Ancient Grains for Modern Meals

Ancient Grains for Modern Meals
Ancient Grains for Modern Meals.

by Maria Speck
(Ten Speed Press, 2011)

Reviewed by Maureen Horn
Mass Hort Librarian

Maria Speck has the good fortune to have been born into two cultures. She is Greek on her mother's side, German on her father's. She has the further good luck to have lived in both countries and absorbed both cultures. Ms. Speck grew up with an appreciation for food and its history. We have the great fortune that Ms. Speck is an excellent writer, storyteller, and cook.

Ancient Grains for Modern Meals gives us beautiful photographs of meals that were invented in countries that have a more distant past than ours, and she shows us how to enjoy them today. She writes of her sense of smell as the most useful key to evoke memories from her childhood. Smell was aided by the sense of taste, as she experienced again the chewy texture of whole grains.

After a young adulthood consuming the processed foods that dominate the American diet, she gradually, then deliberately, replaced them with a regimen of whole grain-based meals because she found that whole grains are the ultimate comfort food. Ms. Speck is not a proselytizer for healthy eating, but of enjoyable eating. She believes strongly that the use of more whole grains leads to less heart disease and diabetes.

 Maria Speck
Maria Speck

The reader benefits from her research into the history and relative popularity of whole grains. They have been the mainstay of human life back to the hunter gatherers because the kernels or seeds could be stored, planted and consumed after a cold winter had destroyed fresh meat and fruit. Barley seems to have been the most important grain of ancient classical civilizations; in fact it was celebrated in Homer's Iliad. Throughout its history, it was given mainly to the poor, while wheat, treasured for its whiteness and high protein, was reserved for the rich. The historical documentation for wheat is the oldest, stretching back 9,000 years. Oats are the whole grain which Americans love to eat the most. Oatmeal at breakfast and a cookie at lunch are constant favorites.

Ms.Speck anticipates our first question: Why don't we eat more whole grains? The answer is ready: because we don't know how to cook them. As a remedy, she supplies a helpful section on cooking methods, including suggestions for equipment to buy.

The best feature of the book, though, is the treasure trove of recipes. The vivid descriptions of their processes and results invade the taste buds and promise delicious food, and the detailed photographs entice the reader into the nearest kitchen. Most of the recipes are of Greek origin, probably because the chief cooks in Speck's life were her Greek mother and grandmother, but she includes many German recipes because her father loved the food of his own heritage. The recipes are skillfully interspersed with her personal memories of eating and learning to cook, comments on the origins of the mixtures, and hints on how to achieve success. They are organized according to the components of a meal, such as breads, salads and sides, soups, pasta, modern mains, and sweet endings, so the experimental cook can isolate the parts to commit to at the beginning. Leaving the past behind, the reader needs only one passport to enter the present. It's stamped "Enthusiasm".