aqubit.’[14]
Whether poorer people actually ate artichokes as special festival food, or rather only ate the wild akavit/‘aqubit is unclear from this source. It is also unclear what the reason for trimming was: to remove the thorny stems or to cut off the upper part of the leaves and remove the inedible inner part known as the 'choke'?
The Babylonian Talmud records that artichokes were sent over long distances to be eaten by Rabbi Judah haNasi. A rich man called Bonias ‘sent Rabbi a measure of artichokes from Nawsah, and Rabbi estimated it at two hundred and seventeen eggs.’[15] The eggs here are a measure of volume: clearly there were quite a lot of artichokes. ‘Nawsah’ may refer to a settlement on an island in the Euphrates River outside Babylonia.[16] It was a long way from Galilee where Rabbi lived, and only the rich could afford to pay for the transport of these luxuries. Some way of preserving the artichokes, like keeping them in honey-vinegar as described by Pliny above, must have been used.
Unlike the classical sources, there is no moral condemnation here of artichokes as symbols of conspicuous consumption, and tampering with nature. The rabbis of the Talmudim are generally presented as appreciative of good food, and as seeing feasting as desirable, rather than to be condemned.[17] Eating good food, for example, is one of the recommended ways of celebrating or ‘honouring’ Sabbath and festival.[18] Indeed, Rabbi himself, when looking back nostalgically to the time when the Temple still stood, represented his longing for it in terms of desire for the wonderful foods that would have been available in that now legendary time.[19]
How did Rabbi eat his cucumbers and artichokes? Unfortunately the talmudic literature does not tell us, but there are details in some Roman authors which may give us some idea of the possibilities. Athenaeus tells us artichokes must be well-seasoned, or they will be inedible. The fourth-century Roman cookery book attributed to Apicius recommends serving artichokes with liquamen and oil, and either chopped boiled egg; or cumin and pepper; or pounded green herbs with pepper and honey.[20] We have already cited Rabbi’s contemporary, the medical writer Galen, who visited Syria and other parts of the Near East. He sometimes describes methods of cooking similar to those found in the talmudic literature.[21] We saw that Galen recommends eating artichokes boiled with the addition of coriander, garum and oil. He also mentions frying them. Was this the origin of carciofi alla giudia?



[1] Mishnah Kilayim v 8.
[2] The identification of the Latin term cardui with artichokes, rather than cardoons, has recently been questioned:C.A. Wright ‘Did the ancients know the artichoke?’ Gastronomica 9/4 (2009) 21-27.
[3] Galen On the powers of foods ii.
[4] Garum was the famous Graeco-Roman salty fermented fish-sauce, called liquamen by Apicius, used widely as a condiment. R.I. Curtis Garum and salsamenta: production and commerce in materia medica (Leiden, 1991); M. Grant Roman Cookery (London, 1999); S. Grainger, C.Grocock Apicius: a critical edition, (Totnes, 2006)373-387: Appendix 4: Excursus on garum and liquamen. It is found in the talmudic literature under the name of muries: S. Weingarten ‘Mouldy bread and rotten fish: delicacies in the ancient world,’ Food and History 3 (2005) 61-72. Sauces combined with garum are mentioned in eg Tos Betsah ii, 16 and in BTYoma76a, but it is not clear that Babylonian Jews were using this term to mean the same foodstuffs as were used by the Jews of the Land of Israel.
[5] Pliny : NH 19, 152f.
[6] Pliny NH 19, 152-3: certum est quippe carduos apud Carthaginem magnam Cordubamque praecipue sestertium sena milia e parvis redderareis, quoniam portent quoque terrarium in ganeam vertimus, serimusque etiam ea quae refugiunt cunctae quadrupedes ...condiuntur quoque aceto melle diluto addita laseris radice et cumino, ne quis dies sine carduo sit.
[7] On Pliny’s distrust of the ‘foreign’ taking over the Roman, an old Roman literary trope, see T. Murphy Pliny the Elder’s Natural History: the empire in the encyclopedia (Oxford, 2004) 68ff.
[8] On Pliny’s hostility to luxury, a traditional theme of Latin poetry: Murphy (above n.35) 71. See also M. Beagon Roman Nature: the thought of Pliny the Elder (Oxford, 1992)  190: ‘moral condemnation of luxuria is more than a commonplace to Pliny.’
[9] F. Cimok (ed.) Antioch Mosaics  (Istanbul, 1995) 44-47.
[10] The mosaic was excavated by Shlomit Wexler-Bdollach and has been published by Rina Talgam Mosaics of Faith (Jerusalem/Pennsylvania, 2014) p. 48 fig 70. I am grateful to both for allowing me to see their pictures and text prior to publication.
[11] The question of whether the midrash is to be seen as referring to a Persian situation is beyond the scope of this paper.
[12] BJPES 7 (1940) 47-51 (in Hebrew)
[13] See also I. Löw Die Flora der Juden vol I, (Wien, 1924, repr Hildesheim, 1967) p.409.
[14] Tosefta Beitzah [Yom Tov] iii,19 and cf BTBeitzah 34a. Akavit/ ‘aqubit has been identified with tumbleweed, Gundelia Tourneforti, which is a wild edible thistle still eaten in Galilee and Lebanon, and known by its Arabic name, aqub. See A. Shmida Mapa’s dictionary of plants and flowers in Israel (Tel Aviv, 2005, in Hebrew) 236; A. Helou ‘An edible wild thistle from the Lebanese mountains’ in Susan Friedman (ed.) Vegetables: proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 2008 (Totnes, 2009) 83-4. ‘Aqub can still be bought in the present-day market in Tiberias in the spring, its price depending on whether the vendor has removed the thorns or left that pleasure to the buyer. Its taste when cooked is not unlike artichoke.  
[15] BT Eruvin 83a (my translation).
[16] For the identification of Nawsah see A. Oppenheimer, Babylonia Judaica in the Talmudic Period (Wiesbaden, 1983) pp.266-7.
[17] This point about the generally positive attitude of the rabbis (in this case the Babylonian rabbis) to the good things in life is made by I.M. Gafni The Jews of Babylonia in the talmudic era: a social and cultural history (Jerusalem, 1990) 130 citing M. Beer Amoraei Bavel  - peraqim be-hayei ha-kalkalah (Ramat Gan תשל''ה ). But having made his point, Gafni hedges here, warning against taking a series of anecdotes from different periods as evidence. However, we should note that this picture is consistent over both Palestinian and Babylonian sources, and if we compare it to, say, the attitudes of early Christian writers or Philo, we see that this trend is absent there. See my paper ‘Magiros, nahtom and women at home: cooks in the Talmud’ Journal of Jewish Studies 56 (2005) 285-297.
[18] For a discussion of the rabbinical requirement in both  Bavli and Yerushalmi to honour the Sabbath by eating good food, see S.J.D. Cohen,'Dancing, clapping, meditating: Jewish and Christian observance of the Sabbath in pseudo-Ignatius’ in B. Isaac, Y. Shahar (eds) Judaea-Palaestina, Babylon and Rome: Jews in Antiquity (Tübingen, 2012) 33-38.
[19] Midrash Lamentations Rabbah iii, 6/17.  
[20] Apicius 3.6.
[21] See e.g.  S. Weingarten ‘Eggs in the Talmud’ in R. Hosking (ed.) Eggs in Cookery: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 2006 (Totnes, 2007) 274-276.



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