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The little garden spots Susan and I fit in around our house, growing such vegetables as we can, was the focus of my column last week. This week we ate the first yellow squash and green beans from the front yard; the peppers and tomatoes continue to grow.

I’ve noticed that many people enjoy raising “heirloom” vegetables, mostly tomatoes in a variety of colors from yellow to green and pink to purple.

A recent study published in the June 2021 issue of the Journal of Archaeological Science digs in (pun intended) to an analysis of some seriously heirloom crops: what ancient Canaanites in the city of Gath were eating during the Early Bronze Age, around 2500 BCE.

Gath (known today as Tell es-Safi) is best known to Bible readers as one of five cities associated with the Philistines during the early Iron Age (c. 1100-900 BCE). It was famously known as the hometown of Goliath, the giant David reportedly killed (1 Samuel 17) and possibly also the home of Obed-Edom the Gittite, who David asked to harbor the Ark of the Covenant (2 Samuel 6:11).

The period under study was a good 1,500 years earlier, when the city was a walled enclosure inhabited by ancient Canaanites. It was situated in a fertile area on a hill with gradual slopes and a good stream nearby.

Lead author Suembikya Frumin and several others analyzed seeds (usually carbonized) to determine what plants were cultivated and used in domestic contexts. The most predominant plants were emmer wheat, lentils, pistachios, wheat, grass peas, figs, olives, flax, barley, and grapes.

A lot of effort went into raising grains, which were ground using stone rolling pins on a stone slab to make flour for bread – as well as beer. Figs provided something sweet, and the grapes were typically fermented into wine.

The analysis found quite a few weed seeds as well, indicating that the plants were probably grown nearby and sometimes sorted out in the home, though it could also suggest that dried grasses contributed to the cooking fires, which consisted mainly of dried dung.

Sheep and goats, along with the lentils, provided protein for the diet, and natural herbs added flavor. None of the meals would have earned their cooks a role on the Food Network, and obesity was probably quite rare, but the fare was sustaining.

When most of our food comes from convenient grocery stores or restaurants, and much of that is fully prepared for us, we forget that our long-ago ancestors devoted large parts of their days to raising, harvesting, and preparing food.

An assortment of basalt grinding slabs from a small museum at Kibbutz En Dor, near the foot of Mount Tabor in the Valley of Jezreel. (Photo: Tony W. Cartledge)

Women, especially, were primarily responsible for food preparation, especially the back-breaking and knee-numbing work of kneeling before a slightly hollowed stone slab and rolling a rough milling stone back and forth for hours, sweeping flour into bowls as it gradually built up.

Then fires had to be built, water fetched, pots cleaned, and the food cooked. Meat and legumes were generally boiled into stews. Flour from the day’s toil would be mixed with water and a bit of old dough used as starter, then left to rise before being patted into flat cakes and baked on the walls of an earthenware oven.

Imagining such a life leads me to admire the ingenuity and dedication of ancient peoples who had to put so much effort into simply surviving from day to day.

It also helps me appreciate how much easier it is for us to find and prepare food that is far tastier and potentially more nutritious.

And it is a reminder that buying groceries and cooking with modern appliances are privileges rather than chores, while eating in restaurants – even the lowliest diner – is a full-fledged luxury.

The next time you’re inclined to complain about having to cook dinner, think about those ancient women sweating over their grinding slabs, and thank God for sliced bread.

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